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May 24, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

The Myths of Minor-League Strikeouts

by Bret Sayre

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It gets talked about a lot; we are living through a golden age of strikeouts in baseball. And there are plenty of potential reasons for this, which are thrown out during the discussion. Some say that it’s just a talent surge on the pitching side of the equation that will correct itself during the next cycle. Some say it’s an overall lack of a two-strike mentality among hitters in the game today. Some say the sabermetric movement has reduced the fear and shame associated with striking out. Some say it’s sunscreen.

Regardless of what the true reasoning is (though it’s likely a combination of all of the above and more), we are where we are at the major-league level. But what does that mean for minor-league strikeout rates? Are contact rates in the minors decreasing at the same level that we see across the highest level of the game? The answer is that it depends how advanced the league is.

The height of the strikeout boom started five years ago, as it’s been a straight uphill climb since the 2008 season. But as shown in the table below, as you get lower down in the minors (for the most part), the rate at which they have increased shrinks:

 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Total Increase

MLB

6.83

6.99

7.13

7.13

7.56

7.63

11.8%

Triple-A

6.72

6.36

6.60

6.99

7.08

7.45

10.7%

Double-A

7.06

6.86

7.31

7.48

7.45

7.84

11.0%

High-A

7.32

7.58

7.71

7.64

7.68

7.98

9.0%

Low-A

7.83

7.91

7.94

7.90

7.64

8.07

3.1%

This brings us to Myth No. 1: We don’t need to be overly concerned about strikeouts among lower-level prospects because it’s an increasing part of the game. As you can tell by the chart, the Midwest and South Atlantic Leagues (which make up Low-A ball) have not seen a substantial increase in strikeouts since the boom began. This would be less interesting of a statistic if there weren’t such excitement around the Hickory Crawdads of the South Atlantic League.

The Texas Rangers’ Low-A affiliate is on pace to shatter both the league’s home run and strikeout records, with many exciting players on the roster. Last year’s draftees Joey Gallo and Lewis Brinson lead the charge on both fronts, as they are in the top five in each category. Add to that Low-A repeaters Jorge Alfaro and Jordan Akins, and bonus baby Nomar Mazara (all of whom are among the league’s 20 biggest whiff culprits), and it becomes a wonder that they can’t illuminate all of Catawba County with their wind power.

From a quantitative perspective, there certainly is reason to be concerned about the strikeout rates of the players at the extreme. Brinson is on pace to break the all-time South Atlantic League record, previously held by Al Shirley and Darryl Landrum (each had 208). History is not kind to the players who hold these records across full-season leagues—out of the 12 men who are at least tied for the lead in this category, only Willie Crawford and Glenallen Hill accumulated more than even 50 at-bats at the major-league level after their “feats.” In fact, Hill was able to keep his major-league strikeout rate to a measly 20.9 percent once he finally got there after seven seasons in the minors.

While Joey Gallo isn’t on pace to break any league records, his rate is nearly as concerning—especially because he doesn’t offer the same base-running and defensive skills as Brinson. Since Baseball America began their Top 100 prospect rankings in 1990, the most prodigious minor-league strikeout artist to appear on the list and stick around long enough to be considered a “regular” was Russell Branyan. Branyan was twice a top-30 prospect and finished his minor-league career with a strikeout rate near 33 percent. He now looks like he will finish his major-league career with a .232 average and 194 homers. For those who are excited about Gallo, this seems like a poor outcome for the young third baseman, but Branyan was worth nearly 12 wins above replacement over his career, according to Baseball-Reference. So far, Gallo’s statistics at Low-A have been frighteningly similar to Branyan’s, which can be seen below:

 

Age

Games

K-Rate

HR-Rate

Joey Gallo

19

43

34.6%

6.7%

Russell Branyan

19, 20

206

33.2%

6.8%

So while we’re on the topic of this Hickory team, it’s time to move on to Myth No. 2: All strikeouts are created equally. Now, this isn’t one that you hear people actually say out loud, but by making generalizations across players when it comes to contact rate and future ability, this is the end result. And for some more detail on this, I went straight to a source with some detailed first-hand knowledge.

