There was a lot of good email from last week’s column, so let’s just dig in. Reader D.D. had some comments about the note on which I finished up last week’s talk of strikeout rates:

I’m sure you’ll address this, and have already thought of it, but when you mention ‘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?’

But there’s some selection bias at work here too, right? In other words, to stick around for enough PA’s to qualify for your single-season or career lists while striking out in more than a third of them, a player had better be pretty damn good at things other than making contact. If Neifi Perez struck out as much as Rob Deer did, he would never have stuck around for so long (of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing).

I must be telegraphing my punches, because D.D.’s absolutely right. The PA and career strikeout minimums we required to make the strikeout kings lists coherent also virtually guarantee that many of the high-strikeout mavens would not suck-since guys who whiff a lot and also don’t hit are unlikely to stick around to collect 500 plate appearances in a season, or strike out 500 times for their career. It’s a little like losing 20 games-you usually have to be a pretty good pitcher to have the opportunity to lose that much.

To shed some light on this topic, let’s look at some analogous lists, this time with pitchers:

Career Walk Rate, 1959-Present (min. 650 career walks)
Name                BB     PA   BB Rate  EqERA
Bobby Witt        1375  11003   12.50%   4.81
Sam McDowell      1312  10589   12.39%   3.85
Nolan Ryan        2795  22575   12.38%   3.90
Blue Moon Odom     788   6531   12.07%   5.15
Russ Ortiz         805   6875   11.71%   4.73
Tom Griffin        768   6567   11.69%   5.00
Shawn Estes        840   7205   11.66%   4.87
J.R. Richard       769   6669   11.53%   4.00
Al Leiter         1163  10334   11.25%   4.01
Jamey Wright       753   6761   11.14%   4.88

Now, this is our first peek at another non-contact result that some consider the opposite of the strikeout-the walk. Walks aren’t even arguably the worst thing that can happen to a pitcher on the mound-the home run is almost as difficult to defend, and its impact is far more immediate-but as the second coming of Rick Ankiel reminds us, few things can derail a pitching career faster than a loss of control. Alongside their walk rates, I’ve given you these guys’ normalized career ERAs or ‘EqERAs,’ taken from the translated stats section of the DT Player Cards. The translated stats are set up so that the average pitcher’s EqERA is 4.50, and as you can see, a number of these high-walk pitchers still managed to pitch pretty well.

Highest Unintentional Walk Rates, 1959-Present (min. 150 IP)
    Year  Name           IP      PA   BB  UBB Rate  K Rate  EqERA
 1. 1986  Bobby Witt    157.2   741  143  19.03%    23.48%   5.51
 2. 1991  Randy Johnson 201.1   889  152  17.10%    25.65%   4.10
 3. 1959  Herb Score    160.2   712  115  16.15%    20.65%   5.67
 4. 1971  Nolan Ryan    152.0   705  116  15.89%    19.43%   5.30
 5. 1992  Randy Johnson 210.1   922  144  15.51%    26.14%   4.17
 6. 1977  Nolan Ryan    299.0  1272  204  15.49%    26.81%   3.08
 7. 1991  Jose DeJesus  181.2   801  128  15.48%    14.73%   3.98
 8. 1975  Nolan Ryan    198.0   864  132  15.28%    21.53%   4.08
 9. 1975  J.R. Richard  203.0   905  138  15.25%    19.45%   5.30
10. 1976  Nolan Ryan    284.1  1195  183  15.15%    27.36%   3.98

This search is refined slightly, so that we’re looking at the unintentional walk rates of the pitchers in our database. This eliminates the element of managerial interference, and gives us a more direct view of the pitcher’s control, or lack thereof. As it stands, we get a Hall of Famer (Nolan Ryan) another guy who’s a lock to join him (Randy Johnson), plus two fellows (J.R. Richard and Herb Score) who had some nice years before their careers were cut short by devastating injuries, three if you count Jose DeJesus blowing out his elbow after his breakout season in Philly. All of the pitchers except DeJesus maintained well above-average strikeout rates. As we can see by his prominent placement on both lists, Bobby Witt was the somewhat more successful pitching counterpart of Dave Nicholson-a man beset upon by people who thought they could fix his inability to stay within the strike zone. I guess every pitching coach wants to be the guy who puts the glasses on Rick Vaughn.

Getting back to strikeouts again, reader M.P. chimed in with another observation:

One thing that seems noteworthy is that the top two rates for career percentage K rate are actually higher than the all-time season tops. I cannot think of a single other stat where that is the case-nor even many where it is feasible. What a strange stat!

I think this is another effect of the selection bias attendant to the minimums we set last time, and the fact that, for hitters, strikeouts are a negative stat; even if you’re in the camp that says that a strikeout is just another out, a high-strikeout hitter is someone who’s adept at making that certain kind of out. So you’re likely to see careers where that player’s playing time at the major league level comes in smaller pieces than, say, a hitter who’s extremely adept at hitting home runs.

