Stats & Info: Strikeouts

Is Mike Stanton the next Brandon Wood?

June, 7, 2010
Word on the street is that the Marlins have called up power-hitting outfield prospect Mike Stanton, and fantasy owners everywhere are putting in their waiver claims. And with good reason: The kid has 21 home runs in a third of a season Double-A at the tender age of 20. Last year Stanton hit 29 homers between high Class A and Double-A, and the year before that he hit 39 jacks at low Class A. As far as power-hitting prospects go, he's about as good as it gets. Note that I wrote "about as good as it gets," because Stanton isn't perfect. And he has one major flaw that could prevent him from becoming a viable major leaguer.

In 238 plate appearances this year for Jacksonville, Stanton has struck out 53 times. That's 22 percent of the time. For his career he has struck out 26.7 percent of the time, so he has shown a bit of an improvement this year. However, that's still a heck of a lot of whiffs for a minor leaguer. As friend of TMI Kevin Goldstein Tweeted yesterday, "We can all get excited about Stanton being up, but I do fear his numbers are going to look like Rob Deer's for a while."

On the major league level, strikeouts for hitters tend to be overrated, and there are plenty of hitters who have remained productive despite racking up a ton of K's -- Jim Thome, Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard among them. However, when evaluating prospects, strikeouts matter. Because if a guy has trouble making contact against minor league pitching, odds are they're going to have an even harder time squaring up big league arms. For example, Dunn has struck out in 26.5 percent of his plate appearances in the majors. But in the minors he fanned 18.2 percent of the time. The list below is the current top 10 in the majors in strikeouts, and the percentage of the time they fanned in the minors.

Mark Reynolds, 23.1
Justin Upton, 19.7
David Wright, 18.0
Rickie Weeks, 18.7
Adam Dunn, 18.2
Carlos Pena 20.7
Matt Kemp, 18.5
Ryan Howard, 27.2
Austin Jackson, 21.1
Adam Lind, 16.8

These guys fan more than anyone than baseball, and with the exception of Howard, every one of them whiffed less frequently in the minors than Stanton. As Howard has proven, lots of K's in the minors are not prohibitive to success in the majors. However, it's certainly cause for concern. And we've seen many prospects in recent years flame out because their high minor league strikeout rate came back to bite them in the bigs. The most recent example is Brandon Wood, who provides a cautionary tale for those going gaga for Stanton. Wood made lots of noise in the prospect world when he hit 43 homers back in 2005. But he struck 23.3 percent of the time in the minors and his power has never translated while playing for the Angels. He has a .381 OPS for the Angels this year and has struck out in 30.2 percent of his big league plate appearances.

Before you get too excited about Stanton, keep Wood in mind.

Matt Meyers is an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter here.

FanGraphs: The truth about Aramis Ramirez

May, 20, 2010
One of the big reasons the Chicago Cubs have had success in recent years is third baseman Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez has put up some great seasons ever since he joined the Cubbies in 2003, and has become a key part of their offensive game plan. But this year, he's hitting .167 with a .234 OBP while slugging .280. For six straight seasons, Aramis has posted a weighted on-base average of .380 or greater (.330 is about league average). This season, he’s posting a meager wOBA of just .237. So what's wrong with the Cubs slugger?

To begin with, Ramirez’s strikeouts are way up. Last season, he struck out in 14.1 percent of his at-bats (league average is usually around 19 percent), slightly better than the 15.4 percent mark he’s posted over his entire career. This season, Ramirez is taking the walk of shame a whopping 23.1 percent of the time, the highest since his rookie season back in 1998. It is very unusual for a hitter to see such a large increase in strikeout rate from one year to the next.

Delving further into his rising strikeout rate, we can see that Ramirez is actually swinging at fewer pitches this year and making contact less often when he does get the bat off his shoulder. To compound the problem, Ramirez is making less contact on balls inside the strike zone, while getting his bat on the ball more often on pitches outside the strike zone. Last year, he made contact on 88.8 percent of balls in the zone. This year it's 83.3 percent. And on balls outside the zone, he's gone from making contact 65.6 percent of the time, to 68.7. Missing hittable pitches, while making contact on pitches off the plate that are not easy to square up, is not a recipe for success.

In essence, the numbers bear out the phenomenon generally known as “pressing.” As a reaction to his slow start, Ramirez is chasing more balls and overswinging at those he thinks he can hit. It’s not working, though, and the Cubs need to do what they can to get their slugger back to his old ways. He knows how to hit -- he's just lost right now.

Zach Sanders is a writer for FanGraphs.

Poll: Strikeout Central Alert

March, 12, 2010
We have a routine that we go through at ESPN’s Stats and Information when a pitcher begins a game on a record-setting strikeout pace. When history is about to be made, we don’t want to mess around and head to SportsCenter or Baseball Tonight unprepared.

So any time one of the top pitchers in the AL Central takes the mound, we’ll be ready. That division could be renamed “Strikeout Central” for 2010, with a likely healthy Jake Peavy joining Royals Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and Tigers starter Justin Verlander for a full year’s worth of outings. Between the three, there are close to 100 instances in which we could be subject to a strikeout red-alert. So we ask the question:

Which pitcher will strike out the most hitters in a game during the 2010 season?

Our poll will include one other pitcher - Tim Lincecum - to broaden the mix, and you can pick the field too (Javier Vazquez and Johan Santana - both ex-AL Central pitchers - have experience with big whiff plateaus). But let me give you reasons to consider those in Strikeout Central.

Jake Peavy would seem to have the best chance of challenging Lincecum for the top spot, as he has an advantage that Greinke and Verlander don’t: The teams he will face most frequently have not seen him as often, since Peavy is coming from the National League West. Since 2004, Peavy has struck out 25.6 percent of the batters he’s faced. The only current starter who is better: Lincecum (27.6 percent).

Peavy has 30 games with 10 or more strikeouts, seven with at least a dozen and two with 15+. We’ll definitely be ready the first time Peavy faces the Tigers, as that lineup could include two rookies, along with Miguel Cabrera (2-for-22 with 10 strikeouts vs Peavy) and Brandon Inge (1-for-9, four strikeouts).

If Peavy is matched with Verlander, we may end up on double-alert status. Verlander had seven starts with 10 or more strikeouts in 2010, maxing out at 13. His issue, and one that plagues Peavy as well, is that high pitch counts may necessitate early exits.

Though only one of his last nine starts reached double digits, Verlander still racked up quantity. He was the first Tiger to lead the American League in strikeouts since Mickey Lolich in 1971.

A Royals starter has NEVER even led the AL in strikeouts (let alone the majors), but Zack Greinke has a good chance to be the first. The Royals had never had a pitcher strike out 15 in a game (double-figures was a major accomplishment) until Greinke did last season.

What Greinke has going for him is his “putaway rate” (the rate at which he strikes out hitters, once he gets to two strikes) of nearly 54 percent. That’s another mark in which the only pitcher in baseball better was Lincecum, and puts Greinke in a very reasonable position to challenge if he’s right for one night.