Our own Zach Mortimer just recently sat in on an entire Hickory series, and saw these strikeout artists (and others) first hand. And, as we talked about what he’s seen so far this season, it became very clear that players take noticeably different paths to their gaudy totals. Here are some of the more common ones:

  1. The “he’s probably not quite ready for the level” strikeout artist. Zach put Courtney Hawkins in this category, and I completely agree. It’s extremely uncommon for a prep hitter to start his first full season in High-A, and Hawkins is showing why with his 50.6 percent strikeout rate. It’s the most easily fixable of the group and could just be as easy as a demotion.
  2. The “he’s just trying to yank everything to the pull side” strikeout artist. This one has Joey Gallo written all over it. Zach was convinced after watching him for three games that he’d try to pull a ball thrown into the opposite batter’s box. This is a more difficult problem to fix, but an extreme approach can be tamed as a player moves up the chain. Unfortunately, any changes in approach can come with unintended consequences.
  3. The “he doesn’t know what’s coming” strikeout artist. Otherwise known as the Bubba Starling special. This is especially problematic in the long-term, as pitch recognition is one of the most essential elements to hitting. Fortunately for Starling, the Royals may have discovered a reason for his issues, and they hope that LASIK surgery can help turn things around for him.

There are plenty of other reasons besides these three, but they are the most common roots for prospects that we care about. I use that designation because the biggest reason for strikeouts in the minor leagues is lack of bat speed, but we’re not concerned about the vast majority of those players.

On a similar note, we come to our final myth and maybe the most important. So far in this piece, I’ve talked about players with extreme strikeout rates—however, there is a tendency for high-strikeout prospects to get grouped together as low-average hitters at the major-league level. Which brings us to Myth No. 3: All high-strikeout hitters in the minor leagues have a pre-determined cap for their major-league batting average.

The point of debunking this myth is going to focus on Miguel Sano, the Twins’ highly touted third-base prospect. Sano was dominant for his age in Low-A last season, but due to his elevated strikeout rate, he became pegged as a .250-.260 hitter among many analysts at the highest level. Of course, so far in 2013, Sano is hitting .350 with 13 homers at High-A because he’s a super stud (though admittedly, that .350 average is unsustainable). Backtracking slightly, I was having a conversation with a few colleagues in the offseason about Sano, and we were all happy and talking about his power until I brought up that I thought he could potentially be a .280 hitter at the major-league level. This brought silence. It went against all of their deeply held beliefs, that a hitter who just struck out 26 percent of the time in Low-A could have a good enough hit tool for that.

And for this portion of Mythbusters, I present to you a blind taste test that will demonstrate that you can’t put players in a box based on their Low-A strikeout rates. All three of these players saw time in Low-A during their age-19 seasons and they were all top-50 prospects during their minor-league careers (per Baseball America):

  • Player A: 598 at-bats, .279 average, 16.3% walk rate, 29.8% strikeout rate
  • Player B: 457 at-bats, .258 average, 14.5% walk rate, 26.0% strikeout rate
  • Player C: 445 at-bats, .288 average, 13.5% walk rate, 27.1% strikeout rate

If I didn’t go through this whole setup beforehand, you’d probably think these were low-average hitters at the major-league level, right? But let’s start with the easy one first. Player B is Miguel Sano. I’m going to throw one additional unnecessary sentence in here to increase the suspense before the last two players are revealed.

Going backward, Player C is Larry Walker, a career .313 hitter. Additionally, Walker’s major-league strikeout rate ended up being a completely manageable 15.3 percent. Surely there are a few of you complaining about Walker having padded his major-league stat line in the hitters’ haven known as 1990s Coors Field. Well, I don’t want to hear it—plus, I still have Player A in my back pocket to throw at you.

Player A has a major-league strikeout rate of 18.3 percent—more than 11 percentage points lower than his Low-A rate. Player A has a career .319 batting average and has won both an MVP award and a Gold Glove. On top of that, he has still yet to turn 30, so there’s a real chance that he is not done collecting hardware with his name on it.

So, the next time someone tells you that Miguel Sano is predestined to be a low-average hitter at the major-league level just because of his strikeout rate, tell them that Joey Votto had a significantly higher strikeout rate than Sano at Low-A. It will blow their minds.

Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bret's other articles. You can contact Bret by clicking here

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