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Friday, February 1
 
Swing and a miss: Not Milwaukee's biggest problem

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

I've been thinking about strikeouts quite a lot lately.

A few days ago, I talked to Brewers GM Dean Taylor about Eric Young. It was a pleasant conversation, significantly more fun than my recent chat with another famous Milwaukeean. We spent most of our time discussing what Young brings to the Brewers. He'll bring some speed to the lineup, of course, and by all accounts he'll also be a positive influence in the clubhouse. And if he can get his on-base percentage back above .350 ... well, all the better.

Eric Young brings something else to the table, though: contact. The Brewers struck out 1,399 times last year, absolutely destroying the single-season record previously held by the 1996 Tigers (1,268). Jeromy Burnitz contributed 150 of those strikeouts, which is one of the reasons he's no longer a Brewer. Meanwhile, Eric Young is one of the most difficult players in the league to strike out; last year, only 45 times in 603 at-bats. The Brewers also picked up Lenny Harris, who can't really hit but does have the virtue of a low strikeout rate.

I pointed out to Taylor that strikeouts really aren't a big deal, and he agreed with me ... to a point. He agreed that for most teams they're not that important, but that an immense number of strikeouts affects run production in a fundamentally different way. And never having studied the issue, I had to allow for the possibility that he's right.

But if Dean Taylor is right, if massive strikeouts have some sort of multiplicative (my word, not his) effect, wouldn't that show up somewhere?

I made two lists: one list contained high-strikeout teams, and the other contained low-strikeout teams. The list of high-strikeout teams includes the last 12 major-league teams that struck out more than 1,175 times in a single season. The list of low-strikeout teams contains the last 10 major-league teams that struck out between 800 and 850 teams in a 162-game season.

The high-strikeout teams averaged 1,202 strikeouts.
The low-strikeouts teams averaged 832 strikeouts.

Clearly, there's a big difference between the teams in the two groups.

Next, I plugged the stats for all of those teams into the Runs Created formula. For those of you who don't know, Runs Created is a method with which we can closely estimate the number of runs that a team will score, given its hitting statistics. The original formula was quite simple and accurate, even though it didn't consider strikeouts at all. The inventor of Runs Created, Bill James, did eventually incorporate strikeouts, but the formula only works with strikeouts if strikeouts are given a very small negative value; so small, in fact, that it's really not worth the trouble of including them in the equation.

Nevertheless, if we assume that Runs Created is generally accurate -- and I can assure you that the method works -- but that for some reason it doesn't work for high-strikeout teams, then we would expect to see high-strikeout teams score fewer runs than predicted by the formula, right?

Further, we might expect to see a difference in the formula's accuracy when predicting the runs scored by the high-strikeout teams and the low-strikeout teams.

                      Runs
          K's   Expected  Actual
Low-K     832     779      764
High-K   1207     772      773

In a study of 13 high-strikeout teams, the Runs Created formula predicted the group's run production almost perfectly. And as you can see, for all practical purposes the formula worked equally well for groups of teams at both ends of the strikeout spectrum. There simply isn't any evidence, at least not here, to think that there's some subtle interactive effect of multiple strikeouts.

One thing I didn't mention earlier: I left the 2001 Brewers out of the study, because they were so far off the charts. So it's possible that Taylor is right, and that the Brewers are simply the first team in history that's racked up enough strikeouts to actually make them important.

Well, the Runs Created formula looks at the Brewers' statistics and, using the same (tiny) value for strikeouts that it uses for every other team, predicts that the Brewers would score 732 runs.

They scored 740.

And they scored only 740 runs not because they struck out too often; they scored only 740 runs because they didn't walk often enough. The Brewers finished 12th in the National League in walks ... and 11th in the National League in runs scored. And if you don't think there's a relationship between walks and runs, you're probably reading the wrong column.

So why are strikeouts such a boogieman in the minds of baseball men (and broadcasters, and fans)?

The problem with strikeouts isn't that they hurt your team, it's that they hurt your feelings, because they're memorable. I remember very few specific things about my unspectacular career as a Little Leaguer, but one thing I do remember is striking out to end my team's season. If Tony Lazzeri had flied to right field with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the 1926 World Series, nobody would remember. But he struck out, so we do remember.

A general manager will watch nearly all of his team's games, either at the ballpark or on TV (the manager, of course, sees all of them). You see enough strikeouts, they'll make you crazy, and Dean Taylor saw nearly 1400 strikeouts last year. If he hadn't witnessed the strikeouts, but instead simply saw the 1399 in a line of type on a stat sheet, he probably wouldn't be worried nearly so much about them.

The Brewers traded Jeromy Burnitz, who walked 80 times last year. That's not good. But they did sign Matt Stairs, who walked 52 times in a part-time role. That's good. Unfortunately, the Brewers have also added Eric Young and Alex Ochoa and Lenny Harris, none of whom walk much. But those guys don't strike out often, either. And sometimes I wonder if baseball men would be better off if they didn't watch so much baseball.

  • This week, a number of readers have commented, "Rob, I understand that strikeouts for hitters aren't really so bad. But if they're not bad for hitters, then why are they so good for pitchers?" Next Monday, I'll attempt to answer that question.

    Rob can be reached at rob.neyer@dig.com, and to order his books, including the just-published Feeding the Green Monster, click here.






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