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August 28, 2007

Prospectus Toolbox

Non-Contact Part V

by Derek Jacques

So it's a long road we've traveled over the past month, looking at non-contact results on the diamond. Fortunately, like all good things, it must come to an end. We ended up last time looking at the leaders in swinging strikeout and looking strikeout rate since 1999 (which is as far back as we have comprehensive pitch-by-pitch data). A few things stood out while looking at those two lists:

  • Jose Hernandez really liked to flail away. From 2001-2003 he struck out swinging in almost exactly one quarter of his plate appearances. Now, that's a contact problem. The next highest season in the sample was Preston Wilson, who struck out 21.6 percent of the time.
  • There are lots more swinging strikeouts than called strikeouts. This makes intuitive sense. Not only were the top swinging strikeout rates much higher than the top called strikeout rates, even among the top called strikeout seasons all but two of those guys swung at more strike threes than they looked at: Ben Grieve in 2002 (10.5 percent swinging strikeout rate to an 11.1 percent called rate) and Luis Castillo in 2001 (4.4 percent swinging, 10.3 percent called).
  • The list of guys called out on strikes includes some of the most complained-about players in recent MLB history. Pat Burrell is about as unpopular as a guy with a career .289 EqA can be in Philadelphia; after his tenure in Oakland, Ben Grieve was as mysterious and frustrating as the riddle of the Sphinx; a World Series ring in Boston provided only temporary immunity for Mark Bellhorn.

One thing that might not be evident from the top strikeout rate lists is the positive correlation between unintentional walks and called strikeouts, with a correlation coefficient of 0.544 across the entire sample. This makes a bit of sense-guys that walk a lot go deeper into counts than their brethren who hack away, sometimes taking strike three as a consequence. By contrast, swinging strikeouts had a much weaker correlation, of 0.111.

Let's go a bit deeper, and look at which hitters had the highest rates of swinging or called strikes per pitch seen since 1999. First we'll look at the swingers (500 PA minimum):


                                   Swinging
Year  Player           PA Pitches Strike Rate   K Rate
2007  Delmon Young    519  1851     39.5%       18.2%
2006  Jeff Francoeur  686  2280     37.8%       19.2%
2000  Geoff Jenkins   564  2096     37.4%       23.9%
2002  Alfonso Soriano 741  2687     36.3%       21.2%
2006  A.J. Pierzynski 543  1851     36.0%       13.3%
2006  Angel Berroa    503  1739     35.6%       17.5%
2002  Jacque Jones    626  2262     35.4%       20.6%
2006  Ivan Rodriguez  580  2006     35.2%       14.8%
2007  Jeff Francoeur  538  1882     35.2%       19.2%
2005  Ivan Rodriguez  525  1767     35.0%       17.7%

Over the weekend, Delmon Young was called out by the New York Daily News as one of the most undisciplined hitters in baseball, and the numbers bear it out. In addition to an extremely high swinging strike rate, Young's unintentional walk rate (3.7 percent) is less than half the American League average (7.9 percent), and he's got the lowest rate of pitches taken by any player to collect 500 PA in a season, since 1999 (39 percent).

Next, let's look at two lists side by side-players who have the highest rate of strikes called per pitch seen, and the players who take the highest percentage of pitches overall:


                     Called
Year  Player        Strike Rate   Year  Player         Take Rate  
2005  Jason Kendall   26.1%       2004  Barry Bonds      72.1%
2004  Jason Kendall   25.8%       2002  Barry Bonds      68.6%
2001  David Eckstein  25.5%       2003  Scott Hatteberg  67.3%
2006  Jamey Carroll   25.4%       2001  Barry Bonds      67.3%
2003  David Eckstein  25.4%       1999  John Jaha        67.2%
2003  Jason Kendall   25.3%       2002  John Olerud      67.2%
2003  Mark Ellis      25.1%       2005  Bobby Abreu      67.1%
2002  Todd Zeile      25.0%       2001  Edgar Martinez   66.7%
2006  Jason Kendall   25.0%       2002  Brian Giles      66.5%
2003  Scott Hatteberg 24.9%       2005  Brian Giles      66.4%

The common thread between these lists is Scott Hatteberg, praised in the book Moneyball as possessing the ultimate Oakland A's approach at the plate (and vilified in reader Frank Greenberg's comments last week). A number of other sometime Oakland players dot both lists: Mark Ellis is currently an Athletic, Jason Kendall was traded by the team earlier this year, and John Jaha had the best season of his career in the green and gold before succumbing once again to injuries. While the A's philosophy-and players who take many pitches in general-are associated with high strikeout rates, these two lists mainly belong to players with below-average strikeout rates. In particular Kendall, Hatteberg, and Eckstein are players who take a large number of called strikes but feature extremely low strikeout rates (in the single digits).

