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You Say You Want a Revolution?

June 29, 2017
If you take a look at the American League standings, you’ll see Boston, Cleveland, and Houston at the top of their respective divisions.  
I don’t think any of these teams count as surprises to be leading their divisions: Cleveland came close to winning the World Series last year, the Red Sox added Chris Sale to a team with a playoff-level roster, and Houston is cashing in years of draft and trade acquisitions coming into their prime. Phrasing that differently, I think that all of the teams currently in first place in the American League are the teams most of us thought would be in first place. There’s no news there.
What isnews….or what could potentially be news, is just how those teams are winning.
Here are the AL team ranks for strikeouts by hitters:
Batter SO
Lg Avg
Red Sox
The Royals have one of the best contact rates in the American League. This isn’t anything new: that’s been one of the defining traits for that team in recent years. What’s surprising is that the three teams currently pacing the AL are all posting better contact rates than the Royals.
And they’re a fair bit better. The Royals have struck out in 20.5% of their plate appearances, while Cleveland is at 18.5%. That two percent translates to a difference of about one strikeout every two or three games.
That’s interesting.
Here’s something more interesting…here are the league ranks for pitching strikeouts:
Pitcher SO
Red Sox
Lg Avg
In a rare instance of synchronicity, the teams that make the best contact are also the teams that are striking out the most hitters. Houston, Boston, and Cleveland are avoiding strikeouts when they hit, and getting strikeouts when they’re pitching. They are winning both sides of the strikeout battle.
And they’re winning games.
 Which begs the question: are we seeing the start of a bat-on-ball revolution?
*                     *
I hate the current rate of strikeouts. I think the ever-rising percentage of strikeouts is Problem #1 in baseball, just ahead the pesky notion that lefthanders shouldn't be allowed to play shortstop. I'd like to see the strikeout rate change.
But I would like to see it change because baseball teams realize that strikeouts are suboptimal outcomes of at-bats, and try to adjust to a more contact-focused approach. I am less interested in solutions like moving the mound back, or reducing the number of pitching changes, or narrowing the strike zone. I prefer on-field, in-play solutions to the more distant and external changes that are occasionally suggested. Hitters are the ones that have gotten themselves into this situation: I’d like to think they can get themselves out of it, if there is enough of an incentive for it. 
What I’m wondering is if baseball has reached that moment of incentive. The Royals back-to-back World Series run got me thinking along this line: as the strikeout rate rises, there is more and more value in contact ability, regardless of contact quality. I wish I could graph that in a compelling way, but I’m on a new computer, and I don’t think I’ve made a convincing graph of anything since high school. The gist is that strikeouts influence the gap between good contact and all contact.
Well...let me try to dive into that for a second. Let's imagine a low-strikeout era. Let's imagine an era when the average is two or three strikeouts a game, per side. 
In that game…in that context…almost all of the value lies in the nature of the contact the batter makes, instead of the rate of contact. There is no value in purely making contact because the biggest possible advantage would be two or three balls in play. If your opponent strikes out three times and your team never strikes out, that’s the absolute maximum advantage. That’s about one hit a game, give-or-take. That’s not nuttin’, but it’s probably not enough to make up for a deficiency in contact.  There’s not a particularly sizeable gap to exploit.
But if you’re playing in a high strikeout context…if you’re playing in a league where the average is nine or ten strikeouts per game per side, there is tremendous value in just making any kind of contact. If your opponent’s hitters are going to whiff ten times and you have a team that never strikes out, you’re getting ten more balls into play per game. That’s three more hits…that starts to cut into any gap that might exist in the quality of contact.
But actually, that advantage compounds on itself. If you have ten more balls in play, and three of them land as hits, that’s three more outs you get to spend. And if one of those extra outs manages to get one past the infield, that’s another at-bat. So the difference, in an absolute understanding, isn’t nine or ten additional balls in play….it’s closer to thirteen or fourteen extra balls in play.
Those examples are at the extremes of possible outcomes, of course, and we’re speaking in generalities. None of this is hard math.  
But those extremes give some insight into how valuable building a gap between your strikeouts and your opponent’s strikeouts. That gap would also help to explain the strangeness of the Royals successful run, which I would count as the most surprising team outcome I’ve ever witnessed.  And those extremes might give us some indication of where baseball is heading.
*                     *
Of course, it might just be a fluke. While the teams with the best contact approaches are pacing the AL divisions, the contact teams in the NL are losing a lot of baseball games. The only good team that has a below-average strikeout rate are the Nationals. Meanwhile, the upstart Brewers are pacing the NL in batting strikeouts. Colorado, Arizona, and Los Angeles are 3rd, 4th, and 5th. The Cubbies are 6th. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything.
That said, the three AL teams I cited at the start of the article are all pretty smart organizations. I have as much knowledge of the inner workings of those franchises as you do (almost none), but if you had to predict which teams would lead the vanguard for finding new avenues to win games, I think those teams would make most shortlists.  
And I hope it’s the case. I think that there is more value to just being able to contact than our best math can anticipate, and I hope that teams will try to adopt strategies that avoid the strikeout. Leaving aside my aesthetic preference for more defense and fewer games-of-catch, I think that a contact-focused offensive approach in the current environment would be a winning strategy, and I hope that teams pursue those kinds of strategies aggressively.
Much of the noise in baseball this year seems to be about elevated swing planes and rookies hitting dingers. This makes sense: Judge and Bellinger are amazing, and it’s a little surreal to see Ryan Zimmerman resurrected from the dead. I’m fine with the attention those stories are getting: they’re great stories. But the story I’m most interested in is the story that started Kansas City, and the one that seems to be playing out right now in Boston, Houston, and Cleveland.
I don't want a rulebook change, or a slight adjustment to the strikezone. I want a contact revolution. I dream of a baseball where the tyranny of the strikeout has been overthrown by the better justice of a baseball put into play.  
Maybe the day is coming.  

COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
rwarn17588 - I don't know about those places, but in Win Shares (2001), Bill James here factors in batter strikeouts as being 1.03 worse than normal outs. That's where that system makes the adjustment. It's in the Runs Created Formula, p. 91, line E12.
7:32 AM Jul 10th
Yeah, and who can forget how he would wave that chain in the air as he was rounding the bases after one of his "Mark-off" home runs to win the game?
11:07 AM Jul 7th
That Markov dude was a helluva ballplayer. I think he was the first guy to wear jewelry on the field. His jewelry around his neck became known as a Markov chain.
9:43 AM Jul 5th
Concerning what Bruce said about a strikeout preventing .32 runners, it actually prevents more than that. Dave said that when he mentioned that the advantage compounds on itself. Let's take Bruce's scenario where 32% of hitters get on base after not striking out. So 32% of the time, there's not just a hit, but another out to work with. And let's say that 20% of hitters get on base with that additional out. I lower it to 20% because I'm assuming subsequent hitters will strikeout at their normal rate. That means that avoiding the strikeout leads to at least (.32 + (.32*.2)), or .384. baserunners.
But then we have to factor in the fact that the hitter that is part of the 20% reaching base has also avoided an out, and thus adds to the subsequent baserunners. So it' a Markov Chain, basically, with the expected number of baserunners added by avoiding the strikeout peaking at around .400 under these assumptions.

So, bottom line....hit the ball, and if goes where it ain't, then reap the benefits. But this kind of Markov chain shows the advantage of reaching base via walk vs. making an out, since a walk can be thought of as an out avoided. And it shows why range factor is important for a fielder, since plays not made mean more outs to play with.
10:50 AM Jul 3rd
""What’s surprising is that the three teams currently pacing the AL are all posting better contact rates than the Royals."

At a drive by glance, three of the guys with the highest batting on the 2016 Royals (not exactly balls in play but at a glance) are either gone (Dyson) missed a ton of time (Paul Orlando) or missed some (Merrifield missed half of April)
1:00 AM Jul 3rd
Dave, great stuff, and....Dave? DAVE!??? Damnit, he's on East Coast time now, it's just me and Maris for Insomnia Chats.

Anyway first thing I wondered was base-on-balls aka walks.

Walks surrendered:
Boston first (least), Cleveland 2nd, Houston 6th.
Boston 4th, Cleveland fifth, Houston lower but above average.

So which is the more powerful attribute?

You might think walks....that isn't a maybe ball in play....that's a guy on first. And it's a guy who burned four pitches off the opposing pitcher, and often much more.

W*TB/Ks+Rs/:-)-ACK squared

10:53 PM Jul 1st
rwarn17588 wrote: Does the lower strikeout rate show up as a consistent discrepancy between expected runs scored and actual runs scored? And does it show up in the Pythagorean formula as well?

I ask because I noted the 2014 and 2015 KC Royals were five games better each time than their anticipated W/L record, which ain't nothin'. Last year, they were four games better. This year, they're five games better.

