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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Berardino: Strikeouts at an all-time high, but why?

Because Joe Campbell started it all!

“We’ve all seen it,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan says. “There’s too many strikeouts, and quite a few of them are looking, which is even more alarming to me.”

... Particularly galling to Ryan and other old-school baseball people is the refusal of most modern players to change their approach once they get to two strikes. Either non-sluggers will continue to swing their hardest regardless of situation or they will take a borderline pitch for a called third strike as they continue to exhibit patience until it hurts. Where have you gone, productive out?

“How about taking a whack at a first-pitch fastball strike?” Ryan says. “That will fix some of it. We all talk about on-base percentage and all that stuff that’s very prevalent in the game nowadays. Sometimes we’re getting to a point where we’re trying to get deep in counts when we probably should be taking a swing, especially when you’re up against a guy that’s got a history of throwing nothing but strikes.”

Walks have declined for four straight seasons, in part because pitchers have improved their command even as their average velocities have climbed. A strikeout/walk ratio that hovered at 2/1 from 2005-09 has widened considerably to 2.53 in 2013. 

“We all can see that this guy walks 2.1 per nine (innings),” Ryan says. “There’s a chance he’s going to throw a fastball strike or some kind of strike early, because that’s all he ever does. Maybe it’s a lack of aggressiveness. Something’s got to give.”

Repoz Posted: February 01, 2014 at 10:23 AM | 16 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: sabermetrics

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   1. jdennis Posted: February 01, 2014 at 10:55 AM (#4649774)
It's those damnable video games!
   2. base ball chick Posted: February 01, 2014 at 11:06 AM (#4649780)
because obviously guys are not taught to change their approach with 2 strikes. Organizations want high power and walks. and you don't get paid for sac bunts/sac flies/ groundouts to 2B to advance the runner.

as for not swinging at a 1st pitch good FB, that i don't get.
   3. RMc's Unenviable Situation Posted: February 01, 2014 at 11:26 AM (#4649793)
I blame Bush.
   4. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: February 01, 2014 at 11:28 AM (#4649795)
Where have you gone, productive out?

he's shacked up with Buster Olney
   5. jacjacatk Posted: February 01, 2014 at 11:30 AM (#4649797)
It's not really all that complicated. Whether intentional or not, the strike zone has been getting bigger.

   6. base ball chick Posted: February 01, 2014 at 11:34 AM (#4649801)
makes sense
lower BA and fewer homers will help bud selig prove to the universe that it is getting back to mid 70s and there ain't no roids no mo
   7. Infinite Yost (Voxter) Posted: February 01, 2014 at 12:04 PM (#4649809)
There's also the simple fact that people have come to understand the mechanics of scoring differently than they used to, and players are coached, even now, to wait for a perfect pitch and rip it. And you know what? It works. That's a large part of why this is happening. A lot of people used to say that this would sort itself out as the run scoring environment changed, but it hasn't, and I'm not sure it will, not without rule changes, many of which will probably have to do with equipment -- if you want players to quit playing take-and-rake, you're going to have to make it much harder to hit the ball with authority. The only way I can think of to do that without making Ks go up even more is to deaden the ball or change the rules for the bats.

Not going to happen, by the way. Not as long as the game remains as profitable as it is.
   8. cercopithecus aethiops Posted: February 01, 2014 at 12:09 PM (#4649811)
Walks have declined for four straight seasons, in part because pitchers have improved their command even as their average velocities have climbed.

I'm inclined to believe this is really more about the strike zone being bigger than an across-the-board improvement in command, but either way it basically means that hitting is getting harder. And of course, that cuts both ways -- on the one hand, you sort of have to expect more strikeouts, fewer walks, and even fewer productive outs (since there will be fewer productive out opportunities, duh!); on the other hand, all of that just might mean that it is time for (at least some) hitters to start thinking about changing a few things about their approach.
   9. Voros McCracken of Pinkus Posted: February 01, 2014 at 12:32 PM (#4649814)
I'm inclined to believe this is really more about the strike zone being bigger than an across-the-board improvement in command

As am I.

The increase in the size of pitching staffs has also sped things along as shorter and (sometimes) less often relief stints allow a greater number of pitches thrown at 'full effort.'

One of the many challenges of trying to come up with a realistic conversion of say Ty Cobb from 1913 to what Ty Cobb would do in 2013 is to try and separate out what portion of the league statistical differences are due to a different environment that hitters faced (IE, pitchers, parks, equipment, umpires, etc.) and how much is actually due to them being significantly different types of hitters. '0%' as the answer to the latter does not work as it does not produce realistic converted batting lines. There were simply a greater number of guys taking a Callaspo approach and virtually no one taking a Chris Carter approach.
   10. 6 - 4 - 3 Posted: February 01, 2014 at 01:36 PM (#4649839)
I agree that a larger strikezone and different usage patterns are the primary driver of it, but I'm curious about the potential role that increased defensive shifts and better statistically-informed positioning have.

