One of the first things Kevin Towers made known upon his hiring as Arizona Diamondbacks’ GM was his distaste for the incredibly high strikeout numbers his new team put up in 2010 — the D’Backs struck out 24.7% of the time, 2.5% more than the second-worst Marlins. A quote from his introductory press conference:
“Personally, I like contact hitters. I like guys that have good pitch recognition. Strikeouts are part of the game, but if you have four or five or six guys [who strike out a lot] in your lineup, it’s hard to sustain any sort of rally.”
Towers quickly shipped out the Diamondbacks’ biggest perpetrator, Mark Reynolds (35%) and let Adam LaRoche (28%) walk in free agency. There were rumors Justin Upton would be traded as well, although surely the entire Diamondbacks family is glad that didn’t come to pass. This year, Towers has continued to deal away high-strikeout players. Russell Branyan was let go quickly as the left side of the first base platoon with Juan Miranda (perfectly understandable, as Branyan has continued to struggle this season with the Angels). Brandon Allen was hardly given a chance before being dealt for a reliever. And finally, Kelly Johnson, whose strikeout rate has skyrocketed to 27% this season, was dealt for Aaron Hill and John McDonald on Tuesday.
Don’t think Johnson hasn’t noticed this trend. As he told The Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro:
“The difference is, I think ‘KT’ would rather throw up three times a day after eating than have his team strike out a lot,” Johnson said. “I know there (in Toronto), they’re little more free-spirited about the idea of getting up there and getting the first pitch they see. I know it’s a different philosophy. You never know what works. Obviously, it’s worked in Toronto for some guys. They’ve struck out a lot and had some pretty good offenses in the past.”
It’s very easy to understand where Johnson is coming from, given the now-complete purge of high-strikeout players not named Goldschmidt from the team. Was Towers the same way in San Diego? The raw numbers suggest no. According to Dbacks Venom, a Diamondbacks blog, the Padres had an average rank of 7.1 in the NL in terms of strikeouts (seventh most strikeouts, the way this study arranged things). However, when we consider the parks these teams played in — Jack Murphy Stadium, a minor pitchers park, Qualcomm Stadium, a major pitchers park, and PETCO Park, the pitchers park to end pitchers parks — we should probably expect these teams to strike out more than their talent would suggest. At PETCO, the park factors for strikeouts are up near 110, and Qualcomm was a similarly tough park to hit in, so we should mentally adjust that 7.1 number down a bit. It hardly seems like enough to diagnose a strikeout allergy, however.
Particularly in the last five years, it’s not like Towers has rushed to trade away strikeout-heavy hitters, either. He traded Phil Nevin for Chan Ho Park in 2005, but he also traded for Mike Cameron that same year and gave him the reins in center field for two full seasons. He didn’t rush to trade away Chase Headley, who struck out 28% of the time early in his career, nor was he particularly quick to rush to judgment with Will Venable, who had similar numbers.
Piecoro suggested in a tweet that Kirk Gibson may have as much, if not more, to do with the recent strikeout purge in Arizona than Towers. This isn’t too much of a stretch. Gibson had started to bench Johnson in the days leading up to the trade, with Ryan Roberts moving to second and Cody Ransom or Sean Burroughs playing third in five of the 11 games prior to the deal. It’s also not too difficult to imagine a manager, particularly a fiery guy like Kirk Gibson, getting frustrated over a .209 batting average littered with strikeouts, whether you think such a viewpoint is rational or not.
So although it seems possible Towers has a predisposition against strikeout hitters, the initial acquisition of Phil Nevin in 1999 and his constant playing time through 2005 as well as Towers’s pursuance of Mike Cameron suggest it isn’t something a player can’t get around, whether it be with power or great defense. More likely, Towers really needed a way to keep Sean Burroughs out of the lineup and on the bench, and giving Kirk Gibson a second baseman who fits the contact hitter mold (and Hill seemed the only way to do it). And Towers managed to bolster shortstop with John MacDonald at the same time. More likely, after Johnson’s own fault for declining, it is the fault of Gibson for failing to see the value in Johnson’s performance — he’s at +1.6 WAR on the season, and none of the Diamondbacks’ other options, including Hill (-0.6 WAR), look any better, or even particularly close.
Faced with the less-than-favorable option of seeing Johnson languish on the bench while Sean Burroughs takes plate appearances late in the season, Towers dealt Johnson in an attempt to salvage some value. Now, Kirk Gibson will watch Aaron Hill take over at second, and he likely won’t be happy with what he sees — ZiPS projects a .257/.306/.409 line, eerily similar to Johnson’s desert performance. But at least Hill won’t be striking out so much.