Kevin Towers’s Strikeout Lowering Crusade Proceeds

“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 in your lineup, it’s hard to sustain any sort of rally.”

Those were among Kevin Towers’s first official words as Arizona’s general manager. His actions have, more or less, backed up the philosophy espoused therein. He inherited a team that finished with an atrocious 24.7 percent strikeout rate in 2010. His first moves saw Mark Reynolds traded and Adam LaRoche dismissed to free agency. As 2011 progressed, Kelly Johnson and his 27 percent strikeout rate was dealt to the Blue Jays for Aaron Hill and his 13 percent strikeout rate.

Not every move Towers has made has been strikeout-crazed — both Jason Kubel and Cody Ross are noted whiffers — but overall the effects have been notable. The Diamondbacks lowered their strikeout rate by over four percentage points (down to 20.6 percent). As the league strikeout rate rose by over a full percentage point (18.6 to 19.8), the Diamondbacks’ strikeout rate held steady.

Still, the Diamondbacks struck out more than the league average again last season. The club Towers inherited just didn’t have the consummate pitch recognizer and contact hitter to match his stated desire in the organization when he joined. The only two players to receive at least 300 plate appearances since 2011 with elite strikeout rates (15 percent or lower) are Hill and Willie Bloomquist, a free agent acquisition during Towers’s first offseason.

Since July, four more high-strikeout players have been given the boot from the organization: Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Chris Johnson and, of course, Justin Upton. The quartet featured strikeout rates of 21.4 percent, 21.3 percent, 25.0 percent and 19.0 percent as Diamondbacks the last two seasons. Replacing them will be shortstop acquisition Didi Gregorious, center field prospect Adam Eaton, corner outfield acquisition Cody Ross and third base acquisition Martin Prado.

Although Ross doesn’t fit the mold at all — he struck out 24 percent of the time last season — the other three do considerably. Gregorius and Eaton each own career minor league strikeout rates below 14 percent. Prado defines pitch recognition and contact — he struck out just 10.0 percent of the time last season and owns an 11.0 percent career rate. His 26.2 percent career PITCHf/x out-of-zone swing rate sits nearly three percentage points below the league average, and his 90.1 percent career contact rate bests the league average by over 10 percentage points.

Towers didn’t even want four high-strikeout guys in his lineup, but he’ll have them in Ross, Kubel, Paul Goldschmidt (24.2 percent) and Miguel Montero (20.2 percent). Still, the Justin Upton trade and the rest of the moves Towers has made in the last six months or so have stayed within his stated desire for contact hitters and the general theme of lowering strikeouts throughout the roster.

The efficacy of Towers’s anti-strikeout crusade remains to be seen — Prado, Eaton, Gregorius et. al will have to hit a lot more singles to make up for the home runs departing with Upton, Young and Drew. Regardless, it seems apparent Towers wasn’t bluffing when he indicated the culture of Ks would change upon his arrival in Arizona just over two years ago.




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45 Responses to “Kevin Towers’s Strikeout Lowering Crusade Proceeds”

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  1. Ryan Simmelink says:

    It’s definitely going against what the norm of the current day. There seems like there can be value found in this as other teams are looking for high walk/high power players more often, leaving those players who make their living making contact. A real possibility that the DBacks are going to find some sort of market inefficiency to exploit.

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    • Aaron (UK) says:

      Alternatively, a real possibility that the DBacks are going to be some sort of market inefficiency to exploit.

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      • eckmuhl says:

        From the trades we’ve seen from Towers this offseason, Aaron’s possibility seems far more likely. The notion of playing gritty small ball when your home park is a HR haven doesn’t seem to have a lot of common sense attached to it, either.

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      • David says:

        eckmuhl, welcome to the world of Kevin Towers. Common sense not included.

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      • Bill says:

        I could see the Padres pursuing this strategy, but I can’t see this working out in the bandbox in Arizona.

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    • diegosanchez says:

      It’s a fact that power guys are more expensive so this is also another way of keeping the payroll down, or alternatively, being able to spend more on one power guy, retaining premium talent, or on pitchers.

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      • Ryan Simmelink says:

        I totally agree with this. The pattern I’ve been seeing from the DBacks is that they are turning to guys who will force teams to beat them on the field, pitchers who excel at getting ground balls, and who’s to say that going after these non-traditional power bats wont lead to these players putting up higher than average power numbers themselves? Just because a guy is now hitting the ball 375 feet as opposed to 365 does not make them worse than a hitter who hits a ball 420 feet instead of 410 at a ballpark like this.

