Exploring the Whiff

As a dedicated Fantasy Baseball participant for 35+ years, I’ll readily admit that studying baseball analytics has been a productive endeavor. Over the years, many of the Old Duck’s accumulated championships have been a direct result of understanding statistics such as OPS, FIP, BABIP and so many more. Debates have ensued with numerous friends from my generation who think it is all a bunch of hooey and that seeing a player with your eyes is all you need. You only need to watch “Moneyball” and focus on the scene where Billy Beane tries to convince his scouts how important it is to prioritize OBP.

With that being said, watching baseball still influences my decision making. As a fan, the game has changed dramatically over the last 15 years to the point where executives and pundits are more and more concerned with the increase in the “three true outcomes” (Home Runs, Strikeouts & Walks) leading to less action on the field. The part of me that is old school finds the ultimate frustration is that players no longer seem to care when they strike out. For 2021, the strikeout rate for all batters is 24%…an increase of almost 50% in those 15 years. Gone are the days of “putting the ball in play” and making “productive outs”. And, if you’re wondering why shifting works so well, maybe it’s because hitters aren’t willing to adapt.   

Of course, there are other factors. For the most part, starting pitchers don’t face a line-up more than twice and it seems that every arm coming out of the bullpen throws 95 mph. But isn’t it possible that the way to neutralize that impact is by having better plate discipline and changing the two-strike approach at the plate? Swinging for the fences is no longer limited to power hitters….the stats and your eyes tell you that.

Let’s look at Niko Goodrum of the Tigers, who is on the roster of one of my Fantasy teams. He is best described as a “Utility” player, as he can play multiple positions. Now in his 5th season with the Bengals at age 29, his stats (as of 5/18) include a .226 BA with 4 HR’s, 10 RBI’s & 7 SB’s. Not overly impressive but somewhat helpful in a deep Fantasy league (due to the SB’s). However, if you look more closely, you’ll find that he leads all of baseball in one particular stat…he’s struck out in 39.7% of his AB’s. You might expect that from a free-swinging power hitter, but not from a player with 37 lifetime HR’s. Wouldn’t he be a more productive player if he could cut that number down to even the 24% league average? And, being that he has good speed, wouldn’t a few more balls in play equate to more hits?

So, for those who take the position that strikeouts don’t really matter and that “an out is just an out”, let’s use analytics to ponder the question. One new-age stat that seems to have widespread acceptance is WAR (Wins Above Replacement). It uses statistics to determine how many more wins a team would accumulate when comparing a particular player to a replacement level player. This has become a reliable measure for writers, especially when it comes to MVP voting. The challenge is figuring out if a player can have a decent WAR rating if he strikes out a significant percentage of the time. This might seem like a daunting task, but it turns out to be rather easy. With 25% of the season in the books, here are the 20 players with a WAR number of 1.5 or better…

  1. Mike Trout 2.5
  2. Xander Bogaerts 2.3
  3. Vladimir Guerrero 2.3
  4. Trea Turner 2.1
  5. Kris Bryant 2.0
  6. Ronald Acuna Jr. 2.0
  7. Nick Castellanos 2.0
  8. Nolan Arenado 1.9
  9. J.D. Martinez 1.8
  10.  Max Muncy 1.8
  11. Cedric Mullins II 1.7
  12. Aaron Judge 1.6
  13. Bryce Harper 1.6
  14. Isiah Kiner-Falefa 1.6
  15. Jose Ramirez 1.6
  16. Yuli Gurriel 1.6
  17. Adolis Garcia 1.5
  18. Tim Anderson 1.5
  19. Trent Grisham 1.5
  20. J.T. Realmuto 1.5

Our next top 20 list will highlight the players who have struck out at least 29% of the time…

  1. Niko Goodrum 39.7%
  2. Javier Baez 38.0%
  3. Willy Adames 35.8%
  4. Joey Gallo 34.9%
  5. Michael A. Taylor 34.1%
  6. Matt Chapman 33.3%
  7. Eugenio Suarez 33.1%
  8. Adam Duvall 32.1%
  9. Dylan Moore 32.1%
  10. Garrett Cooper 31.5%
  11. Jackie Bradley Jr. 31.4%
  12. Franmil Reyes 31.3%
  13. Justin Upton 31.0%
  14. Willi Castro 30.7%
  15. Dansby Swanson 30.5%
  16. Brandon Lowe 30.5%
  17. Randy Arozarena 30.5%
  18. Ryan Mountcastle 30.0%
  19. Hunter Dozier 29.8%
  20. Shohei Ohtani 29.4%

More than half of these players have 5 HR’s or less.

Now, look at the two lists one more time. Did you notice that not a single player appears on both lists? If you became a major league hitting coach tomorrow, what advice would you give? The best WAR on the second list is Ohtani at 1.3…and he’s leading the league in HR’s.

That’s my rant for today. Now, I can go back to looking at box scores where my “punch n’ judy” hitters go 0-for-4 with 3 K’s.


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