“We know we’re going to strike out. That’s just a given with guys who have power. And we have a lot of guys who can hit the ball out of the park. And that kind of goes hand in hand. But you look at some of the studies — and our guys have looked at them — and there’s not a direct correlation with strikeouts and offense.”
— Atlanta general manager Frank Wren, interviewed by Jayson Stark on 2/18/13
This quote comes from Alex Remington’s piece on these very pages back in April. When the Braves finished constructing their roster — a roster similar to what we see now — there were questions as to whether the team would strike out too much to make a run at the postseason. Well, we’ve now reached the postseason, and the Braves are still here. And they’re still striking out too, averaging over 10 Ks a game so far. They also led the NL in home runs, an achievement they were expected to sniff given their lineup. This was kind of the plan from the beginning — strike out a fair amount, but counter that with a good deal of power.
This is in stark contrast to a team like the Astros, who struck out a lot — more than any team in the history of baseball, actually — but failed to provide offensive numbers in other categories. The Astros also netted 1.6 WAR from their ENTIRE pitching staff in 2013, so that didn’t help. But we’re not talking about the Astros, we’re talking about the Braves.
So, to recap, the Braves struck out a lot but made up for that by producing offensively in other ways, namely power. And now they’re in the playoffs. So far, they lost a game at home and won a game at home. In the game they lost, they struck out 15 times. Only 20 other teams have struck out 15 times or more in the playoffs. They lost that game 6 -1. In the next game, they only struck out six times, and won 4-3. We might be inclined to cut them a little slack for the first game, since they were facing the best pitcher in the league, but the question remains — can strikeout-prone teams succeed in the playoffs?
Going back to 1995, the start of the three-division era, there have been 156 teams that have made the playoffs in some capacity (the three-division era technically started in 1994, but there were no playoffs that year). When comparing K% to that of league average, the Braves aren’t the most strikeout-happy team to make the playoffs, but they are close.
These are the top ten (top 11, including the Braves) high-strikeout teams that made the playoffs in the last 18 years. The results column might look a little lamentable when just looking at the final upshot, but we see that the teams in question had varying degrees of success. Two made it to the World Series, a few more advanced to the Championship Series. Six teams were knocked out in the first round. Compare that to the top ten playoff teams with the lowest difference in strikeout rate compared to the league. Here, we see four World Series winners, as well as a loser, along with four teams that were bounced early.
Outs are a finite resource in baseball, and that’s magnified quite a bit during the playoffs. Whereas a high-strikeout team might be able to overcome over the course of a season, they may be more susceptible to chunks of strikeouts in the postseason, like the Braves were on Thursday. At this point, a slump can be defined over the course of ten at-bats. A team can always fall victim to things like BABIP and Raul Ibanez and Steve Bartman and home run rates over such a small sample, but they can do themselves in just as easily. Here’s the previous two charts again, with the addition of the teams’ OPS for their final series of the playoffs, as well as their regular season OPS.
It’s easy to expect a lower OPS in the playoffs. Teams are going against the very best starters, and opposing managers are more likely to bring in relievers earlier in the game. The competition is better than throughout the regular season. But the high K% teams looked quite a bit worse through the lens the compacted playoffs. A difference of .057 in OPS is the difference between the Red Sox and the Indians this year. It is also more than the difference between the 2013 Dodgers and the 2013 Mets. It’s not insignificant. It’s certainly not when a team only has five or seven games to achieve their goals.
This is not an iron-clad way to predict playoff performance, certainly. Nor is it a harbinger of doom for the Atlanta Braves. In fact, it only focuses on one third of what a team does. What the numbers do say is that a team with a strikeout rate a good deal higher than the league average has not recently won the World Series, and that some teams with a strikeout rate a good deal lower than the league average have won the World Series.
There’s also a whole load of other stuff in the middle, and none of this should be taken as conclusive. But if the Braves fall into their strikeout-happy ways like they did on Thursday, they could be in for an early exit.
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