Kelly Johnson’s Trade, Kevin Towers, and Strikeouts

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.



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vivalajeter
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vivalajeter
4 years 9 months ago

You bring up a good point that I hadn’t considered. In the case where a GM and Manager have different ideas about a player’s value, it might make some sense to make a slightly negative-value trade if it increases the line-up efficiency. Taking these three 2B as an example:

Player 1: 1 WAR player, on your team
Player 2: 3 WAR player, on your team
Player 3: 2 WAR player, on a different team

If the manager (for whatever reason) doesn’t like player 2 and relegates him to a back-up role, and he decides to start player 1 instead, then you’re only getting 1 WAR from your 2B.

If a GM trades player 2 for player 3, yeah he’s getting a lesser player, but he’s also picking up 1 WAR (assuming the manager would start player 3).

This line of thinking may also help explain the Rasmus trade. If the GM knew he wouldn’t be used efficiently by La Russa, then it might influence whether he should be traded.

Mario Mendoza
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Mario Mendoza
4 years 9 months ago

better solution: swap the manager

Brad Johnson
Member
Member
4 years 9 months ago

Hard to do when you’re manager is TLR or a guy who’s made a team that wasn’t supposed to contend into a late season division leader.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu
4 years 9 months ago

Or tell the field manager to start Player 2 over Player 1. ‘Cause he’s better.

siggian
Member
siggian
4 years 9 months ago

Perhaps Hill won’t be K’ing as much as Johnson, but Gibson will learn to hate Hill’s popups even more.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
4 years 9 months ago

the only things worse than Ks are first pitch pop ups and double plays (i.e. Aaron Hill’s specialties).

Yuni B
Guest
Yuni B
4 years 9 months ago

Hey, leave me out of this!

zach
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zach
4 years 9 months ago

I suppose double plays are worse than K’s in practice, but the act of simply making contact inherently yields a higher chance of something positive happening than whiffing

Alan
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Alan
4 years 9 months ago

That’s true, but it also decreases the chances of drawing a walk

seaver78
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seaver78
4 years 9 months ago

Why did the name change cause Jack Murphy/Qualcomm to go from a “minor pitchers park” to a “major pitchers park”?

seaver78
Guest
seaver78
4 years 9 months ago

Ah, I see a major change in seating capacity around the same time. (59K to 67K between 1996 & ’97) Maybe that is related.

Diesel
Guest
Diesel
4 years 9 months ago

In 1997, the year the name of the stadium changed, they also added seating that effectively closed off the outfield. The park played quite differently subsequent to the modification, so it’s fair to consider them two different parks with respect to PFs.

Amit
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

I agree with this article. Gibson helped forced Towers’ hand by benching Johnson, sitting him against LHP, and even pinch-hitting Cody Ransom for KJ in a key late inning situation. Gibson did something similar with Juan Miranda, too. First the sporadic starts, then the extended benchings, and soon the ABs are going to an inferior hitter like Xavier Nady. So the GM has to make a move.

razor
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razor
4 years 9 months ago

The thing is, that WAR advantage referred to in this article is also based on Johnson’s UZR advantage, which is a joke. Pretty much anyone who has watched Kelly Johnson and Aaron Hill play 2nd base defensively is going to tell you Hill is much better at it.

KJ is a better offensive player, despite the strikeouts…but this is a lot closer than WAR leads people to believe in this article. In fact, once again, the plus/mimus system rates Hill much higher, as it has historically as well.

Just way too many WAR leaps of faith around here based on the UZR, especially in any individual season.

Sean O'Neill
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

No, they aren’t. Aaron Hill is an absolute butcher in the field, while Johnson has always appeared somewhat adequate. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone try to defend Aaron Hill’s defensive prowess before.

razor
Guest
razor
4 years 9 months ago

Check out TZL, the fan’s scouting report or the plus/minus system. Hell, checkout the career UZR for both players. This isn’t that hard.

Welp
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Welp
4 years 9 months ago

Are you kidding me? Spin the wheel and ask a scout – or just check DRS and +/-.

It’s fine for you to prefer Johnson, but suggesting that Hill is anything less than average defensively is straightforwardly absurd.

eric
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eric
4 years 9 months ago

lulz. Hill used to be a SS. He’s an excellent defensive 2B.

Elwin
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Elwin
4 years 9 months ago

Kelly Johnson (14.8) is 20.9 RAR above Aaron Hill (-6.1). 12.9 is batting, 0.7 is baserunning, 5.7 is fielding, and 1.6 is replacement (playing time). So fielding only accounts for 27% of the difference. The other 73% is hitting, baserunning and playing time.

Kelly Johnson is hitting poorly (.309 wOBA), but Aaron Hill is hitting only slightly better than Cliff Lee (.262 and .257 wOBA respectively).

To make up the difference, Aaron Hill would have to be a Chase Utley level fielder, which he is not.

razor
Guest
razor
4 years 9 months ago

It wasn’t my point to say Aaron Hill is having a better season this year than Kelly Johnson…only that using UZR in WAR for any individual year doesn’t seem prudent given the fluctuation between defensive metrics (UZR/plus/minus) from year to year. Plus, even the UZR method has Hill as the superior defensive player career-wise.