If fielders are more effective and reduce BABIP, then it would seem to be prudent for batters to trade some "quantity" of contact with "quality" of contact. On the other hand, in making that tradeoff, the batter is likely making the trajectories of the balls he does hit more predictable, which will presumably increase the effectiveness of future defensive positioning. Interesting game theory problem. To the extent that a player can effectively change his approach without totally disrupting his timing, it's likely the case that a player would benefit from randomly alternating between contact-first and power-first. Left-handed hitters in particular are potentially leaving basehits on the table by continuing to try to pull the ball against a defensive shift.
   11. PreservedFish Posted: February 01, 2014 at 02:36 PM (#4649856)
There's also the simple fact that people have come to understand the mechanics of scoring differently than they used to, and players are coached, even now, to wait for a perfect pitch and rip it. And you know what? It works.

Why is scoring going down?
   12. Rough Carrigan Posted: February 01, 2014 at 03:10 PM (#4649862)
Didn't the Red Sox just lead MLB in scoring while doing exactly what Ryan seems to dislike?

I was at game 1 of the ALCS in Fenway and saw the amazing spectacle of a pitcher throwing a no hitter in a playoff game who was barely able to get through 6 innings. Yes, the Red Sox didn't score off Anibal Sanchez, a really good pitcher, but they also worked him so hard that despite the no-no he couldn't get to the 7th.

I suppose Ryan might argue that the Red Sox would have done better if they'd swung at more first pitches etc. But, a la #10, though they don't do that very much, they are willing to do it when circumstances call for it. They got 7 runs off David Price in game 2 of the ALDS in part by surprising him by swinging early in the count. Sure, it's fanboy bias but that really seems to be the smartest approach, to be disciplined but willing to change things up on occasion.
   13. John Northey Posted: February 01, 2014 at 04:55 PM (#4649902)
As I recall that was Ted Williams approach. He said he would always take the first pitch, at least until he thought a pitcher was trying to take advantage of that and then he'd swing and knock one out. Kept pitchers honest and it still applies today.
   14. Kiko Sakata Posted: February 01, 2014 at 05:25 PM (#4649910)
There's also the simple fact that people have come to understand the mechanics of scoring differently than they used to, and players are coached, even now, to wait for a perfect pitch and rip it.

But if it was about batters becoming more patient we'd be seeing more walks as a byproduct of that. And, as TFE notes, we haven't seen that. In fact, interestingly, Walt Davis has shown in several other threads that more strikeouts is the ONLY thing that's changed since the "end of the steroid era" - walks and on-contact numbers (HR/BIP, BABIP, SLGIP) are the same as they were in the late-'90s / early-'00s. It seems like it has to be the strike zone, as #8 suggests.
   15. Walt Davis Posted: February 01, 2014 at 11:24 PM (#4650000)
It was RonJ that did the heavy lifting, I just tossed the idea out there and looked at a couple of seasons and then keep citing Ron's results (see below).

I wouldn't quite go so far as to say K's are the ONLY thing that's changed (and the article mentions walks have gone down recently) but, yeah, the change in Ks is the big thing. A bigger strike zone is an obvious possibility and the link in #5 supports that over the last three years, especially with the lower edge getting lower. Reward pitchers even more for keeping the ball down (below the knees here) coupled with those being harder to hit for HR and I think we'd expect to see what we've seen. Doesn't rule out other changes though.

Why is scoring going down?

Because Ks are going up.

Anyway, Ron's numbers ... the 2013 numbers were through sometime in July

Went back to 1988. Have only finished the AL -- my preference for the same reason Walt gave. Also eliminated pitcher's hitting.

BAOC = Hits/ (At Bats + Sac flies - strikeouts)
ISOC = (Total bases - hits) / (At Bats + Sac flies - strikeouts)
HRR = (At Bats + Sac flies - strikeouts) / Home runs

1988 .285 .306 .155 34.4
1989 .288 .307 .145 38.1
1990 .287 .307 .152 36.1
1991 .288 .309 .160 33.5
1992 .285 .305 .148 37.0

1993 .294 .316 .168 31.5

Something of a bridge year

1994 .299 .326 .193 26.0
1995 .298 .324 .188 26.8
1996 .304 .333 .202 24.0
1997 .302 .329 .192 25.9
1998 .302 .329 .195 25.8
1999 .302 .331 .199 24.6
2000 .303 .332 .202 24.2
2001 .297 .324 .196 25.6
2002 .292 .319 .195 26.0
2003 .294 .321 .193 26.0
2004 .300 .328 .198 24.9
2005 .296 .322 .189 26.7
2006 .305 .332 .196 25.5
2007 .305 .330 .186 28.5
2008 .302 .327 .186 28.1
2009 .300 .329 .199 24.7
2010 .296 .320 .181 28.4
2011 .294 .320 .186 27.5
2012 .293 .322 .197 24.5
2013 .296 .324 .192 25.6
AVE .299 .326 .193 26.0

Batters seem to be _hitting_ the ball as hard as ever, they are just hitting it less often.

There presumably is a point where it makes sense to sacrifice power for contact. But we would guess that each of those on-contact component numbers would decline in that scenario, along with the overall walk rates.

