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Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Strikeouts up, averages down

By Tristan H. Cockcroft

Do you feel that cool breeze?

Hit Parade

It might not be the unseasonably cold April weather; it might be major league hitters' rising swing-and-miss rates. While we caution the dangers of interpreting small samples, through three days of baseball the trend is stark: The Major League Baseball strikeout rate is 23.7 percent, batting average is .217, and swing-and-miss rate is 25.2 percent. Each one would represent an all-time worst.

That's not to suggest that we should extrapolate those paces over a full year, or that the final 2013 leaguewide numbers will settle at close to those numbers. But considering the game had previously exhibited large annual increases to its strikeout rate entering the year, might we be about to witness the first season in baseball history of a 20 percent overall whiff rate?

Baseball has set a new single-season record in the category in five consecutive seasons: Beginning with 2008's 17.5 percent, the number has risen each year, going from 18.0 (2009) to 18.5 (2010) to 18.6 (2011), before settling just beneath the 20 percent threshold in 2012, at 19.8 percent.

Here's why that matters to fantasy owners: As strikeout rates have risen, the leaguewide batting average has dropped accordingly, declining in six consecutive seasons. We have reached a point where there's a legitimate threat of the game's first sub-.250 campaign since 1972. That requires us to lower our bar for what constitutes a "good" batting average -- a point made in our Draft Kit -- perhaps by a larger margin than anyone could have anticipated.

Despite the "small sample" caveat, one reason why the 2013 numbers bear watching in the coming days is due to the game's historical tendency for swing-and-miss numbers to rise with the midsummer temperatures. The chart below illustrates this, with March/April leaguewide numbers highlighted:

In each of those three seasons, all of them classified "pitchers' years," the leaguewide strikeout rate (K%), chase rate (Chas%), swing rate (Swng%) and swing-and-miss rate (Miss%) were higher after the All-Star break than in the month of April. That said, batting averages, BABIPs and well-hit averages (rate of at-bats that resulted in hard contact) were also higher, hinting one of two things: Either hitters made better contact as they got into their midseason rhythm, or rising temperatures helped boost success levels on balls in play. (Both probably contributed.)

Still, if the annual April batting average declined in each of the past three seasons, and the final-season MLB average followed the same pattern, then this April's batting average bears careful watching. Could it be that this season's April batting average might finish at .240, and the 2013 full-year mark at .248? It's possible, and if it does, that's going to radically alter fantasy player valuation in the category.

Let's use our own Player Rater to illustrate. Using only batting-average contributions, let's isolate the five players whose number in the category was closest to zero on the Player Rater -- meaning that player's batting average neither hurt nor helped you. On the left, are the five closest to zero from 2009, and on the right, the five closest from 2012:

Besides the mere seven-point batting average differential between these groups, notice the 327 at-bat differential. That means 65 additional at-bats per player for that .259 batting average to influence your fantasy team's performance in the category, meaning the batting-average differential might have been wider if these samples had accrued identical at-bats. In addition, the group on the right shows how little harm a 600 at-bat, .260-hitting player would've done to your team in 2012. That most certainly could not have been said 10 years ago.

This rising strikeout trend was what drove my Tout Wars strategy, one in which I punted batting average in an attempt to capture first place in each of the other four primary rotisserie categories. Remember, a few lucky bounces can drive the batting average category, stealing you a handful of points even if your post-draft projection in the category was one. And if leaguewide batting averages drop -- and you've picked the right players -- your chances of more than one point increase.

To isolate these "batting average killers," I took a page from Larry Schechter's League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) strategy, in which he also punted batting average in that league's AL-only session. Schecter's claim was that, in order to isolate "batting average killers" who provide the greatest contribution in the other four categories, calculate the player's projected dollar value as if batting average was not part of the rotisserie equation.

There's an easy way to do this: By using our Custom Dollar Value Generator.

Comparing projected dollar values for players in a 10-team, ESPN standard mixed league with and without batting average, the following players would've gained the most auction value. Players I bought in Tout Wars are highlighted:

Here's how this pertains to those of you who have already drafted: Remember, strategy doesn't become irrelevant once the draft concludes. In-season strategy is every bit as relevant to fantasy success, and it's critical to keep up with changing trends in the game -- like this potential change we're seeing.

If you own any of the players in the above chart, don't be so concerned about their low batting averages, which might soon look a lot closer to league-average than you might have initially anticipated. And if you find yourself considering a trade for any in the coming weeks, take a quick glance at the leaguewide strikeout rates and batting average, to make sure you're not underrating them.

The rankings

This season's Hit Parade expands its rankings to 150 hitters, to provide fantasy owners in ESPN standard mixed leagues more than enough ranked players to populate a fantasy roster. But we're also adding a new feature beginning with today: You can now see all players -- including starting and relief pitchers -- ranked by position on one page at this link.

Rankings will be updated along with the week's new editions of Sixty Feet Six Inches (Tuesday) and Hit Parade (Wednesday), meaning that starting and relief pitchers will receive their weekly updates on Tuesday, and hitters will receive their weekly updates on Wednesday.

The top 150 hitters overall can be found in the chart below each week.