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February 21, 2013

Skewed Left

Arizona's Extreme Strikeout Makeover

by Zachary Levine

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When you talk about changing a roster for the grittier, as Kevin Towers has rather openly during a bizarre offseason at the helm of the Diamondbacks, you’re going to get accused of using “grit” as a code word. Normally, it’s racial. The fact that the Diamondbacks’ push for grit coincided with the trading of their two prominent black players didn’t help their look.

But what if it was a different kind of code word? What if it did coincide with something quantifiable on the baseball field in how they made over their team?

It appears that as the Diamondbacks were adding grit this offseason, what they were mostly adding was contact. Or more accurately, what they were taking away wasn’t any racial checkbox but the “three true outcomes” of plate appearances, thus getting further from the Kirk Gibson career they’ve been trying to model.

To review, the Diamondbacks had one of the busiest offseasons in baseball. They had multi-year free agent acquisitions like Cody Ross and Brandon McCarthy. They had swaps of established players, sending out Chris Young for Cliff Pennington and a Justin Upton package for a Martin Prado package. They had a swap of young guys, jettisoning Trevor Bauer for Didi Gregorius. As a footnote, they had a straight buy on the previously designated for assignment Tony Campana, paying with a couple of distant prospects.

Through it all, they have become a much more contact-oriented team, and that might be what some of the grit narrative implies. There are no hustle plays when you strike out or when you walk or when you hit a home run. Those intangibles are usually associated with actions like getting runners over, taking the extra base, and other things you can’t do on the true outcomes.

The 2010 Diamondbacks, a team Towers took over in September, struck out in 24.7 percent of their plate appearances, the highest rate in history. Both he and outgoing GM Jerry Dipoto vowed to lower that rate, and after shedding Mark Reynolds, Adam LaRoche, Chris Snyder and Kelly Johnson over that winter or during the following season, the Diamondbacks did make contact more often.

Still, the D-Backs of 2012 leaned toward being a three-true-outcomes team, for better or worse or, as it turned out in their 81-81 campaign, exactly the same amount of better and worse. Diamondbacks hitters were seventh or higher in all three true outcomes as rates (they were top five in each in raw numbers). Overall, they were the fifth-most true-outcome-prone team, and for the sake of future comparisons, the fourth-most of any team that’s sticking it out in the National League another year.

Home run rate

Walk rate

Strikeout rate

Three true outcomes

1. MIL 3.3%

1. ATL, 9.3%

1. HOU 22.7%

1. HOU 32.8%

2. WAS 3.1%

2. ARI 8.8%

2. PIT 22.5%

2. ATL 32.7%

3. CIN 2.8%

3. SDP 8.8%

3. WAS 21.3%

3. PIT 32.7%

4. PIT 2.8%

4. STL 8.4%

4. ATL 21.0%

4. WAS 32.1%

5. ARI 2.7%

5. NYM 8.3%

…7. ARI 20.6%

5. ARI 32.0%
(NL avg 30.6%)

Most of the variation on the boards is in strikeouts, so we’ll look there first at what the Diamondbacks gave up and what they have added. Keep in mind that while the National League average strikeout rate last year was 20.2 percent of plate appearances, it was just 19.2 percent for non-pitchers.

Outgoing

Incoming

Justin Upton
2012: 19.3%, Career: 22.9%

 

Chris Johnson
2012: 25.0%, Career: 24.7%

 

Chris Young
2012: 21.8%, Career: 22.7%

Martin Prado
2012: 10.0%, Career: 11.0%

 

Cody Ross
2012: 24.4%, Career: 21.8%

 

Cliff Pennington
2012: 19.5%, Career: 18.1%

 

Didi Gregorius (minors)
2012: 14.3%, Career: 12.5%

This all looks great, with the exceptional nature of Ross among the incoming players making the signing a little more baffling, but there are costs too.

The PECOTA forecast for the 2013 Diamondbacks has them taking large steps back not only in strikeouts but also in walks and home runs as they become a team that will have to rely on stringing hits together more.

Since PECOTA’s team forecasts are sums of the position players, these are just ranks—raw numbers would be off because of the enormous number of pitcher strikeouts, but ranks should stay fairly consistent. The Diamondbacks are expected to be lower in the NL rankings in all three of the true outcome rates than in 2012, dropping to 10th in the 15-team NL in the overall TTOs.

Statistic

2012 rank**

2013 rank

Home run rate

5th

10th

Walk rate

2nd

11th

Strikeout rate

6th

11th

Three true outcomes

4th

10th

**Excluding Astros

The story is the same on the pitching staff, as the Diamondbacks bit in free agency on a low-walk contact guy in Brandon McCarthy and traded Trevor Bauer. As with the Upton and Young trades, there have been plenty of other motivations ascribed to the move, but all of them trend in the same direction. In my hasty ranking of the Diamondbacks’ grittiest players, I left out pitchers because of course they’re not gritty but gamers. A non-strikeout guy on the mound survives often with guile, even.

Whereas McCarthy struck out 5.9 batters and walked a mere 1.9 per nine innings last year and 6.1 and 2.6 respectively in his career, Towers is selling somewhat low on Bauer, a guy with career rates in the minors of 11.5 K/9 and 4.2 BB/9.

Promoting balls in play in Chase Field can work either way; while is has proven to be a good home run hitter’s park, it’s not small and can lead to a lot of hits as well. Not since 1999—the team’s second year of existence and second year in the ballpark—have the Diamondbacks had a higher BABIP on the road than at home, and that was the only time it’s ever happened.

What’s really strange, though, is the notion that Towers keeps bringing up about making the team in Gibson’s image. Gibson wasn’t this kind of player at all. He was a home run hitter, a walker and a strikeout-er (striker out?).

Here’s Gibson compared to the average major leaguer of his day (1979-95)

Statistic

Gibson

MLB average

Home run rate

3.8%

2.2%

Walk rate

10.8%

8.6%

Strikeout rate

19.3%

14.4%

Three true outcomes

33.9%

25.2%

So Gibson’s career was nothing like the direction of the 2013 Diamondbacks, who will be playing a very different style of baseball this year even if we can’t quite call it gritty for sure. Or even if we can call it gritty and just have to settle for having no idea what that word means on the field.

Research credits to Rob McQuown and Baseball-Reference.com

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

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