Thursday, June 20, 2013
Do strikeouts matter in postseason play?
By David Schoenfield
Major league batters are hitting a collective .253, two points lower than last year and the lowest average since 1972 -- the year before the American League instituted the designated hitter.
Runs scored per game are down slightly from last year and at 4.21 runs per game are at their lowest level since 1992.
Strikeouts, of course, are up, up, up, as Tim Kurkjian writes about here. We're seeing nearly five more strikeouts per game than we saw 30 years ago, sparking debate whether the all-or-nothing approach of many hitters today is the right approach.
Tom Verducci, the Sports Illustrated writer and MLB Network analyst, has been a big proponent of the fewer strikeouts are better theory, citing both in his written work and on air that the past two World Series winners, the Giants and Cardinals, didn't strike out much. Indeed, the Giants had the second-fewest strikeouts among National League teams last year and the Cardinals had the fewest in 2011.
Of course, it's not quite that simple. The Phillies had the fewest strikeouts in the NL last year and a below-average offense and missed the playoffs. This year, the Giants have the fewest strikeouts but the Dodgers and Marlins are next on the fewest K's list, but the Dodgers are 13th in the NL in runs per game and the Marlins are last. In the AL, the Tigers have the second-fewest K's and are second in runs, but the Royals have the fewest strikeouts and are scoring fewer than four runs per game. Conversely, the Red Sox have the second-most strikeouts but lead the AL in runs. The A's set the all-time strikeout record last year and the Orioles had the third-most in the AL and both teams made the playoffs.
But maybe that isn't exactly what Verducci is getting at. Remember the big at-bats David Freese and Lance Berkman had for the Cardinals in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series? Down to their final, series-ending strikes, Freese tripled in the ninth to tie the score and Berkman singled in the 10th to again tie the score, and the Cardinals finally won in the 11th -- when Freese homered on a 3-2 pitch. Or the way the Giants battled Justin Verlander in Game 1 of last year's World Series, especially Marco Scutaro fouling off two pitches with two strikes before singling to knock in a run, followed by Pablo Sandoval's two-run homer.
The ability to not strike out was certainly a key aspect to the offenses of those teams.
There's one hitch to that theory, however. Both teams struck out more often than their opponents during their playoff runs. In 2011, the Cardinals struck out 135 times in the postseason, their opponents 120 times (the Rangers did strike out four more times in the World Series). In 2012, the Giants struck out 131 times, their opponents 128 times. Now, the Giants beat the Cardinals and Tigers, both below-average strikeout teams, and the Cardinals beat the Rangers, who struck out the fewest times of any major league team in 2011, so maybe those aren't the best examples.
I looked at each postseason game from last year. The team that struck out fewer times went 14-17 (six games had an equal number of strikeouts). So strikeouts don't matter? Not necessarily. I looked at 2010 and 2011 and the team that struck out fewer times went 44-23 (with three games the same). Over a three-year span in postseason games, the team that struck out less went 58-40.
So maybe it means Verducci is basically right? Strike out less, win more.
Or is it simply proof of the old axiom that power pitching wins in the postseason? I will say this: If your pitchers strike out more guys than your opponents and your hitters strike out less, you have a pretty good chance of winning a postseason series. Using regular-season totals, the team that bettered its playoff opponents in both categories has gone 8-2 since 2010 (the exceptions being the Yankees losing to the Tigers in a 2011 division series and the Rangers losing to the Cardinals in the 2011 World Series).
Of course, we can look at the World Series two ways: The Rangers couldn't get one more strikeout, or the Cardinals avoided one strikeout too many.