For the second year in a row, the Royals are in the World Series. The Royals have had the lowest strikeout rate of any MLB team over each of the past two seasons. These aren’t unrelated facts, but the correlation is certainly very loose. Ten years ago, this fact would have been noted, but with a shrug. Thirty years ago, it would have borne mention, but it would have been presented as an inevitability. That’s the way we understood baseball in those days, and to a large extent, that’s the way it was played.

Obviously, the evolution of the game in recent seasons—pick any number of seasons, really; the rate of change in basic gameplay at the MLB level only seems to be accelerating—has changed what we identify as the crucial elements of a winning team. It’s also changed the dynamic of every conversation about winning teams that we have, especially winning teams like the Royals. There’s a tension here, a tension that wouldn’t have existed in those days when strikeout rates weren’t at the top of everyone’s keyword list. Contact rates have been not only exalted as the key to winning playoff series and the last bastion of the old way of doing things, but tied (implicitly and explicitly) to other traits that help shape the narrative of a winning team. So it is with the Royals, whom Adam Kilgore recently presented as the newest practitioners of Moneyball. They’ve focused on defense and contact, Kilgore said, and that’s allowed them to avoid the pitfalls associated with chasing homers and high-octane pitchers on the open market. The theory is that contact is cheap. Gloves are cheap. It’s the big hitters and the big-name hurlers who lead free-agent teams astray. Teams can solve a lot of problems, under this theory, by embracing the need for more contact and addressing their whiff issues.

Here’s the thing: none of that is really true. Last winter, R.J. Anderson listed eight position players among out 11 top free agents. Here they are:

Free Agent Position Players, 2014-15



Hanley Ramirez

4 years, $88 million (plus $22 million vesting opt.)

Pablo Sandoval

5 years, $95 million (plus $17 million club opt.)

Russell Martin

5 years, $82 million

Victor Martinez

4 years, $68 million

Nelson Cruz

4 years, $57 million

Melky Cabrera

3 years, $42 million

Chase Headley

4 years, $52 million

Nick Markakis

4 years, $44 million

There are some truly disastrous deals on this list, like the ones signed by Sandoval (13.1-percent career strikeout rate through 2014) and Martinez (6.5 percent strikeout rate in 2014). There are others that could easily break either way. There’s just one clear home run, though, one deal that has paid off and more, and it belongs to Nelson Cruz—who struck out 140 times in the season before signing that deal, and 164 times in his 5.4-WARP, .331 TAv debut season with the Mariners.

That’s a small sample, and probably a misleading example. Let’s zoom out. Here are the seven teams who struck out the most in 2014; the measures they took to reduce their whiff rates in 2015; and the results of those efforts.

1. Cubs – 2014 Strikeout Rate: 24.2 Percent

The Cubs went into last winter knowing they needed to make significant changes to their roster, but they didn’t believe the principal problem was a lack of contact. They made a low-level trade aimed directly at improving contact rate, spinning off spare-part reliever Arodys Vizcaino for contact-heavy infielder Tommy La Stella. The rest of their moves (and non-moves), though, were aimed at improving the club’s walk rate and overall offensive ability. They succeeded: the team scored nearly half a run more in 2015. They walked at a 9.2-percent clip, up from 7.2 percent in 2014. They also plunged the bulk of their resources into run prevention, enormously improving their team pitch-framing, and adding both Jon Lester and Jason Hammel (for a total of $175 million). 2015 Strikeout Rate: 24.5 Percent

2. Astros – 2014 Strikeout Rate: 23.9 Percent

Second verse, same as the first. The Astros didn’t believe their strikeouts caused their ineptitude. Rather, strikeouts were and are a staple of the team’s offense. What the Astros needed was more power, and they got it by trading for Evan Gattis and signing Colby Rasmus. They did sign Jed Lowrie, but by the end of the season, he was just a nice option off the bench. The Astros scored 3.88 runs per game in 2014, and 4.50 runs per game in 2015. They did almost everything better. They certainly hit a lot of home runs. They just didn’t strike out much less. 2015 Strikeout Rate: 22.9 Percent

3. Marlins – 2014 Strikeout Rate: 22.9 Percent

Now, the fun starts. The Marlins took their whiff rate very seriously last winter. They dealt Nate Eovaldi, a good and very hard-throwing young starter, to New York, to add the strikeout-averse Martin Prado to the middle of their lineup. They signed Ichiro (and then actually played him, a lot!). They cut bait with Jarrod Saltalamacchia after a mind-bogglingly insignificant 33 plate appearances. In their biggest move of the winter, they coughed up Austin Barnes, Chris Hatcher, Andrew Heaney, and Kike Hernandez for, more or less, Dee Gordon, because Gordon is a leadoff hitter who strikes out less than 15 percent of the time. Gordon is a better player than many people ever thought he would be, and he had a great year. The Marlins, though, scored 0.2 fewer runs per game in 2015, and even if Giancarlo Stanton hadn’t gotten hurt, they’d have been terrible. 2015 Strikeout Rate: 19.2 Percent

