Rob Deer, Jose Hernandez, and Pete Incaviglia walk into a bar… 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 thought I’d also add that it would be interesting to see a pitcher’s K rates compared to their own K rates as they throw more pitches. That should sidestep that particular selection bias. I imagine it’s hard to do, though.

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.

Further Reading

Ryan Wilkins, Baseball Prospectus Basics – Just Another Out?”: A look at whether the strikeout is a worse out than any other, and what hitter strikeouts portend for other aspects of performance.

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.

Craig Elsten, “The Strikeout Chase” and Rany Jazayerli, “Doctoring the Numbers – Of Hits and Misses”: Two different looks at players chasing other strikeout records.

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 contact… 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.”

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