Baseball Data Nerds Need a New Calculation for Strikeouts
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Baseball’s statisticians don’t want to fall behind the curve. Do they?
By Matt Foley and Sean Culligan
In early April, during his first week playing in front of his new home at Yankee Stadium, New York outfielder Giancarlo Stanton suffered what would have once been called the worst week in baseball history. But this is a new day, and each of our preconceived baseball notions must be reprogrammed with a microchip-size grain of salt. Or a salt-grain-size data point. Whichever you prefer.
Yes, by April 9, New York’s herculean, $325 million slugger was only the third player in Major League Baseball history to have two five-strikeout games in the same season. But what if I told you those shameful whiffs may actually be valuable? Baseball’s infatuation with sabermetrics has produced a game hellbent on power, from the mound to the batter’s box. And the data valued by front offices reflects the belief that high strikeout rates are acceptable when massive power production is the payout. So, without worry of the more than occasional miss, hitters chase the long ball — a shift from past eras, but a necessary reaction to the flamethrowing pitching stables that make manufacturing runs via small ball so difficult today. Compared with 30 years ago, the number of strikeouts per game has risen from 11 to 17.
In a game based on failure, the acceptance of failure is leading to increased success. So, who’s the best … at failing?
Gone are the days when all strikeouts were equal.
Six months after Stanton’s horrific opening week, the Yankees are contending in the postseason. The Yanks finished the regular season leading the league in home runs and were second in runs scored. But they ranked ninth in strikeouts. Stanton ranks second in all of baseball, with the Yankees’ other feared slugger, Aaron Judge, 24th despite missing more than a month due to injury. Why? Because the Yankees are good at striking out. Whether it’s stolen base probability, defensive shifts or the pursuit of power pitching and hitting, there’s a new scale weighing risk and reward among baseball’s brightest minds.
“This is a completely different ballgame,” says Mark Teixeira, the former Yankees World Series champion turned ESPN analyst. “When I came up in the early 2000s, the front office was never in the clubhouse. There were not analytical folks throwing papers in your face every day. That’s not the case anymore.”
Successful team ball has always been a function of many moving parts, but where old-school baseball minds once relied on gut feelings or the traditional “eyeball test” to make decisions, methodical, data-based verdicts have become key to success. “Play the percentages, and eventually you’ll win,” says former MLB utility man–turned–MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa. “That’s how front offices operate today.”
These days, every Major League club has dived deep down the sabermetrics rabbit hole. According to MLB Network host Brian Kenney, “It’s amazing how drastically every team has opened up to new ways of thinking.”
Ivy League mathematics majors are now more highly coveted than a 20-home-run slugger. Take Theo Epstein, the Yale graduate turned front office wunderkind who led both Boston and Chicago to curse-breaking World Series titles, who is on year two of a five-year, $25 million contract extension as president of baseball operations for the Cubs. Likewise, Dodgers President Andrew Freidman boasts a four-year, $35 million deal. Baseball nerds have officially taken over the sport, welcomed by hulking specimens like Stanton for their new, potential-maximizing thinking. The key, though, is finding an optimal balance between Excel sheet outputs and player performance. Enhanced production is rooted in players trusting the information they’re given. That’s what Epstein and Freidman have mastered, and what so many other organizations seem dedicated to deciphering.
“It’s about taking that data coupled with what we’re seeing from our players,” says Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, one of baseball’s foremost analytics-minded managers. “It’s up to us to put them in the best position to win.”
And nothing makes hitters more comfortable than the green light. With the confidence to swing freely and chase the long ball, batters’ confidence is soaring. “As a hitter, you’re trying to decipher what the pitch is and then do that incredible feat of hitting a baseball,” says former MLB manager Bobby Valentine. “Usually a hitter becomes more comfortable with the more pitches he sees.”
Gone are the days when all strikeouts were equal. A power hitter who works deep pitch counts and drives in runs is undoubtedly putting together more quality strikeouts than some free-swinging schlub, directed back to the dugout after three measly hacks. That categorical garbage is reserved for players like Baltimore’s Chris Davis, tied for fourth in MLB in strikeouts and producer of little else. But Judge and Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins, 27th in MLB in strikeouts, are highly productive strikeout victims. “[Hoskins] has the ability to foul off pitch after pitch,” says Kapler. “He has good hand-eye coordination and, eventually, he’s able to spoil a pitcher’s night.”
And isn’t that the point?