August 14, 2007
Non-Contact Part III
Rob Deer, Jose Hernandez, and Pete Incaviglia walk into a barů Stop me if you've heard this one before. On our tour of the non-contact batter/pitcher confrontations, we've looked solely at the pitcher's contributions, and at strikeouts. It's time to widen our focus a little bit, and look at the hurlers' dance partners-the hitters:
Season Strikeout Rate, 1959-Present (min. 500 PA) Year Batter Pos G PA K K Rate EqA 1. 1963 Dave Nicholson LF 125 520 175 33.65% .276 2. 1987 Rob Deer LF 134 566 186 32.86% .277 3. 1986 Rob Deer RF 134 546 179 32.78% .280 4. 1991 Rob Deer RF 133 539 175 32.47% .249 5. 2002 Jose Hernandez SS 152 582 188 32.30% .284 6. 1993 Rob Deer RF 126 532 169 31.77% .238 7. 2001 Jose Hernandez SS 151 592 185 31.25% .252 8. 2003 Jose Hernandez 3B 145 571 177 31.00% .216 9. 1989 Bo Jackson LF 135 561 172 30.66% .281 10. 1986 Pete Incaviglia RF 152 606 185 30.53% .267
Sure, we have a couple of interlopers, but it's a pretty small group that dominates this list. The three amigos I mentioned in the first line occupy ten of the top twelve spots in this ranking. Deer, whom we've mentioned throughout this series, is famous in sabermetric circles as the "Three True Outcomes" guy, a spiritual ancestor of Adam Dunn. To most fans in the 80s, Deer was simply known as a guy whose bat generated a cool breeze on hot summer nights. Hernandez, Inky, and Bo Jackson are all familiar names from the not-so-distant past, and they share with Deer the rap as all-or-nothing power guys.
The name at the top of that leaderboard, Dave Nicholson, is of a slightly older vintage, and perhaps a bit more obscure. Nicholson was a big power prospect who signed with the Orioles for a $120,000 bonus in 1958-a huge bonus for the time. He was thrown into the 1960 pennant race at the age of 20, and wound up striking out in almost precisely half of his at-bats while getting sporadic playing time. He was up and down with the Orioles over the next couple of years, and then he was dealt to the White Sox in the Luis Aparicio deal in 1963. That season-Nicholson's only year as a regular-he hit 22 homers, and he shattered the single-season strikeout record, besting Harmon Killebrew's old record by 33 strikeouts, the biggest record-breaking margin in the statistic's history. Nicholson remained the record holder until the end of the decade, when Bobby Bonds passed him, aided by 200 additional plate appearances.
By Bonds's time, Nicholson's major league career was already over. Apparently, Nicholson was one of those guys who's so talented that teams kept thinking they could fix him, and make him make contact. It never happened. Nicholson left the game as one of the most notorious strikeout artists in its history, although it seems that he has since been surpassed:
Career Strikeout Rate, 1959-Present (min. 500 K) Batter PA K K Rate EqA 1. Russell Branyan 2119 734 34.64% .269 2. Dave Nicholson 1661 572 34.44% .264 3. Bo Jackson 2626 841 32.03% .270 4. Rob Deer 4513 1409 31.22% .267 5. Mark Bellhorn 2481 719 28.98% .257 6. Ruben Rivera 1818 510 28.05% .245 7. Craig Wilson 2311 643 27.82% .281 8. Jose Hernandez 5089 1391 27.33% .249 9. Pete Incaviglia 4677 1277 27.30% .262 10. Adam Dunn 3945 1060 26.87% .298
The only reason Russ Branyan didn't make the season strikeout list is because he's never had enough plate appearances in a season to count as a regular. Like Nicholson, Branyan was a touted prospect with light-tower power and trouble with making contact. Instead of his career being considered tragedy, like Nicholson's was, Branyan's been a valued role-player with five different teams, even though the two men posted similar career EqAs. Of the people on this list, Ruben Rivera's closest to capturing the Nicholson legacy, but his problems stemmed as much from an overall lack of production as from his inability to make contact.
So is there anything that we can learn from these strikeout kings? One mildly interesting question comes to mind. When we looked at pitchers, it was clear that the strikeout was probably the best thing a pitcher can do on the mound-a dead-certain out. Since baseball's a zero-sum game, it's logical to think that if a strikeout is the best a pitcher can do, it's the worst thing a batter can do, right? But if you look at the lists of high-strikeout batters above, does the strikeout being the worst possible result show up here? Keep in mind that .260 EqA is league-average offense, and that the lists of high-strikeout seasons for pitchers read like an All-Star roster. We'll discuss this when the Non-Contact series continues.
Before wrapping up, there were a couple of questions about last week's column I want to address. Reader J.S. wrote in about the ballpark strikeout factors and selection bias:
First, let me say that seeing those factors was extremely helpful. I'm not sure anyone else has ever published them online. Second, can you give a little detail on what they mean? A KPF of 1050 corresponds to a what % change in the typical pitcher's K rate?
I should have explained last week that in ballpark factors, the league average of 1000 is probably best understood as 1.000. So in the case of J.S.'s example, a 1050 park factor would mean that strikeouts are elevated 5 percent by the ballpark. As to his second point, about doing the study pitcher-per-pitcher, a few readers brought that up, and that certainly is the next step to eliminate the selection bias issue. It's not actually that hard to do, but it is laborious. I'd love to see that study if someone has the time to do it right.
Reader J.R. throws in his own two cents on the park strikeout factor:
It seems that there should be another reason that parks affect strikeouts. A 'hitters park' means that it's less likely that a batted ball will be turned into an out, which means that the pitcher gets another chance to strike someone out. In other words, every out made by the defense is an opportunity for a strikeout taken away from the pitcher. I'd be surprised if the effect is too large, but it should be fairly to check the correlation of a park's general Park Factor against its K factor, right?
It's an interesting theory; I don't have park factors for BABIP to make a comparison at this time, but I doubt that the effect is that straightforward-for example, the most offense-boosting ballpark in the majors, Colorado, also has the biggest effect in suppressing strikeouts. But that's another interesting area that deserves to be tested.
William Burke contributed research to this article.
Clay Davenport, "Park Factor Review - A Look at All Parks, Majors to A-Ball":A 2004 article reviewing general ballpark factors in the majors and minors.
John Eisenberg, From 33rd Street to the Camden Yards: An Oral History of the Baltimore Orioles, (Contemporary Books, 2001): This is how one of Nicholson's teammates, Barry Shetrone, described the young hitter's strikeout woes, "[W]e used to sit in amazement and watch him swing. I couldn't believe it. Everything was perfect-except he never made contactů I used to say that it looked like the bat opened up, the ball would go through, and then [the bat would] close. I couldn't figure out how he was missing the ball because his head was right on it and everything. When he hit 'em, he hit 'em hard. But not enough."