The Atlanta Braves finished with the third-highest strikeout rate among all 30 major league teams at 22.6 percent. The two teams to either side of them -- Astros and Twins ahead, Mets and Mariners behind -- all had terrible seasons. The Braves are also the only club with three players over the 150-strikeout threshold (Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton) and they were the only club to do it last year as well. Much will be made of the Braves' strikeout tendency as we head into the postseason, and they certainly do strike out a lot, but does it matter?
I looked at hitter strikeout rate data among all postseason teams over the last 10 years. Last year, all four teams to advance to the League Championship Series had a strikeout rate that ranked in the bottom third of the league. The Giants, who won it all, had the fourth-lowest strikeout rate. In 2011, the two teams with the lowest strikeout rates -- the Cardinals and Rangers -- met up in the World Series. But is that a trend?
Event Average Rank
Lost ALCS 21
Lost WS 17
Won WS 20
Division Series teams averaged a strikeout rate ranking in the middle of the pack, 14 for the NL and 19 for the AL. Championship Series teams averaged a slightly better strikeout rate rank, between 17 and 21. The World Series loser also averaged a rank of 17. The World Series winner averaged the lowest rank on the list at 20.
Of the 10 World Series winners since 2003, eight of them have had a strikeout rank in the lower half of the league. Six of them were in the lower one-third. The only team to win the World Series with an offense that struck out at a top-10 rate was the 2004 Red Sox (18.3 percent, sixth).
There are other factors involved in winning and losing, of course, but why have teams that strike out less managed to succeed a little more, particularly recently? Offense declined after the 2009 season, with the runs per game average dropping from 4.61 to 4.38. Hits have declined from 8.96 per game in 2009 to 8.67 hits per game in 2013. The biggest changes have occurred in walks and strikeouts. In 2009, the average offense walked 3.42 times per game and struck out 6.91 times per game. This year, the average offense walked 3.02 times per game and struck out 7.54 times per game.
With strikeouts up, the rate of balls in play has gone down. When those balls have been put in play, fielders have been converting them into outs at a very high rate. Major league defenders have compiled an aggregate .985 fielding percentage, the highest in baseball history. Fielding percentage is far from a perfect statistic, but we're also seeing a wave of great defenders lately, such as with Andrelton Simmons, Manny Machado and Carlos Gomez. The increase in defensive shifts has also helped teams turn more balls in play into outs.
So, baseballs are being put in play less often, and when a ball is put in play, it is more often turned into an out for the defense rather than a hit for the offense. A strikeout means (A) a ball isn't being put in play, creating a chance for a misplay; and (B) no baserunners are advancing. Factor in that with walks down, that means there is less likely to be a runner on base when there is a hit. In the playoffs, when you usually see above-average pitching staffs facing above-average offenses, this looms even larger since runs are at a premium. Teams reliant on power -- which tends to yield higher strikeout rates -- become gamblers, hoping the likes of Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright have bad games where home runs can be hit.
Will the Braves fail in the postseason specifically because they strike out too much? Probably not, but if manager Fredi Gonzalez was given a magic wand that could turn his offense into an equally competent team that relies on putting the ball in play more, based on recent trends, he would probably choose to alter his offense.
Bill Baer writes for Crashburn Alley and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.