Though they might let fans down.
Strikeouts are an integral part of baseball today. You can hardly watch an inning without seeing at least one. The pitchers that get a lot of strikeouts tend to give up fewer runs, so MLB teams are always on the lookout for guys that get a lot of strikeouts.
I’ll quickly list the top 5 teams in terms of strikeouts per 9 innings this season:
- Milwaukee Brewers
- New York Mets
- Atlanta Braves
- New York Yankees
- Houston Astros
Each of these teams has managed to maximize their strikeouts this season and it has largely led to success for the team. The Brewers, Mets, Astros and Yankees are all at the top of their divisions. The Braves are just a few games behind the Mets.
The Power of Strikeouts
Strikeouts are incredibly powerful for a pitcher because it is impossible to get a hit on a strikeout. Any ball put in play has the chance of turning into a hit, even if it is hit very weakly. If you’re striking everybody out, you do not have to worry about this. With the strikeout, you can say goodbye to a lot swinging bunts and jammed bloopers over the second baseman’s head.
Teams that strikeout more batters often allow less good contact as well. Outside of the Reds and Cubs (who have struggled with giving up the long ball), every team that is above average in strikeouts per 9 is also above average in ERA+. Teams that get a lot of strikeouts usually do not have to worry about teams scoring through a combination of hits. Their stuff is too good to get multiple hits in an inning consistently.
This is the issue we see with guys like Hunter Greene and Nathan Eovaldi. They struggle with high home run rates but do not give up a lot of hits. This can be a sign of command struggles, but also may be associated with poor luck. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to a good piece of hitting. This is the one that often comes to mind for me:
Assuming most of the hits you give up are singles, which is typical for most pitchers in any given season, having the ability to limit these singles by limiting contact will give you a good baseline for being a great pitcher in the MLB. This is what we have seen with Edwin Diaz this year.
The Reign of Edwin Diaz
Edwin is having a phenomenal year this year. He currently owns a 1.51 ERA over 41 2/3 innings pitched. Diaz has had some phenomenal seasons in the past, but this year has been his best so far. The biggest reason for his success? That might be his absurd 18.1 strikeouts per 9 innings. He is averaging over 2 strikeouts an inning with 40+ innings pitched. The next closest guy with a similar amount of innings is Josh Hader with 35 innings and 15.4 strikeouts per 9 innings.
Diaz displayed the power of key strikeouts in an outing against the Yankees on July 26th. He entered the game in the top of the 8th with a runner on first and 2 outs. A home run would have tied the game, but Diaz got Gallo to swing at a slider outside of the zone for strike 3. Diaz came back out in the ninth inning to complete the save. The Mets were up 3 at this point, but let’s pretend the lead was only 1 run.
Jose Trevino started the inning off with a weak infield single. The weak contact is a good result for Diaz, but Trevino gets on base anyway. This is one example of why it is beneficial to limit contact. Diaz then strikes out DJ Lemahieu. Trevino is unable to advance on the strikeout. The Yankees’ chance of scoring a run dramatically decreases from this one strikeout. The next batter is Aaron Judge.
As you likely know, Judge is having a monstrous season. Diaz wants to eliminate the possibility of any hard contact. He gets ahead 0-2 and instead of a strikeout, it is a soft chopper back to Diaz. Diaz fields it cleanly and would likely have had a double play if he had thrown it cleanly. It slipped out of his hand though and both Trevino and Judge were safe. With 1 out and runners on first and second, there are a few ways to score a run. A soft hit single out of the infield would likely do it. A single and a sacrifice fly would do it. A deep flyout and a single might even score two runs. Instead, Diaz quickly slams the door by striking out Anthony Rizzo and following that up with a strikeout of Gleyber Torres.
In this inning, Diaz put the power of the strikeout on full display. Strikeouts get outs and they usually hold runners at their current base. Diaz is the prototypical elite pitcher in today’s game. He does not attempt to induce weak contact, he attempts to eliminate contact altogether.
Going After Hitter Weaknesses
The other argument that can be made for strikeout pitchers is the argument that batters are increasingly susceptible to strikeouts. As batters look to increase their slugging, they make less soft contact and whiff much more. A pitcher with average movement or velocity will see an average amount of whiffs, but pitchers with good velocity and movement can use it to their advantage much more than they can against pure contact hitters.
It seems to be advantageous for pitchers to seek out strikeouts, but what about batters? Should they make the shift toward a more contact-oriented approach? Why do they seem to strike out so much?
Some people will make the argument that players just want to hit home runs and look cool. They will say players have lost all appreciation for things like small ball and pressuring the defense. Maybe these are part of the conversation, but I do not think they are the main drivers of current hitting approaches.