K rates are a bit like the 3-point line in basketball. The NBA line is about 24 feet so, of course, unless the success rates are radically different, it makes almost no sense to attempt a shot from 20-23 feet -- you should set up in 3-point territory instead. You could expand the success gap by moving the line farther back (in some spots) and eventually you will make the 20-23 foot shot a worthwhile thing to attempt. But you're not going to increase the probability of making that shot and the defense is going to find that easier to defend than the 3-point shot and/or it is going to allow the defense to pack the inside even more cutting down on easier baskets so any impact on overall scoring.

Batters shifting focus to more contact almost certainly will not increase scoring, I suspect it will decrease it even further, so they have no obvious incentive to do it until the 3-point line hits 28 feet. This is probably even more true if the "new strikes" are all below the knee -- there's never been any reward in hacking at those pitches.

As to first-pitch strikes, etc. we've looked at that in various threads over the last couple of years. The outcome as I recall is that, yes, batters are swinging at the first pitch less often but they are hitting it more successfully and the end result is essentially unchanged. The major improvement in outcomes I recall was with two strikes -- the greater effectiveness of continuing to hit the ball hard was outweighing both the more frequent 2-strike counts and the more likely Ks.

Oh, b-r now has a swung at first pitch, didn't swing at first pitch split (as opposed to hit first pitch). Unfortunately that only seems to exist for 2013.

In 2013, the AL swung at the first pitch almost exactly 25% of the time. They seem to have hit it fair only about 40% of the time they swung at it. For all such PAs (i.e. including after the swinging strike/foul) they hit 270/290/431. After taking the first pitch they hit 251/330/395. The extra OBP is more than worth the BA/SLG decline. But moreover, they hit 337/549 when they hit the first one fair so they only hit something like 225/256/352 after going down 0-1.

More fun with the new split:

9,666 PA: 1st pitch result (includes 115 PA not swung at)
13,939 PA: swung at 1st pitch, 0-1
31,660 PA: took 1st pitch, 0-1
37,492 PA: took 1st pitch, 1-0

The guys who took and ended up 0-1 seemed to have slightly better outcomes after 0-1 than those that swung to get to 0-1 but it seems pretty minor -- maybe something like 232/280/347. After 1-0, it's 269/377/438 -- look at that OBP! Note the after 1-0 BA and SLG are pretty much identical to the "swung at 1st pitch" BA and SLG.

Noted earlier, first pitch swingers end up with an OBP of just 290 compared with 330 for the takers. They do absolutely rip it when they do hit it fair although no moreso than the guys who are 1-0 do when they hit the next pitch fair.

In the end, of course a batter should smack any grooved pitch. The main problem of course is the guys swinging at first pitch balls or missing/fouling pitches they should be crushing.

There's probably no more selective batter than Votto 2013. When he swung at the first pitch, he ended up hitting 338/376/551; 435/740 when he hit it fair. He seems to do just fine.

When he didn't swing at the first pitch, he hit 287/459/460 -- 90 points of SLG for 80 points of OBP, everybody should take that. (439 if you take out the IBB so 60 points of OBP, still worth 90 points of SLG but getting close.)

Votto swung at the first pitch 210 times or 29% of the time -- higher than the AL average! Even Votto ended up putting it in play only 78 times, slightly under the 40% AL average. (I know Votto's in the NL but pitcher batting makes NL league splits hard to work with.)

I'm sure there are guys who are not aggressive enough on the first pitch but I'd like to see those players identified before we go around talking about how the rake-and-take approach doesn't work. To steal from Kenny Rogers:

You gotta know when to rake 'em, know when to take 'em
Know when to swing away and know when to walk
   16. Nathaniel Dawson Posted: February 04, 2014 at 01:25 AM (#4651215)
Wow, very cool stuff, Walt. A lot there to examine and try to digest.

A few things stand out to me, most mentioned in some way or another in this thread:

First, umpires do seem to be calling a larger strike zone in the last few years. There's been a couple of articles I've seen over the last year that have looked at this, and they have indicated an increasingly larger strike zone since the introduction of Pitch/FX. Not that Pitch/FX has been the reason for the trend, but it is a way we can track such a thing. Not hard to understand at all that a larger strike zone would lead to more strikeouts.

Second, pitch velocity has seen a spike over the last half-a-dozen years. Not sure anybody has a compelling answer for why this has happened, but it's pretty clear to see for anybody that has watched baseball for more than a decade or two. Pitchers are throwing the ball harder than they ever have, and while an increase in velocity over time has almost certainly been true throughout the history of the game, we've seen a marked acceleration of that trend recently. No rocket science here, the harder that pitchers throw the ball, the harder it is for hitters to make contact, and the more strikeouts you'll see.

Third, there's little motivation for hitters to try and change their approach to limit strikeouts. A quick look at something like Fangraphs leaderboards will show you that hitters with a high strikeout rate are generally much better than average hitters. This is something that a lot of people have a hard time wrapping their minds around, that the greatest indicator of pitcher success is the ability to get strikeouts, while at the same time, a high strikeout rate seems to be a positive indicator for hitters too. If a hitter can do perfectly well with an approach that leads to strikeouts but also leads to good offensive numbers, there's little reason for him to try something different.

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