Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Who whiffs, walks and whomps?
By Christina Kahrl
Taking my own fandom back a ways, there were some guys who were flat-out fun to root for because you could anticipate they’d do one of three things at home plate: homer, whiff or walk. Rob Deer was a paragon of these virtues, doing one of these three things 49.1 percent of the time, and few things beat the relative certainty that when the Deer came to the plate, you’d be feeling a breeze one way or another.
Deer was truly remarkable because he was playing at a time when strikeouts were much less common. These days, after we’ve witnessed almost the entirety of Russell Branyan’s career, it would take a month of 4-3 grounders to get Branyan below delivering one of the Three True Outcomes -- walking, whiffing or whomping -- 50 percent of the time.
That said, if you’re one of those people who loves your action to come at home plate -- and the way the game’s broadcast with it tunnel-minded focus on pitcher-batter showdowns, how can you not be? -- then this is the category for you; the batters who have done the most to take matters into their own hands, and keep defenses almost altogether unbothered by the outcomes. Consider these the hitters who do the things that don’t depend on defense, the guys who deliver on the things that are virtually Voros McCracken-proof: They take ball four, they whiff or they deliver a souvenir.
This year’s top 10 leaderboard so far provides plenty of players you’d consider the usual suspects, using 400 plate appearances as an initial cutoff:
Now, because of the indignity associated with the leader, you may not consider this something to be proud of. Adam Dunn has turned his job description -- designated hitter -- into something of an oxymoron, and if you want to be a stickler and hand the Three True Outcomes crown to someone about to qualify for the batting title, that disqualifies The Mighty Wind of the Windy City, what with his losing playing time down the stretch. That leaves the AL Three True Outcomes crown to Baltimore’s Mark Reynolds, but happily Chicago’s windy dignity has a likely champion on the North Side in Carlos Pena. You can be sure that someone somewhere is relieved by this.
What happened to the Big Donkey on the South Side? Dunn may be over 50 percent, but that’s with a career rate of 49.3 percent, which might seem somewhat consistent. However, that’s not quite the case. His walk rate’s fine, but his ready whiffery crossed 30 percent of all of his plate appearances last year for the first time, and now it’s pushing 36 percent. That’s while his HR/FB percentage has dropped nearly 50 percent relative to his career average: He’s at 9.3 percent this year, compared to 18.1 percent on his career. However, even doubling his home-run total wouldn’t save his season. Before this year, per BIS the Cell had been relatively neutral to lefty power in the three years previous, so it isn’t like the park’s especially responsible. If there’s one thing that sticks out beyond the career-high strikeout rate, it’s that he’s popping up more often as well (as much as you can say so from Baseball-Reference’s IF/FB numbers), and if there’s one thing that’s the demeaning anathema of a Three True Outcomes monster, it’s skying a humiliatingly easy chance to the infield.
Beyond Dunn, Pena and Reynolds don’t seem in any danger of damaging their careers with this year’s work at the plate. Pena still carries a good defensive reputation, and he’s having a better year than he did in 2010 at the very least, in no small part because he’s facing fewer lefties this year in the NL Central than he’d had to put with as an everyday player in the AL East with the Rays, which comes in handy for a guy with a 150-penalty in OPS when facing his fellow lefties. Reynolds isn’t having an extraordinary season by his own lights, but because he’s north of the Mendoza Line while posting the lowest strikeout rate of his career since his rookie season in 2007, some might mistake it for a comeback as opposed to more of the same from the Big Hack Attack.
The rest of the names on the list show that there isn’t really a connection with bad things coming from what might otherwise be seen by some as too much of a good thing. Bautista and Granderson are legitimate MVP candidates after all, while Ryan Howard, whatever his limitations relative to his reputation, still cranks out a good amount of power on demand. Josh Willingham has been in vogue as an underrate power source outside the limelight for years, although this year’s walk rate is below 10 percent, helping mute some of the enthusiasm. Kelly Johnson is already a popular comeback pick for 2012, perhaps as a matter of guilt by association because Alex Anthopoulos is a sharp GM, but if his strikeout rate stays up around this year’s career-high 28 percent of all of his plate appearances, he’ll have that many fewer at-bats to get his long-expected BABIP bounce-back automatically predicted by some.
In the end, it makes for a mixed bunch. Reach beyond the top 10, and some of the names around 40 percent are fairly surprising. There are plenty of catchers, with Mike Napoli, J.P. Arencibia and Alex Avila out there, but you’ll also find more athletic guys similar to Granderson, with the Reds’ Drew Stubbs, the Rays’ B.J. Upton and Mr. 30-30 himself, Matt Kemp, all deserving shoutouts. In the end, the only thing these guys really have in common is the outcomes.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.