Updated 1:10 PM
Buster Olney wrote an article (insider only) about how the Astros are testing the theory that “an out is just an out”. In other words, what difference does it make if the player strikes out or makes an out in any other way?
The Astros apparently believe there is no difference at all. They finished with the 2nd highest K rate in baseball last year, behind only the Cubs. But the two teams approaches to the issue are completely different. The Astros have ignored strikeouts and even added some more big K rates, as Olney researched below. Rankings are based on players who had over 300 PAs and I put the new additions in bold.
2B Jose Altuve, 7.5 percent (262nd highest among 273 hitters)
3B Luis Valbuena, 20.7 percent (93rd)
SS Jed Lowrie, 14.0 percent (219th)
DH Chris Carter, 31.8 percent (14th)
RF George Springer, 33.0 percent (7th)
CF Colby Rasmus, 33.0 percent (9th)
LF Evan Gattis, 23.2 percent (53rd)
1B Jon Singleton, 37.0 percent (1st )
C Jason Castro, 29.5 percent (19th)
To that, I will add one more player who had 237 PAs and figures to platoon with Rasmus in CF. That player is Jake Marisnick and his K rate was 28.3%. We should also mention OF Robbie Grossman, another OFer who saw a lot of playing time last year and figures to retain a significant role, had a K rate of 24.9%, good for 45th worst in baseball.
The Astros added 3 players who ranked in the top 100 in strikeouts to a team that had already had 4 players in the top 20, and one more semi-regular, Marisnick, who would have ranked 23rd if he had qualified. Overall that is 9 of 11 regular players who rank or would have ranked in the top 100 — and 8 in the top 53. They also have 4 in the top 20 and 3 in the top 10.
Obviously they don’t fear the strikeout.
It inspired me to compare/contrast with the Cubs approach and perhaps delve a bit deeper.
The Cubs sought to reduce the number of strikeouts in their lineup. Here’s a look at one possible lineup. I used 2015 projections (and would be rankings in 2014) for Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant, since neither qualified under the 300 PA guideline. I also added Tommy La Stella in the lineup to illustrate Cubs additions, though it is possible that he starts the season on the bench or at 3B depending on what happens with Mike Olt and Javier Baez.
- Dexter Fowler 21.4% (84)
- Chris Coghlan 18.8% (129)
- Starlin Castro 17.6% (153)
- Anthony Rizzo 18.8% (127)
- Jorge Soler 20.8% (92)
- Kris Bryant 28.3% (23rd)
- Miguel Montero 17.3% (159)
- Tommy La Stella 11.1% (246)
Only one of the Cubs additions, Fowler, ranked in the top 100, but he was only 84th and even then he was exchanged for Valbuena, who was similarly ranked. With this lineup, the Cubs have just 3 in the top 100 and none in the top 20.
Okay, there is the question of Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez, both of whom should become regulars before the season is out. Alcantara did qualify and ranked 16th with a 31% rate. Javier Baez’s projected rate of 30.1% would have ranked 18th. The Cubs also added Chris Denorfia who ranked 110th with a 19.6% rate. He is outside that top 100 even though that was an unusually high K rate for him. His career rate is 16.3%, a lower career rate than anyone on the roster except for Castro and La Stella.
I think it is also interesting to see that two players with high K rates: Junior Lake, 33.7% rate (4th worst in baseball) and Welington Castillo 24.5% (48th) will likely either be traded or, in the case of Lake, sent to the minors.
So, if we count Denorfia, Baez, and Alcantara as players who should also see regular playing time, then we have 5 in the top 100 (including 3 in the top 50). They would have two in the top 20 and none in the top 10. Even if the Steamer projections on Baez are generous and we assume he will be much higher than that 30.1% rate, that would still be just one in the top 10.
Now, to be fair, strikeouts aren’t the end-all. MVP Mike Trout finished 37th with a 26.1% rate. Not all contact is created equal. You want guys like Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler who are willing to wait for their pitch and make hard contact. Moreover, they are two players who have shown a tendency to take walks, so that supplements their OBP. In other words, you also want balance with each player and throughout the team.
In other words, if you are going to have a player that strikes out a lot, you’ll also want them to either walk at a high rate or hit for power — and preferably both. Both the Cubs and Astros seem to understand that. The Astros have 4 players in the top 50 in walks — Singleton (11), Grossman (20), Valbuena (32) and Springer (42). The Cubs have 2 — Fowler (16), Rizzo (33), but they also have 3 more in the top 100 in Montero (62), La Stella (63), and Coghlan (81) while the Astros also have a total of 5 with one more in the top 100 (Chris Carter, 66). Remember too, that the Cubs will add Kris Bryant, whose 9.8% projected walk rate would have ranked tied at 66 with Carter. In case you’re wondering, Jorge Soler’s projected walk rate of 7.7% would have ranked 125th in 2014.
Both teams, of course, are loaded with power hitters.
The bottom line is that both teams are willing to take on some strikeouts in exchange for power and walks. The Astros, ignored the strikeout issue and picked up more power in Gattis and Rasmus, but they did at the expense of good walk rates. The Cubs, perhaps because they will add strikeouts and power internally with Kris Bryant to go with Baez, Soler, and Alcantara, focused on reducing their K rate and raising their walk rate with their offseason acquisitions.
It has been interesting to watch these two teams rebuild from the ground up from a similar starting point and it is equally interesting to see how they are going about building around their young talent. The Cubs seemed to seek better balance between walks, Ks, and slugging this year while the Astros forged ahead with increasing power without worrying as much about adding walks (and to be fair they already had better walk rates to begin with) or reducing strikeouts.
The two teams give us a bit of a litmus test when it comes to re-shaping their team. In addition to adding walks and reducing strikeouts, we should also note the Cubs sought to add strong clubhouse presence and other intangibles while the Astros seemed to focus only on on-the-field performance, specifically power, but that is a different article for (perhaps) another time.
Despite the different approaches this offseason, both teams should be much improved and it will be fun comparing their progress in 2015.
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