Now, let's use some of the same tools to look at our pitchers (minimum 160 IP):


                           Swinging                            Called
Year Pitcher          IP    K Rate  Year Pitcher         IP    K Rate
1999 Pedro Martinez  213.1  28.7%   2007 Erik Bedard    182.0  12.0%
2001 Randy Johnson   249.2  27.0%   2004 Jaret Wright   186.3  11.1%
2000 Randy Johnson   248.2  26.2%   2001 Randy Johnson  249.7  10.5%
2000 Pedro Martinez  217    25.7%   2005 Erik Bedard    141.7  10.2%
2002 Randy Johnson   260    25.6%   2001 Bartolo Colon  222.3   9.9%
2004 Johan Santana   228    25.1%   2005 Esteban Loaiza 217.0   9.8%
1999 Randy Johnson   271.2  24.2%   2003 Esteban Loaiza 226.3   9.7%
2002 Curt Schilling  259.1  24.0%   2002 John Burkett   173.0   9.3%
2001 Curt Schilling  256.2  23.7%   2007 Josh Beckett   160.0   9.1%
2003 Curt Schilling  168    23.6%   2000 Pedro Martinez 217.0   9.1%

                     Swinging                         Called
Year Pitcher        Strike Rate    Year Pitcher      Strike Rate
2002 Curt Schilling  35.7          2007 Greg Maddux    21.6
2007 Johan Santana   35.5          2006 Mike Mussina   21.5
2005 Johan Santana   35.2          2005 Carlos Silva   21.3
1999 Randy Johnson   35.2          2001 Ismael Valdez  21.2
2006 Johan Santana   34.9          2004 Jeff Weaver    21.0
2003 Jason Schmidt   34.9          2002 Matt Morris    21.0
2001 Curt Schilling  34.6          2002 John Burkett   20.9
2003 Curt Schilling  34.0          2002 Aaron Sele     20.8
2004 Jason Schmidt   34.0          2003 John Burkett   20.8
2007 Cole Hamels     33.9          2007 Matt Morris    20.8

The left side of both of these charts is kind of monotonous-it's all power pitchers, representing some of the best pitching seasons in recent memory. A pitcher's ability to make hitters swing and miss is a fundamental building block to success. Cole Hamels' presence here speaks volumes about how badly the Phillies and their fans have to hope that the "elbow discomfort" that has put him on the DL isn't a lasting problem.

The right side of the charts, which track called strikeouts and called strikes, is far more interesting (to me, at least). The AL strikeout king, Erik Bedard, makes the list twice, and there are a few power pitchers in their prime-Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Bartolo Colon-represented on the called strikeouts list. But at the same time, there are a few outlier seasons that show up: Jaret Wright's 2004, which earned him a three-year deal from the Yankees; Esteban Loaiza's 2003, when he was a legitimate Cy Young candidate; Carlos Silva's 2005, when he walked only nine men in 188 1/3 innings; Mike Mussina's 2006. All of those players came back to earth, some harder than others, after those seasons. Watching Mike Mussina cap off the worst month of his career last night, it makes me wonder if an increase in called strike rate could be an early warning sign for a precipitous drop in performance to come. With four 2007 performances currently making the right side of the chart, this might be an area where further study is warranted.

That's it for the non-contact series, at least for now. I hope you enjoyed it. As always, my thanks go out to William Burke for all the fine research he contributed to this installment.

Further Reading

Michael Lewis, Moneyball - The Art of Winning an Unfair Game: Chapters seven and eight, in particular, deal with the A's ideal approach to hitting, and the sabermetric basis for some of their philosophies. Four years later, the book feels a bit dated-for example there's an open question of how much value Hatteberg, and later Kendall really provided the A's. I think it's nonetheless an essential read, because it's rare that an active front office will disclose so much about its philosophy.

James Click, Crooked Numbers, "Is Patience a Virtue?": An earlier take on the details of strike zone control, and swing and take rates.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  2003,  2002,  Strikeout Rate,  Jason Kendall,  Strikeout

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