For example, setting the leaderboard’s minimums to 400 plate appearances, rather than 500, yields an entirely new set of leaders:

Season Strikeout Rate, 1959-Present (min. 400 PA)
     Year  Player          Pos    G     PA    K    K Rate
1.   1997  Melvin Nieves    RF   114   405   157   38.77%
2.   1987  Bo Jackson       LF   116   434   158   36.41%
3.   2002  Russell Branyan  LF   128   435   151   34.71%
4.   2002  Jared Sandberg   3B   101   401   139   34.66%
5.   1963  Dave Nicholson   LF   125   520   175   33.65%
6.   1987  Rob Deer         LF   134   566   186   32.86%
7.   1986  Rob Deer         RF   134   546   179   32.78%
8.   1988  Pete Incaviglia  LF   115   467   153   32.76%
9.   1996  Melvin Nieves    RF   120   484   158   32.65%
10.  1991  Rob Deer         RF   133   539   175   32.47%

As you can see, lowering the threshold drops the protagonist of last week’s column, Dave Nicholson, into fifth place. In the interest of saving space, I’m linking the sortable stat reports where lower minimums are set. (WARNING: These are authors-only “all years” searches, that are, for most intents and purposes, “read only” reports; sadly, you won’t be able to perform any “all years” searches of your own, you’ll only be able to look at the ones that I’ve already set up. Sorry for the inconvenience.) At 300 plate appearances, Nicholson’s 1963 season drops to tenth place, and lower the threshhold down to 200 plate appearances, seventeenth place.

If you’ll indulge me one more reader mail, we’ll move this discussion of batter’s strikeouts along. Frank Greenberg writes in:

I know that you people in general are proponents of players who go deep into pitch counts. While no one can doubt some of its effectiveness (building up pitch counts in starting pitchers) it is also taking the aggressiveness out of the game. I am 62 years old, as a kid we were always told with two strikes on you protect the plate, if it’s close, swing or at least try to foul it off. Not any more-players now take pitches with two strikes and pray that the umpire calls it a ball. Players seem to be just as happy to walk and, let the next guy worry about driving in the run.

I am a Red Sox fan and the number of called third strikes they take is unbelievable. Kevin Youkilis, who I think is the most overrated player in the American League, is the master. He strikes out like a power hitter and then complains about it.

Explain to me taking two fast balls down the middle and then having to swing at a pitch in the dirt or outside the strike zone?

Leaving a few things aside (such as the fact that Youkilis’s strikeout rate this year, 15.13%, is below the league average of 16.78%) what is the deal with stathead types actually favoring guys that whiff a lot? If the strikeout is the pitcher’s most powerful weapon, and a high strikeout rate is an important signpost of his future success, how can it also be that a high strikeout rate is a good thing for hitters, too?

The idea is that high strikeout rates bring with them things that you want out of a batter-more walks and more power. But in the Prospectus Basics article on strikeouts I referenced last week, the correlation between strikeouts and walks is tenuous (many studies suggest there’s no connection at all) and the correlation between strikeouts and isolated power, while positive, isn’t terribly strong.

The question might boil down to an issue of style. Not all whiff-prone batters are the same-some strike out a lot because they go deep into counts looking for good pitches to drive, others strike out a lot because they go up to the plate hacking away like a guy trying to break open a piñata full of diamonds. There’s an ongoing nature/nurture debate over these two types of hitters, with nurture types (like Mr. Greenberg seems to be) alternately accusing the hackers of not being taught discipline, and the “take and rakers” of not being taught to hit aggressively.

The nature argument posits that these two types of hitters exist because of skill sets each naturally possesses, and that it’s like trying to beat a square peg into a round hole if you insist that hacker work the count, or that a take-and-rake guy expand the strike zone. If you believe that, the key thing is to identify the best of each world, and let them be themselves-don’t try to force David Ortiz to hit like Ichiro Suzuki, or vice versa.

The answer is probably somewhere in between. I’ll leave you with one more list, of strikeout rates for swinging and called strikeouts, which we’ll discuss next time.

Season Called/Swinging Strikeout Rates, 1999-Present (min. 500 PA)
Year  Name         Called K%   Year  Name             Swinging K%
2006  Pat Burrell    11.11%    2002  Jose Hernandez   25.77%
2002  Ben Grieve     11.05%    2001  Jose Hernandez   24.66%
2004  Mark Bellhorn  10.81%    2003  Jose Hernandez   24.52%
2001  Luis Castillo  10.29%    1999  Preston Wilson   21.55%
2001  Ben Grieve     10.17%    2004  Jose Valentin    21.23%
2005  Pat Burrell    10.16%    2000  Preston Wilson   21.07%
2002  Mike Cameron   10.00%    2001  Jim Thome        20.81%
2001  Pat Burrell     9.71%    2001  Richie Sexson    20.69%
2004  Adam Dunn       9.69%    2003  Sammy Sosa       20.20%
2000  Jim Edmonds     9.49%    2000  Richie Sexson    20.10%

Further Reading

James Click, Crooked Numbers, “Protons:Electrons::Swinging:Looking”: A look at swinging and called strikeouts, from a pitcher’s perspective.

Tom Tango, “Strikeouts-Just Another Out?”: A study examining the effect on player performance of a substantial increase or decrease in strikeout rate.

Russel Carleton, “Is Walk the Opposite of Strikeout?” in By the Numbers, Feb. 2007: A more academic approach, looking at the relationship between walks and strikeouts.

Nate Silver, Lies, Damn Lies, “Strikeouts and Hitter Projections”: Nate discusses the role of strikeouts as a positive value in projecting hitter performance, and the distinction between early-count and late-count hitters.

William Burke and Jason Pare contributed indispensable research to this article.

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