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.
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.