4. Braves – 2014 Strikeout Rate: 22.6 Percent

The Braves signed one of those uninspiring, undamaging, middle-of-the-road free-agent deals this winter, bringing in Nick Markakis. They also traded away Gattis and both brothers Upton. This was a special case, because the Braves were intentionally blowing things up for the purposes of rebuilding. Still, in the choice to trade away Gattis (with four years of team control remaining) and in the selection of Markakis as their lone free-agent target, they made clear that contact would be a priority in the new offense they were trying to build. They scored precisely as many runs doing things that way (3.54 per game) as they did in 2014. 2015 Strikeout Rate: 18.4 Percent

5. White Sox – 2014 Strikeout Rate: 22.4 Percent

Melky Cabrera helped bring down the Sox’s strikeout rate in 2015. They also went out and signed Adam LaRoche, though, and LaRoche struck out plenty. They angled for an upgrade at positions of major need, and ignored pretty much everything else. They failed, miserably, dropping from 4.07 to 3.84 runs per game because Cabrera and LaRoche and many of the incumbent Sox underperformed, but their approach to strike-zone control was neither an asset nor a liability. 2015 Strikeout Rate: 20.3 Percent

6. Padres – 2014 Strikeout Rate: 21.9 Percent

It was A.J. Preller who gobbled up the two Uptons the Braves no longer wanted. It was Preller, too, who traded away Yasmani Grandal and for Derek Norris—taking a big hit in contact rate at catcher, but shifting some resources around and not losing much in terms of overall value. Every move Preller made either ignored contact rate, or favored power over contact. Those moves worked, too: the Padres scored 4.01 runs per game this year, up from 3.30 in 2014. The problem was that he made those upgrades without defense in mind, and the team’s run prevention went sour. 2015 Strikeout Rate: 22.1 Percent

7. Red Sox – 2014 Strikeout Rate: 21.5 Percent

The Sox succeeded at scaling back their strikeout rate in 2015. They also succeeded at scoring more runs, jumping from 3.91 runs per game in 2014 to 4.62 in 2015. The Ramirez and Sandoval deals are bad, but they did provide something at the plate, and they certainly weren’t strikeout-prone. Organic improvement came from within, as the Sox gave Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts full-time jobs. If they’d counted more on that and less on the perceived security of deals with Sandoval and Ramirez, they’d have been better off, not only because they could probably have scored at least as many runs without them, but because they diverted their resources toward those unhelpful deals. The Red Sox’s run prevention was a disaster this season. Their efforts to improve their offense, and particularly their strikeout rate, are a key reason. 2015 Strikeout Rate: 18.4 Percent

Here’s how I’d summarize the lessons here.

  1. The correlation between contact rates and overall offensive quality is relatively low, and too much is made of the statistic, even in this high-strikeout era.
  2. Contact is a skill that costs plenty. Power isn’t that much more expensive, if it’s more expensive at all.
  3. To whatever extent contact rate correlates with defensive aptitude, it also correlates with youth. This is where there’s really no questioning the value of high-contact, balanced players. Betts and Bogaerts are perfect examples. While the Cubs and Astros did succeed with high-power, low-contact rookies on hand, the better a team can scout and develop guys who possess young-player skills, the more they can focus their resources—free-agent expenditures, prospects dealt away, etc.—on acquiring the expensive older players who do old-player things well.

It’s not that the Royals aren’t driven by their contact rate and their defense and their speed. They are. It’s just that that’s not the full story, and if the A’s had finished them off in the Wild Card Game last September, we wouldn’t be hearing half as much about it—even though the A’s, in 2014 and 2015, played very good defense and avoided strikeouts well, themselves. The Royals are here as much because they signed a DH coming off a terrible season (Kendrys Morales) to a two-year, $17-million deal last winter, as because they traded for the high-contact bat and able, versatile glove of Ben Zobrist in July. If they weren’t here, the best reason one could give might be the four-year, $40-million deal they gave to Omar Infante two years ago. Infante’s a high-contact, good-glove second baseman. He was also one of the worst players in baseball this season.

Maybe contact is a skill that plays up in October, but even if that’s true, October is a privilege, not a right. Over the long haul of the regular season, a team still has to use finite resources to cobble together the best set of players they can, and it’s often inefficient and even counterproductive to do so by prioritizing balls in play.