Players are always going to look to maximize their value, which means maximizing the skills that we measure them on. When we were measuring players based on batting average, there seemed to be more players with a high batting average. Then, home runs became the main measuring stick and players hit more and more home runs. Now, OPS and wOBA are often seen as some of the top indicators of offensive performance. For simplicity, we’ll focus on OPS.
The question becomes: Does OPS give an advantage to power hitters or contact hitters? A little digging seems to show a pretty obvious answer.
To start, I want to look at Luis Arraez. Arraez is a very interesting player. In an era of baseball where strikeouts and home runs often control the sport, Arraez succeeds without doing much of either. He averages 10.4 at-bats per strikeout. That is second in the MLB, just 0.1 at-bats behind Steven Kwan. He actually has 5 home runs on the year as well. This number is nowhere near most of the high OPS guys but it is ahead of a lot of the pure contact-oriented hitters. He is most known for his batting average though, which currently sits at a pristine .334. Even so, Arraez ranks 28th in OPS. Why? His slugging ranks 65th in baseball.
A .334 might not sound like an elite batting average, but it is really high for a guy that doesn’t hit for much power. Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) measures exactly what its name says, the batting average on all balls in play (excluding home runs). The league average BABIP is .300, Arraez has averaged .344 since he entered the league in 2019. This means Arraez would hit .344 if he never struck out and did not hit any home runs. To hit higher than .344, he would need to hit about one home run for every 2 strike outs. A feat that he is not close to, even with his incredibly low strikeout rate. Since 2000, only two players have accomplished this while hitting less than 20 home runs. Tommy La Stella, whose home run rate for 2019 doesn’t match the rest of his career, and Randall Simon, who did so in 2002. The important thing to note is that contact hitters that do not hit with much power often have a ceiling that makes it difficult to hit above .350 for an extended period of time.
Joey Gallo vs. Isiah Kiner-Falefa
One of the biggest displays of the importance of power is a quick look at Joey Gallo and Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s OPS numbers. The league average OPS is currently .708. If we look at the past month, Kiner-Falefa is getting hit but has no power. Over the last 28 days, he is 24 for 80 for a .300 batting average. Of those hits, 19 are singles and 5 are doubles. One walk brings his on-base percentage to .321, while his slugging percentage sits at .363. He has a .684 OPS over those four weeks.
Gallo’s last 28 days have been completely different. He is 5 for 39 with a single, a triple, and 3 home runs. The power is there, but the average sits at .128. Being a guy that can do a lot of damage quickly, Gallo has been walked 10 times over this span. As a result, his on-base percentage is .306 and his slugging percentage is .410. This gives him a .716 OPS, above league average and above Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
Gallo displays two key principles that often allow struggling power hitters to keep pace with solid contact hitters.
The first is walks. Guys that are better at hitting home runs often force pitchers to be more careful with their pitches. Pitchers do not want the game to change on one bad pitch, so they focus more on the edge of the zone and are less likely to challenge the batter when they are behind in the count. Regardless of a hitter’s batting average, these walks add up. While Kiner-Falefa receives a .021 boost to his on-base percentage from walks, Gallo gets a huge .178 boost. That is over 8 times more.
Second, whatever gap is left after the walks are factored in, can be made up with slugging. Slugging percentage is simply the number of bases a hitter averages per at-bat. For example, a player that hits 8 singles in 20 at-bats would have a .400 slugging percentage. He averages .4 bases per at-bat. Now, this batter would also have a .400 batting average. Some quick math shows that you can also get 8 bases in 20 at-bats by hitting 2 home runs. Your batting average would be .100 in this scenario, but your slugging percentage would still be .400. Against today’s pitchers, hitting 2 home runs over 20 at-bats is a manageable task. Hitting .400 over those 20 at-bats requires more bat control and some luck to hit the ball away from fielders.
The Future of Strikeouts
In the previous example, I picked Joey Gallo for a reason. Yankees fans have been incredibly frustrated with his strikeout rate this season. They have been such a problem that his OPS for the season is actually a fair amount below average. Yet, that single OPS number is quite a bit more forgiving for Gallo than many other players. While writing this article, Gallo was traded to the Dodgers. The Dodgers were likely willing to make this move because of Gallo’s past OPS numbers. Just last year, Gallo struck out in nearly every other at-bat and still had an OPS+ of 121 (21% better than the average hitter). The Dodgers would gladly take that.
The big point here is strikeouts are here to stay. As fans, we often get frustrated with the players that repeatedly strikeout without providing any real offense. However, the players that strike out the most, often up being quite productive hitters. Among the top 10 in strikeouts this year, there are 4 All-Stars including MVP favorite Aaron Judge and runner up in the home run race, Kyle Schwarber. We know these guys strike out a lot, but their productivity and home runs often overshadows the extent of their strikeouts.
If you are not tired of strikeouts, here is Ryan Helsley using his electric stuff to strikeout a few batters: