Saturday, February 7, 2015

It's the Strikeouts, Stupid



Strikeouts are getting a lot of attention these days. Strikeouts have been climbing, and in the swift reaction to shiftgate, strikeouts were pointed to as the real issue behind the decline in offense. The Royals became a true outlier by making the World Series, riding a lineup that didn’t have a lot of power or take a lot of walks but was incredibly good at putting the ball in play and not striking out. A lot has been made about the Nationals strike out tendencies. Is it really the issue it has been made out to be?

First, let’s take a look at how the Nationals as a team stacked up in 2014 versus the rest of the league. Here is a chart with all teams and their respective K%, BB%, wOBA, and runs scored in 2014:

Team
HR
R
BB%
K%
wOBA
Royals
95
651
6.30%
16.30%
0.306
Athletics
146
729
9.40%
17.70%
0.312
Rays
117
612
8.50%
18.10%
0.305
Tigers
155
757
7.10%
18.40%
0.331
Cardinals
105
619
7.70%
18.60%
0.308
Yankees
147
633
7.40%
18.60%
0.305
Blue Jays
177
723
8.10%
18.70%
0.325
Indians
142
669
8.10%
19.10%
0.313
Diamondbacks
118
615
6.50%
19.10%
0.300
Rangers
111
637
6.90%
19.30%
0.305
Brewers
150
650
7.00%
19.70%
0.313
Pirates
156
682
8.40%
20.00%
0.325
Dodgers
134
718
8.30%
20.00%
0.327
Angels
155
773
7.80%
20.10%
0.321
Giants
132
665
7.00%
20.50%
0.308
Mets
125
629
8.40%
20.60%
0.299
Mariners
136
634
6.60%
20.60%
0.299
Rockies
186
755
6.40%
20.80%
0.337
Reds
131
595
6.90%
20.90%
0.294
Nationals
152
686
8.30%
21.00%
0.317
Orioles
211
705
6.50%
21.00%
0.323
Phillies
125
619
7.10%
21.10%
0.295
Twins
128
715
8.70%
21.30%
0.316
Red Sox
123
634
8.60%
21.50%
0.305
Padres
109
535
7.90%
21.90%
0.283
White Sox
155
660
6.90%
22.40%
0.312
Braves
123
573
7.80%
22.60%
0.296
Marlins
122
645
8.10%
22.90%
0.307
Astros
163
629
8.20%
23.80%
0.308
Cubs
157
614
7.20%
24.20%
0.303

Well, the narrative isn’t baseless. The Nationals ranked in 20th place in K% in 2014 and 10th in the National League. However, the Nationals came in 8th in both BB% and wOBA (a weighted measure of total offensive output), which lead to a 9th place finish in total runs scored. So while the Nationals were tied with the Orioles for the worst K% team to make the playoffs, they came in behind a Diamondbacks team that was so good at avoiding strikeouts, they avoided the playoffs all together. If you want a stat that is a better measure of offensive output, wOBA is the stat. Of the top 8 wOBA teams in 2014, 7 were playoff teams or wild card contenders, plus the Rockies who get the benefit of playing at altitude and have historically put up above average numbers due to the impact of their home field.

So that’s the story on 2014. What might 2015 look like? The lineup looks a little different heading into the upcoming season. Here is the ideal starting position players in 2015 presented with their 2014 BB%, K%, the league average K% for their position in 2014, and their 2014 wOBA:

Avg K%
7.50%
9.70%
20.60%
0.341
8.10%
11.30%
17.70%
0.299
8.50%
15.20%
18.10%
0.361
9.20%
15.40%
21.30%
0.346
4.70%
15.80%
21.20%
0.306
13.20%
18.00%
20.60%
0.377
9.60%
26.30%
20.60%
0.338
7.10%
28.20%
19.70%
0.329





The first thing that pops out to me is that the Nationals have only one player significantly under the league average in BB% of 7.6%. Span and Desmond are straddling the line of the league average, and we already know Wilson Ramos struggles taking a walk, but the rest of the lineup is significantly above average in taking a walk. Come to think of it, a majority of the lineup is pretty stellar at avoiding the strikeouts too. Only Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper strike out at a rate higher than their position peers, but considering the league average wOBA is .310, the strikeouts don’t hold them back offensively.

So the Nationals do strikeout at a somewhat elevated rate, but it hasn’t yet affected their offensive output. In an increasingly pitcher friendly era, thanks to an increasingly growing strike zone, most of the Nationals starters post better than league average strikeout rates but, most importantly, above league average wOBA. While it’s an easy stat to point to, strike out rate doesn’t dictate offense, otherwise the Rays would have been a playoff team last year. It plays a part in total offensive output, obviously, but if you can put the ball in play with solid contact when you do, those hard hit balls have the ability to outweigh the negative of the strikeouts. And heading into the 2015 season, the Nationals look like a team that could slug well enough to offset the strikeouts.

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