KJ is having a better season than Hill in 2011. I’m not sure what that says given that both players aren’t exactly tearing it up. Is KJ the better bet going forward? I have no clue…other than to say that what their UZR says about them this season sure shouldn’t be a very big part of that equation, nor should it be when evaluating their overall 2011 worth. Looking at a hybrid of several defensive metrics or their career to date defensive metric work is much better.

Michael Procton
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

No way. Johnson wasn’t a good 2B by any means when he started in ATL, but he was always at least adequate. By now, he’s an average to slightly above-average player at the position.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
4 years 9 months ago

Towers made the Dbacks a better team this year, period. It seems baseball has become very accepting of players striking out 25% of the time, very different than even 20 years ago. Towers took a stand that seemd to be working for them.

Hurtlocker
Guest
Hurtlocker
4 years 9 months ago

In the history of baseball the most strikeouts per season list is dominated by modern players. The top 150 most strikeout by a players one season list has only 9 players on the list that occured before 1980.
I don’t think the large increase of strikeouts equals more home runs or runs scored or even that the pitchers are so much better these days.
Walter Johnson supposedly threw in the high 90’s and never struck out batters at the current rate.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu
4 years 9 months ago

It’s not that teams/managers have become more “accepting of the fact” that hitters can be productive despite high K’s. It’s that strikeouts (and fastball velocity) have been steadily increasing throughout baseball history.

MC
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MC
4 years 9 months ago

Mmm. They’re probably much better due to the fact that their bullpen is no longer the worst in MLB history – not so much to the fact they are trading high-k hitters.

’11 season – averaging 4.4 runs per game
’10 season – averaged 4.401235 runs per game

shoewizard
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shoewizard
4 years 9 months ago

4.4 R/G this year is better than 4.4 R/G last year

sc2gg
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

This seems a little shady to me. Wouldn’t Towers just go talk to Gibson about this so-called problem?
Do GMs just not do this? I’m certain even Tony Reagins could give Scioscia a Mathis-based tongue lashing once in a while, right? If the GMs solution to changing a stupid manager problem on his team is to trade away the managers source of stupidity, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

joshcohen
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joshcohen
4 years 9 months ago

I think Gibson/KT are acting very much in concert on this. Think about this:
1. It’s possible KT held a similiar view about KJ and didn’t see him in the fold longterm for any number of reasons (the Ks as this article suggests could be one reason, not wanting to offer him arbitration another, etc etc).
2. KJ has basically been a replacement level player this year. Not playing him isn’t the same as sitting Colby Rasmus/running Napoli out of town. He’ll be 30 next year. He is who he is. Preferring to take a chance on a distressed asset like Hill (esp since he has decent contact/LD rates but a low babip) isn’t a terrible move IMO.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 years 9 months ago

I agree a little with the hate he has for strikeouts. I mean, on the chance that there’s a runner on , certain groundouts or flyouts could advance/score the runner. I get that, but ultimately it’s all about overall production. If you never strikeout, but never hit anything hard either or walk much, you’re really not that useful.

It would kill me if Yuni and Kelly thrive in Toronto given they COULD be ATL’s middle infield. Then again, I like Toronto, so it wouldn’t kill me that much.

Max
Guest
Max
4 years 9 months ago

This is probably a stupid question, but how do parks affect strikeout production? I can’t figure it out. The only thing I could think of would be that the less of the pitcher’s park a stadium is, the more strikeouts would occur there, because if more balls are dropping for hits, the opportunities for strikeouts increases, since they AREN’T affected by the park.

Steve
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Steve
4 years 9 months ago

I was wondering the same thing, but I think it has to do with the batter’s eye in center field. There isn’t much of a difference, but there is a difference from park to park.

Alan
Guest
Alan
4 years 9 months ago

and interestingly Chase Field is known as one of the more hitter friendly batter’s eyes in the league

John R.
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John R.
4 years 9 months ago

The park could affect pitchers’ and hitters’ approaches. So, possibly, pitchers in PetCo aren’t afraid to challenge hitters, and as a result they get more Ks.

Jason
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Jason
4 years 9 months ago

What kind of effect does foul territory have on K’s? I would imagine that small foul territories would raise K’s because instead of a foul popout to the thirdbaseman you have another strike on the batter because the ball goes out of play.

… and the batters’ eye too :)

OED
Guest
OED
4 years 9 months ago

We ought to consult a dictionary before using “pursuance” like that.

Joshsaysgomo
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Joshsaysgomo
4 years 9 months ago

This article is a bit of a stretch. He’s saying he doesn’t want A LOT of high K-guys in the line-up, not that he wants to get rid of ALL of them. Towers states:

“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.”

Thus, only really using Mike Cameron and Phil Nevin to analyze this is not really analyzing anything. Sorry.