I don't think that strikeout rate shows up in a difference between expected runs and actual runs. I looked at the Royals for the last 5 years, and actual won lost record agrees pretty well with expected record based on Wins Above Average (which is based on expected runs), with no clear bias. It seems that is a pretty general result (I think it was MarisFan who taught me that).

The Royals do seem to have a persistent edge in actual wins vs. Pythagorean wins. I think it is reaching the point where it is hard to dismiss as random chance. But it is hard to see how strikeouts would affect that. Maybe fewer strikeouts gives and edge in one run games? Do the Royals have a pronounced edge in one run games?
2:05 PM Jul 1st
With sabermetrics being popular there's been such a big emphasis on guys who walk, no matter the strikeouts. I wonder if it has reached the point where there is a devaluing of guys who make contact.
Historically it's usually been the other way around, guys who make contact and don't strikeout have been overrated.
With the thin bats, swinging for the fences, and emphasis on walks, contact hitters are not popular. Especially with the shifting, I'd think there'd be a place for guys who can hit the ball. Especially if they can control where they hit it.
9:31 AM Jul 1st
I think all of this makes sense and is worthy of further study. If the batting average on balls in play is, say, .290, and the reached base on error rate on balls in play is (to pick a number), .03, then (all other things being equal), a strikeout prevents .32 baserunners. There are two additional factors that need to be studied here:

1. Would a drop in strikeouts also lead to a drop in walks?
2. Would a drop in strikeouts lead to a drop in extra base hits, line drives, and/or hard hit ground balls?
3. Would a drop in strikeouts lead to an increase in double plays?

My guess is that someone has already studied this. I just haven't seen the research.
7:30 AM Jul 1st
Well (and thanks, Maris) I did check the RC estimates for and against the Astros / Indians / Red Sox so far this year. The Indians are -7 in runs scored, but +6 defensively (have given up 6 less runs than expected). The Astros are +17 in runs scored, and + 6 defensively, and the Red Sox are -3 in runs scored, but plus 17 defensively.

Mixed results, so I don't see a trend here supporting the idea that less strikeouts lead to more runs scored...not directly, anyway. The strikeouts by your pitchers seem to have some effect on reducing runs scored, I guess, but...

1. It's a small sample, and
2. I think strikeouts are an indirect indicator of pitching quality, a direct measure in and of themselves.

Not much evidence presented, okay, but that's what I see related to the teams Dave cited.
4:30 PM Jun 30th
I am going to guess that the success of these three teams has more to do with their striking out a lot of batters than it does to do with them not striking out themselves.

2:59 PM Jun 30th
Actually, Sandoval does not have a particularly high strikeout rate. Well down the pack of third basemen.​
11:46 AM Jun 30th
The Astros have succeeded both at replacing some strikeout-prone players with contact hitters and seeing some of their remaining players reduce their strikeout rates. See, by way of example, the acquisition of Nori Aoki, who has one of lowest career strikeout rates among active players. and George Springer and Evan Gattis, for instance, have curbed their strikeouts quite a bit. Whether that is coaching and emphasis on contact, or the fact that they are moving to the age when players tend to be in their primes, is unclear. On the pitching side, they have built a bullpen of young arms that averages over 10 strikeouts per game, and even among the starters the strikeout rate is almost one per inning.​
10:18 AM Jun 30th
I have an honest question to Dave and anyone else who's reading: Does the lower strikeout rate show up as a consistent discrepancy between expected runs scored and actual runs scored? And does it show up in the Pythagorean formula as well?

I ask because I noted the 2014 and 2015 KC Royals were five games better each time than their anticipated W/L record, which ain't nothin'. Last year, they were four games better. This year, they're five games better.

The Astros are two games better, which translated to a full season becomes four to five games better. The Indians, however, this year are about three games below, but 4-5 games better last year.

What I've observed may simply be statistical noise or simply luck. But the fact the Royals keep overperforming isn't lost on me. Maybe a cautious revolution IS occurring, because the GMs saw that the Royals did and are trying to do it themselves. And an addition 4-5 games during a tight division race can be crucial.
10:06 AM Jun 30th
Hmm, were the Red Sox thinking about this when they signed Pablo Sandoval?
7:49 AM Jun 30th
Astros led the league in hitters' strikeouts two years ago. What a turnaround, and so far this year they are the best team in baseball.
9:34 PM Jun 29th
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