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    • Petruchio says:

      I can understand the appeal of a Moneyball-style offense – power hitters sell Cadillacs, contact hitters wreck Fords, or something – but I’d be surprised that any team would proactively seek out a uniform offense. Intuitively, that kind of team seems easier to exploit that one flexible enough to toolbox power, speed, patience or contact as needed. Three of the previous teams to appear in the World Series (2010 Texas, 2011 Texas, 2012 Giants) had dynamic offenses.

      The park factors for Chase Field vary each year, but it’s always at least a Top 10 ballpark for H, HR, 2B or 3B, often in multiple categories. I’d think a high K, high OBP/XBH team would fit Arizona just as well as a high H would.

      Curious?

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  2. TX Ball Scout says:

    lol @ towers

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  3. Daniel says:

    Is Upton at 19.0% really a high-K player?

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    • Ryan Simmelink says:

      He’s been over 120 K’s every year since 2008. 19.2% might be right around the league average, but that is still a high % and a high number overall.

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    • sewf says:

      The average K% in the NL the past three years have been 20.2% (2012), 19.1% (2011), and 19.3% (2012). The last two years, Upton has had around a league average K%, which is an improvement over the first few years of his career.

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    • Well, it certainly is not low. His contact rate for 2012 is still a very low 78%, whereas most good hitters are 85%+.

      Or put it this way, most good hitters have much better than average strikeout rates. He has been average. (Much as Ryan noted)

      But to sewf’s point, he has greatly improved the past two seasons, over his prior career, when he was much worse. However, this might be his current talent level as it went up in 2012 slightly while be roughly about where it was in 2011.

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  4. tz says:

    Do you think Towers would take on Michael Young’s salary and trade Goldschmidt? Or should he just trade him for a cheaper option, like Jordan Pacheco?

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    • catzindogz says:

      You really think Philly would move Young after dealing two prospects for him earlier in the off-season? And besides, Texas is picking up $10 million of the $16M contract

      I think Goldschmidt is more part of the solution than part of the problem. You don’t need 8 Martin Prados in your lineup

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  5. David says:

    What?

    “The Diamondbacks lowered their strikeout rate by over four percentage points (down to 20.6 percent). As the league strikeout rate rose by over a full percentage point (18.6 to 19.8), the Diamondbacks’ strikeout rate held steady.”

    They lowered it by four percentage points, but it held steady? Am I missing something, or is my math broken?

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  6. d_i says:

    Piggybacking off of Jeff’s post yesterday, I compared team K% from 08-12 to wRC+ and found a correlation of -.2923 with an R^2 of .0855 (BB% was .4674 and .2185 respectively FYI) for those five years. Reducing Ks and expecting a jump in runs takes a bit of a leap of faith by those figures.

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  7. Hurtlockertwo says:

    The Giants had a 17.7% strikeout rate last year and that seemed to work. Marco Scutero made a huge impact just making contact. I always thought that putting the ball in play had many more advantages than just striking out and waiting for someone to hit a HR??

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    • d_i says:

      Anecdotal examples abound on both sides. The As had a 22.4 K%. Larger sample sizes show a pretty small correlation between Ks and Runs.

      From Wil in yesterday’s comments:

      To steal from CAC:

      “In The Book: Playing The Percentages In Baseball, Tango shows (Table 11) that value of a strikeout is worth -.301 runs, while a non-strikeout is worth -.299 runs”

      So there is little difference between a K and any other out. Especially true because any non K out is always subject to the possibility of multiple outs, while a K can only result in one out.

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      • Jay29 says:

        “…a K can only result in one out.”

        What about strike-em-out, throw-em-out double plays? Surely in a 3-2 count with 1 out and an average runner on first, there’s a chance it’s more detrimental to K than to put it in play, right?

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      • larry jones says:

        There’s a huge “but” there to that data though, right? That data was compiled (please, correct me if this is mistaken) in a vastly different offensive era (or accross multiple offensive eras). Can we expect that the current run environments be similar–in the shortterm–to the past in terms of the value of a K? Maybe not.

        Surely, run environment changes the optimal strategy a team should employ(just as one would say the Mariners should employ a different strategy than, say, Texas…assuming power and K correlation)? Why wouldn’t league-wide run environment also change the value of K?

