The Braves’ propensity to strikeout is something that has been discussed over and over since the preseason of 2013. We knew then the Braves would strikeout a lot but we also thought they would get on base, slug, play good defense and run the bases well. In 2013 things worked according to plan. The Braves finished fourth in the National League in runs scored, third in wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created, based on the run value of hits and walks and adjusted for league and park), and they finished first in homeruns, first in strikeouts and first in strikeout rate.
This season their offense hasn’t been nearly as good. Though they have the same strikeout rate as last season (and actually rank a little lower in the league rankings in strikeouts), they are next-to-last in runs per game, third-from-last in runs, ninth in wRC+, and tenth in homeruns. The narrative among some in the media and some fans is that without the homeruns, the strikeouts have killed them.
The problem with that way of thinking is strikeouts have never had a strong correlation to scoring runs, throughout the history of the game. Teams that score runs sometimes don’t strikeout a lot and sometimes they do, there’s no rhyme or reason for it. But getting on base and slugging, and all related statistics, do indeed have a strong correlation to scoring runs. So if the Braves or any team isn’t getting on base and gaining bases through a certain amount of power, the team isn’t going to score runs regardless of strikeouts.
All of this is apparent if you just look at the Braves of 2013 compared to 2014. They have the same strikeout rate. Until recently the 2014 team actually had a lower strikeout rate. Yet it’s the 2014 team who is having trouble scoring. The 2014 Braves are obviously struggling to get on base and slug.
If we look at team slugging, of the teams below the MLB average in that category, only two have scored more than the league average runs per game. Of all the teams above league average in slugging, every single one of those teams is above average in runs per game. Any idea that a team can simply avoid strikeouts to make up for a lack of slugging is a complete myth. You don’t slug, you don’t score and you slug, you score, regardless of strikeouts.
But it’s not like anyone wants strikeouts. Strikeouts are bad because they are outs. They are also bad because in certain situations they do nothing to advance runners in the same way contact outs can. Also, ignoring which kinds of outs are better and worse, making contact and putting pressure on the defense, all else being equal, is better than striking out.
The fallacy, from anyone thinking the Braves were wrong in sacrificing strikeout avoidance at the alter of on-base, slugging, defense and baserunning when they were constructing their roster is that rarely is the choice between more strikeouts and fewer strike out. If you have a choice between players who are equal in terms of on-base abilities, slugging abilities, defense and baserunning but not in strikeout avoidance, you want the player who strikes out less. But strikeouts are literally the last thing to consider on a list like this. If a player has even a minor edge in all the other factors, in the aggregate, but strikes out a lot more than another player, you go with the player who has the edge in the other factors. It’s best to ignore strikeouts until you’ve checked off all these other, much more vital factors.
Regardless of how it’s worked out this year, obviously Frank Wren and the Braves’ front office tried to load up on players who they thought would be good at a certain level of a combination of getting on base, slugging, defense and baserunning, and they rightly ignored strikeouts in favor of these things. That’s not to say every player they acquired or tried to acquire was great or even good at every one of these things. But they focused on guys who looked like they would be at least adequate in all or most of these categories and possibly great in a few.
Things more or less worked out according to plan last season. The Braves struck out a lot and, overall, they were good in all these other categories, pitched well, and won the division title. This season they’ve struck out as often but they aren’t as good in these other categories, and they aren’t as good. Yes, more contact might have helped them score a few more runs here and there. And I’m not denying that a few runs here and there might have led to one or two more wins. But getting on base and slugging like they did last year would have led to a lot more wins, regardless of strikeouts. Getting on base and slugging make so much more of an impact that making a lot of contact that it is indeed worth sacrificing strikeout avoidance at the alter of on-base and slugging ability. If they Braves hitters had all performed to their career norms, they would still have lots of strikeouts but they would have scored more runs.
Something else to consider: Even though the Braves have struck out a lot, they still haven’t been bad at making productive outs, at least according to one publication’s definition.
A Productive Out, as defined and developed by ESPN The Magazine and the Elias Sports Bureau: when a fly ball, grounder or bunt advances a runner with nobody out; when a pitcher bunts to advance a runner with one out (maximizing the effectiveness of the pitcher’s at-bat), or when a grounder or fly ball scores a run with one out.
By ESPN The Magazine and the Elias Sports Bureau’s definition, the Braves rank tenth in the majors and sixth in the National League in Productive Out Percentage (productive outs in productive out situations). Oakland and Kansas City, the two teams with the lowest amount of strikeouts and two teams that happen to be leading their divisions, rank next-to-last and 18th respectively in Productive Out Percentage. Though we might associate avoiding strikeouts with productive outs, we can’t actually tell a whole lot about a team making productive outs by looking at their strikeouts.
The Braves’ team-building plans were sound, whether you agree with all of their moves or not. They were right to emphasize other factors over strikeouts and they aren’t terrible at making outs that are more productive than other outs. If Chris Johnson had just hit at his normal level (not even last year’s level), if B.J. Upton could have somehow had a typical B.J. Upton season, if Evan Gattis had stayed healthy all season, and if they had gotten any production from their bench, they would still be a high-strikeout team but they might be well ahead of the Nationals.