Would you be a more successful Fantasy player if you were sequestered following the Draft and not allowed to watch baseball during the season? After all, enthusiasts of this endeavor are the lords of statistics, aren’t we? We’re Moneyball as opposed to “Old School”, SABRmetricians first and Scouts second and always in Brian Kenny’s corner when he’s debating Harold Reynolds.
As with most questions, there isn’t a simple answer. Can any of us deny that we’ve allowed what we see on the field to impact our opinion of a player despite what the statistical analysis might say? Haven’t we all traded or dropped a player too soon because he looked terrible in a game we happened to be watching? And what could possibly look worse than a member of your team striking out three times in a game (“Hat Trick”), four times in a game (“Golden Sombrero”) or even the dreaded five times in a game (“Platinum Fedora”)? So, let’s take a closer look at what you may call the “K”, the “Punchout” or the “Whiff”.
Some baseball statistics are difficult to analyze while others just jump off the page. One easy to decipher trend is that since 2007, more batters are striking out every season for a total increase of 27% over that period. In fact, each of the last ten seasons have set a new record in the history of baseball, with 2018’s number at 8.5 batters per game. Earlier this month, the Cubs & Mets played an extra inning game where one team struck out 24 times and the other 15 times…there were three “Hat Tricks” and two “Golden Sombreros” in the same game! In 1941, Joe DiMaggio & Ted Williams combined for 997 AB’s…and struck out a total of 40 times! There are numerous theories about this increase and most have a persuasive argument. It certainly isn’t a coincidence that strikeouts have gone up and batting average has gone down every year since the Mitchell Report was released and stronger PED testing became part of the baseball landscape. In 2007, MLB BA was .268 and Slugging Percentage was .423. So far in 2018 (through June 16th), the numbers are .245 & .405.
An easy explanation is that hitters are compensating by swinging harder in an attempt to hit for power. Another factor is that Pitchers are throwing at a higher velocity than ever before and starters are generally being removed before facing the opposing line-up a third time. For those of us who cling to our memories of the 50’s & 60’s when 300 IP was common, this means that a tiring starting pitcher is being replace in the 6th or 7th inning by someone like Jordan Hicks (100 mph average fastball), Tayron Guerrero (98.7 mph) or Joe Kelly (97.8 mph). While all this makes sense, the real question is what has happened to plate discipline? And how does this impact your Fantasy team?
Intuitively, it seems that there are categories of strikeouts that are significantly different when we watch the game. There’s a great pitch that fools the batter for a called third strike. Or a 95+ mph fastball in the strike zone that the hitter just can’t catch up with. Worst of all, however, is when your Fantasy stud swings at pitches out of the zone and ends up heading for the dugout. If you believe that last example seems to be happening to your team at a higher rate than in the past, you are absolutely correct. A recently developed stat is called “O-Swing %” and it tracks the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone. In 2005, that percentage was 20.3% and by 2018, it has increased to 30.3%.
Even though Ted Williams once said that “Pitchers are dumb”, they are at least smart enough to figure out that if they don’t need to throw strikes to get you out, they won’t throw you strikes. And that leads us to the implications for your Fantasy team. While it appears that the players we draft aren’t going back to the days of making more contact and creating productive outs (that add RBI’s), there still seems to be a number of ways to look at hitters when it comes to strikeouts.
First, there are the free swingers who have some semblance of plate discipline. A few years ago, the poster boy for this type of hitter was always Adam Dunn. While he struck out at a very high rate, he also managed to accumulate a large number of base on balls including over 100 walks in eight different seasons. So, his 2,379 K’s were partially offset by his 1,317 walks leading to a respectable On Base Percentage (OPB) of .364 and a On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) of .854. During that time, he also hit over 450 Home Runs and had over 1,100 RBI’s making him a productive member of his actual baseball team and your Fantasy squad.
To prove how productive this type of player can be for your team, let’s look at some numbers as we get close to the 1/2 mark of the 2018 season. Aaron Judge of the Yankees has struck out 91 times but also has managed 48 walks while producing a .397 OBP & .963 OPS. Paul Goldschmidt of the D’Backs has been punched out 86 times but also has 39 walks giving him a .370 OBP & .883 OPS. If we own either of these players, are we concerned that they may strike out 150 times this year?
Second, there are the free swingers that don’t seem to have a handle on the strike zone. Joey Gallo of the Rangers has 106 strikeouts and 30 walks while Yoan Moncada of the White Sox has 97 strikeouts with only 26 BB’s. Their Home Runs don’t make up for that kind of performance. Chris Davis of the Orioles has 86 K’s and 19 BB’s resulting in an embarrassing WAR number of -2.2. The Marlins keep Lewis Brinson in the line-up because they have no choice but his 78 K’s & 10 BB’s equals almost no value to the team. Despite the athletic ability, Billy Hamilton has put his career in jeopardy with 72 K’s and 26 BB’s…from a player who doesn’t hit the ball 200 feet.
Third of course, are the players we all desire. The guys who command the strike zone and give us the categories we need to defeat our evil adversaries. How about the Angels Mike Trout with 60 K’s, 60 BB, .328 BA and 1.147 OPS? Or the Red Sox Mookie Betts line of 31 K’s, 26 BB, .340 BA and 1.115 OPS? Is Freddie Freeman a MVP candidate with 53 K’s, 42 BB’s, a .342 BA and 1.012 OPS? Was signing Lorenzo Cain a good move for the Brewers? How about 48 K’s, 42 BB’s, .291 BA & .839 OPS…not to mention Gold Glove caliber defense in CF. Is Jose Ramirez for real? His numbers of 36 K’s, 40 BB’s, .288 BA and .989 OPS gives you the answer. Find players with more walks than strikeouts (Joey Votto is another) and you’ll be in the pennant race.
It doesn’t appear that we’re going back to the days of contact hitters anytime soon, but looking at the stats a little more closely will help your team be more successful.