Again and again the Braves and their strikeouts become fodder for Twitter and internet debate. Some say it’s a big deal, others say they are no worse than other outs and don’t hinder run scoring. (The evidence seems to be on the side of the latter.) If charts, graphs and statistics haven’t changed people’s minds by now, it’s probably not going to. It continues to be an easy and still somewhat interesting (at least to me) thing to write about. So allow me to theorize on why some think strikeouts are a bigger deal than other types of outs, why some think strikeouts are a bigger deal than they actually are.
1. We’ve been told all of our lives, from Little League on up, that you put the ball in play and good things will happen.
This is a fine theory and fine in practice, until players start to face pitchers that can put a baseball pretty much anywhere they want when they want to with multiple types of pitches and until defensive players become amazing at turning batted balls into outs. The higher up you go in level, the more mere contact isn’t going to get it done. And if you look at major league leaderboards, you’ll notice that often the best contact hitters are rather mediocre hitters and the best overall hitters in terms of getting on base and slugging aren’t necessarily great contact hitters.
Mere contact will get you some offense in little league and even at the high school and college levels. But when pitchers have the command to induce weak contact and when they are backed up by unreal defense and state-of-the-art information on defensive positioning, mere contact isn’t going to get it done.
2. There is the idea the strikeouts mean swinging for the fences which means a one-dimensional offense and less consistency.
But offense is about getting on base/avoiding outs and slugging. It’s very possible for a team to be good at getting on base and slugging and be bad at not striking out. In fact, most of the best teams in history at getting on base and slugging (and scoring runs) were also among the worst teams at not striking out. One reason for this is because high on base teams take pitches and wait on pitches they can crush. This means deeper counts and more walks but also more strikeouts. Another reason is that teams that slug well are trying to hit the ball hard.
Swinging with a focus on making contact usually means not hitting the ball hard. Ideally you want contact hitters who also draw walks and hit the ball hard so they on-base and slug well. But hitters who are talented enough to do all those things, especially against today’s amazing pitchers, are few and far between. Only the elite offensive players are capable of all of that. We usually have to settle for players who strike out a good bit but can get on base and slug. That’s been the case throughout baseball history, whether teams typically strikeout 4 times a game or 7 times a game.
3. There’s the idea that a lot of strikeouts mean a low on-base percentage and making outs often.
As I touched on, teams that post high on-base percentages tend to take pitches to get deep into counts and either wait for pitches they can hit with authority or they take walks. But taking pitches also means taking more pitchers’ pitches that are strikes that a team can’t do anything with even if they swing and make contact. So a talented offensive club that takes pitches will get their walks, will get pitches to crush and crush them but they also tend to strike out a lot. Of course strikeouts are outs but a lot of a particular type of out doesn’t necessarily mean making outs often.
Every now and then when an opposing team is playing Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, especially around the time Moneyball came out, you would hear the opposing team’s announcers talked about the Athletics’ high on-base percentage, and the A’s working counts, taking walks and putting balls in play. But in the Moneyball Athletics’ offensive heyday, they weren’t really an outstanding contact team. Strikeouts for hitters aren’t any sort of an indication that those hitters aren’t good at avoiding outs in general.
4. The myth is that high-strikeout offenses can’t win in the postseason.
It’s always dangerous to try to single out factors that influence postseason success. There are so many variables that lead a team to winning postseason series and often teams that win short series win in spite of inferior baseball skills to their opponents. But of course it’s not unheard of for teams with high-strikeout offenses to win in the postseason. These teams are usually, of course, good offensive teams and good run-prevention teams that happen to make a lot of outs via the strikeout. But there’s really not much of a particular pattern of any kind that can give us an indication why certain teams win and certain team lose in the postseason, especially in this day and age of four or five playoff teams and 5-game series or one-game playoffs.
There is nothing to indicate high-strikeout teams struggle more than low-strikeout teams against great pitching. The 2004 Red Sox led their league in strikeouts and won the Series. The 2012 Washington Nationals finished 3rd in the National League in strikeouts. They were 24-14 against playoff teams in the regular season. They were 26-17 against playoff teams in both the regular and postseason combined. The lost their opening-round series to the Cardinals by a 3-games-to-2 margin and would have won it had their bullpen not blown it. That series loss had nothing to do with their offense and its propensity to strike out.