Joshsaysgomo
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Joshsaysgomo
4 years 9 months ago

*To analyze his “pattern” of getting rid of high-K guys

david
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david
4 years 9 months ago

On a list of huge, unsupportable leaps between fact and theory in this piece, the one you point out may only rank #5 overall.

dirtbag
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dirtbag
4 years 9 months ago

If this is true, Paul Goldschmidt’s days with the DBacks are few.

Shaun Catron
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Shaun Catron
4 years 9 months ago

One Two Three Four I declare a thumb WinsAboveReplacement

Leather Mini Skirt
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

all the years coming more bad & tough than ever before…time is going more difficult to pass.

david
Guest
david
4 years 9 months ago

And really, who can argue with this!?!?!?!

test
Guest
test
4 years 9 months ago

In a park like he has, which is large, I would think a lower K% approach is a good thing out of proportion with it’s usual minor benefits. Although Arizona has never had a high average hitter aside from Luis Gonzalez, and only Upton even has a shot at .300 this year, the team is hitting 22 points higher at home this year, and it was a bigger difference last year.

The NL West is a weird division for park factors though, with the best hitters park (Coors), another strong hitters park in Arizona, the best pitchers park (SD), and two other pitchers parks (SF and LA). It’s hard to just look at home/away splits. Maybe Towers has a good plan though, he’s succeeded before. And I hope Hill succeeds, after watching him lose it for the last two years. He was supposed to be a .300 hitter with a bit of power, but got sidetracked and then totally lost. Maybe he can find his way back and have a few good years. Also, as a Jays fan, his defense isn’t that good. His range is lacking. Not a bad defender exactly, but not a good one either.

AJS
Guest
AJS
4 years 9 months ago

I think you missed the most interesting point:

“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.”

The key question is: is this true?

philosofool
Guest
philosofool
4 years 9 months ago

No. It low OBP that kills rallys, not Ks. Adam Dunn, until this year, was not a rally killer.

AJS
Guest
AJS
4 years 9 months ago

But if you had a team with five Adam Dunns in the middle of the order, how well would you do?

I think there’s more to the idea of run scoring than can simply be measured by a high OBP. You need guys who get hits, who put the ball in play and move runners over, etc. Most teams won’t score runs walking in the bases loaded on a regular basis.

michaelfranko
Member
michaelfranko
4 years 9 months ago

I’m reminded of the recent series of posts that came out of Should Hit Percentage, which basically all broke down to BABIP (no control over) and your K-BB ratio (complete control over).

Now, I really think Aaron Hill sucks at baseball, so this probably isn’t the best example, but I overall I can understand where Kevin Towers is coming from and pretty much approve of it.

Even if he also traded Brandon Allen for Brad Zeigler…

Jaysfan
Guest
Jaysfan
4 years 9 months ago

Hating on strikeouts to me is an old school baseball philosophy, that I thought no longer existed at the executive level. Correct me if I’m wrong but the correlation between strikeout rate and ISO is pretty damn strong, therefore strikeouts are a neccessary evil to be able to hit for power (unless your Jose Bautista) and every team needs to be able to hit for power. Considering KJ has never been over the 30% mark in K-rate, and he has above average walk rates for his career, to me strikeouts would be an acceptable part of his game considering he still ISO’s over .200.

I’m not sure if this is true but I heard a theory before that along with rising average fastball velocities, strikeouts have increased over the years due to a change in hitters mindsets. 50 years ago hitters went to the plate doing everything they could not to strikeout, even if it meant making very weak contact, as striking out was more “embarassing.” Nowadays players are not as afraid to swing harder and occasionally miss, because of the understanding that striking out is part of being a power hitter. I know this is fangraphs and there’s no statistical evidence to back this statement up, I’m just saying it’s a theory.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 9 months ago

ARZ’s success seems inverse to its popularity on FG.

They’re incredibly stupid trade of last year … the one where they were the only team that did not benefit, is one of the key aspects to their success this year.

I have no emotional ties to ARZ, but one of my concerns was that Byrnes/Hinch and Jack Z in SEA are going to be a step backward for sabermetric front offices. ARZ replaced the stat guys and are having success, and well SEA can only get better … so I fear that’s going to create a misperception.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
4 years 9 months ago

I would argue with anyone who says Hill is a better defender than Johnson.

Hill used to be pretty good out there (though never great), but in recent years he’s been fairly clearly below average, IMO. He used to have very good range but that seems to have dried up, and he doesn’t have great glove or hands either. I’d say he’s mediocre at best, but probably a bit below average.

I haven’t seen enough of Johnson to know for sure, but for now I’ll trust the 3-year UZR numbers aren’t complete fiction:

3-year UZR/150:

Johnson: +5.0 (2893inn)
Hill: -1.0 (3511inn)

I’ll accept that the UZR numbers might be a bit misleading, and that they might be closer than those numbers indicate…..but I think anyone hoping that Hill will be a defensive UPGRADE over KJ is probably going to be dissappointed.

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Guest
4 years 8 months ago

Even though this view is said often now, this is continuing to be something that needs to be commented on. This was a pretty good post.

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