2014 Fantasy Baseball: Hitter Strikeout Rate Standouts
Roughly 20 percent of the Major League Baseball regular season is in the books, which isn’t much, but it means that stats are starting to become more meaningful. A former colleague of mine, Derek Carty, discussed in length when hitter stats stabilize for Baseball Prospectus back in June of 2011. It’s a free article, so have no fear if you don’t have a Baseball Prospectus subscription, and the article is well worth a read. Anyways, the first stats to stabilize for hitters are plate discipline stats such as walks, intentional walks, and strikeouts. Strikeouts are the first to stabilize, and it takes 100 of what I’ll call “useful” plate appearances (plate appearances minus intentional walks and hit by pitches) to do so. With many players having already reached the “useful” plate appearance threshold, I decided to sort by strikeout percentage, both positively and negatively, on the league leader board found at FanGraphs. A few players stood out to me as being more interesting than the others.
*Strikeout percentages and player ranks are current as of prior to game play on Tuesday.
The Good (Rank is from lowest to highest, thus essentially best to worst)
1st- Victor Martinez, 3.5 percent
Holy cow! Martinez is the only player that’s striking out in under five percent of his plate appearances, and his strikeout rate is two percent lower than the next closest qualified player, Andrelton Simmons. His strikeout rate will rise. Next. Just kidding, that wouldn’t be a terribly informative write-up for Martinez now would it?
The Tigers primary designated hitter hasn’t struck out in more than 10 percent of his plate appearances since the 2009 season (he did miss the entire 2012 season), so a low strikeout rate is nothing new to the 35-year old. His high contact approach has helped fuel a .303 career average and four straight seasons of an average north of .300. Martinez’s plate discipline numbers this season look really similar to his from the 2011 season, so I’d guess going forward this season his strikeout rate will settle around his 8.6 percent mark from that season. The take away with Martinez is that he’ll continue to make a lot of contact and continue to hit for a sky high average thank in large part to his contact skills.
7th- Charlie Blackmon, 7.7 percent
Blackmon is a really fun guy to look at because he has a small MLB track record and gamers are still left to formulate an opinion on what exactly he is. What the 27-year old outfielder is looking like is the real deal, not sub-10 percent strikeout rate real deal, but darn good nonetheless. He struck out in just 13.7 percent of his 299 plate appearances at the Triple-A level last year, but his strikeout rate rose to 19.0 percent in 258 plate appearances in the majors after his promotion.
Glancing at his plate discipline stats available at FanGraphs leads me to believe his 2014 strikeout rate is going to settle in awfully close to his 2013 Triple-A mark of 13.7 percent. Blackmon has been much more selective this year shaving his O-swing (swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone) down 4.7 percent this year and his Z-swing (swing percentage on pitches in the strike zone) down 3.6 percent. When he is choosing to swing at pitcher’s offerings he’s making much more contact on both pitches in and out of the strike zone. In Blackmon’s previous three stints in the bigs his contact rates have been above the league average, so his drop in strikeout percentage from last year to this year is very legit, and his batting average floor is quite high, as is the ceiling.
12th- Albert Pujols, 9.3 percent
Pujols’ resurgence has been met by jubilation from his fantasy owners. His strikeout rate is down a few percentage points from his first two years with the Angels, and it lines up nicely with his work in his last three years with the Cardinals. Something smells a little funny here, though, the first baseman’s 8.0 percent swinging strike rate is the highest mark of his career, and his contact percentage is its lowest since 2002.
The surefire hall of famer is demonstrating more selectivity chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone, but he’s seeing fewer pitches and being attacked more frequently by pitchers. His 58.6 percent first pitch strike rate is a career high mark, and his 47.1 percent zone rate (pitches in the strike zone) is his highest mark since 2008. With pitchers going after him more often, Pujols is wasting no time attacking. ESPN offers a neat stat, pitches-per-plate appearance (P/PA), and Pujols is posting a 3.59 P/PA, the lowest mark of his career. Since Pujols is doing damage again with the stick, pitchers would be wise to adjust their approaches accordingly and pour in fewer strikes. There is no argument that Pujols rewarding his drafters, but how he handles the inevitable pitcher adjustments will determine how high the batting average is that comes with his rediscovered power. Ultimately I think a mark in the mid-.280s looks more likely than him continuing to flirt with .300.
The Bad (Rank is from highest to lowest, thus ranked from worst to best)
2nd- Justin Upton, 34.6 percent
There is a lot to like about Upton. He’s still young at just 26-years old, he has well above average raw power that has netted him three seasons of exceeding 25 homers, and he has enough speed and base running acumen to have stolen 18 or more bases each season from 2009-2012. That type of production at such as a young age is enough to get fantasy owners excited, but one disturbing trend is a sharp rise in strikeout and nose dive in contact rate.
The outfielder’s contract rate in his last four years in Arizona was between 73.2 percent and 77.1 percent, but in his first season in Atlanta last year his contact rate dropped to 71.7 percent (FanGraphs has the league average in 2013 at 79.5 percent). His swinging strike percentage of 12.3 percent last season was his highest mark since his first full season in the majors back in 2008. Both rates have slipped further, and his contact rate this year is an ugly 67.8 percent while his swinging strike percentage is 15.7. I like Upton a lot, it’s hard not to, and he remains a top notch outfielder in long-term keeper leagues, but yearly leaguers would be foolish not to shop his services. An unsustainable BABIP is propping up his batting average, and while he has a .334 BABIP for his career, some serious regression is on its way.
16th- Brandon Belt, 28.8 percent
Last year was a breakout campaign for Belt, and it was the high point of what has been something of a roller coaster ride for him in the Show. Mechanical changes made by the former Longhorn got a lot of attention, and results speak for themselves. He hit a career high 17 homers and finished the year with a career high in batting average, .289, on-base percentage (tied his 2012 OBP), .360, slugging, .481, and ISO, .229. The surface stats didn’t feature his only career highs either, his contact rate of 79.8 percent was a new best and that aided him in finishing with a career low strikeout rate of 21.9 percent.
His encore performance this year has been strange. Belt is on pace to blow by last year’s home run total as he’s nearly halfway to last year’s total already with eight taters, but his batting average is way down. He’s taking fewer free passes, and his strikeout rate has risen to 28.8 percent. The 26-year old first baseman’s contact rate has dropped below 70 percent. Has Belt fallen in love with the long ball and traded contact for power? Perhaps. ESPN’s Hit Tracker has his average true-distance up almost five feet on his homers this year over last year. That’s far from conclusive evidence of anything, but it’s a possibility. This year and last year stand in such stark contrast to one another it is really difficult to determine what to expect from Belt for the remainder of the year. The thing I feel most comfortable suggesting is that it’s highly unlikely Belt will smoothly blend last year’s batting average with this season’s home run surge. It looks like it’s one or the other.
27th- Mike Trout, 27.5 percent
I’ve saved the best for last, literally. Trout has been a five category monster, and he and Miguel Cabrera jostled for number one pick status in many drafts this year. The insanely talented youngster is still making waves across the board, but his stolen base pace is down and his batting average is 30 points lower this year than last. Ah ha, at last! Pitchers are figuring out how to keep this once in a generation talent in check.
Not exactly. Trout’s plate discipline rates are not far off from the last two years. His contact rate has fallen below 80 percent for the first time (82.3 percent in 2013 and 81.8 percent in 2012) and sits at 78.4 percent this year, but that’s less than one percent below the league average this year. Trout’s swinging strike percentage of 8.4 is actually lower than the league average which is 9.3 percent. The funny thing is, his 27.5 percent strikeout rate is actually almost seven percent higher than what FanGraphs has as the league average (20.6 percent). No one that owns Trout was panicking anyways, but take solace in knowing that his strikeout rate will be improving greatly and his batting average should shoot past .300.