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Right, but at the same time, a k can never result in a run. A ball in play can. Granted, fly all outs are probably more valuable than ground outs. This is why we need a speed index. The normal GB FB and LD stuff but also with speed of ball off the bat.

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  8. midgley's folly says:

    well, the d-backs scored 731 in 2011 with that 24% k rate and 734 runs in 2012 when they lowered it by four percentage points. so look out for a 750-run eruption if they can ever get that k rate below zero.

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    • larry jones says:

      A run in 2011 has a different value than a run in 2012. League wide offense was down in 2012, making the value of those 3 extra runs mean more than the nominal value that you’re presenting.

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    • dirtbag says:

      midgley’s folly wins the internet today!

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  9. jcxy says:

    The problem with the Dbacks isn’t the offense, Ks, Upton, etc. It’s the pitching (and, by extension, the defense).

    Go back to what Dave Cameron wrote last week–you want to be a better team in 2013? Don’t worry about scoring more runs, do a better job at preventing them. And that’s the thing that has to kill Dbacks fans…you have the pieces to implement that strategy and for some reason you won’t. I don’t think you have to squint too much to see that turning Upton/Johnson into Parra/Prado should be a win for the defense, pitchers, and ultimately the team (it gets tougher to say that when you include the 2 other years of Upton, of course). But the kicker is you won’t play Parra enough over Kubel…their AB totals should be reversed.

    If there’s something to cry about in all of this, it’s that.

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    • I’ve been saying this for over 4 years now. Looking at Pythogorean, when you have a low RA team, you only need a piddling offense in order to win 90 games, and have a good chance for the playoffs. Also, if you have a good pitching staff, they will regularly keep the score low (because they will throw a lot of quality starts), making it easier to win regularly with that piddling offense.

      On top of that, studies (BP and THT) has shown that offense provides no competitive advantage in the playoffs. It is pitching and fielding that wins in the playoffs, according to their separate studies, using different methodologies. Furthermore, BP found that it has been high strikeout pitching staffs and great closers (WRXL) that are key traits of teams going deep into the playoffs (those and good fielding).

      So the D-backs should have kept those high strikeout pitchers, and if they were going to trade off position players, they should have been trying to get back strikeout pitchers, as well as hitters who make high contact rates.

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      • Vin says:

        Yeah – remember all those championships the Braves won?

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      • uspsjeter2 says:

        Once again Vin offers succinct and insightful analysis. 14 division titles in a row is a pretty good indicator of the Braves success with this philosophy. I’d wager more than a couple of other franchises would settle for Atlanta’s track record.

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  10. dirtbag says:

    Normally this would confuse me, but I’ve already come to the conclusion that Towers is still being paid by San Diego to destroy the Diamondbacks…

    If you don’t like hitters who strike out because strikeouts are bad for the offense, wouldn’t you also favor pitchers who have high strikeout rates?

    Wouldn’t you put together a pitching staff that finished higher than 11th in the NL in strikeouts?

    Wouldn’t you avoid trading your top pitching prospects in consecutive years, especially because both of them had excellent strikeout rates in the minors?

    Wouldn’t you laugh in someone’s face if they asked you pay $13M for Heath Bell because he’s 35 years old and his strikeout rate has fallen off a cliff?

    Wouldn’t you…

    Ah, never mind…

    “Kevin Towers is smarter than the so-called experts. That isn’t meant sarcastically. The Arizona Diamondbacks’ GM knows what he’s doing, and has both the background and track record to prove it. Skeptics panning his recent moves don’t have his 16 years of experience as a big-league general manager, nor have they been a minor-league pitching coach or scouting director.”

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  11. marlins12 says:

    At least the guys they have now who strike out are gritty. Getting pissed after a strikeout instead of walking with a Justin Upton swag surely should result in a couple more wins this year.

    Fangraphs is working on SWAG- to demonstrate this.

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  12. TheRealDonMattingly says:

    Bill James studied this phenomenon in the ’90′s and showed that getting on base is indeed important, and thus strikeouts are bad. The Tango info is dubious. Baseball is the only game I’m aware of where one team theoretically can score an infinite amount. With no clock, timer, frames, sets, or other restrictions, as long as the 3rd out is not recorded an inning continues. So the only thing more valuable than getting on base is recording more than one base. A quick scan of team runs scored last year seems to bear this out. Looking at OBP and SLG, a team’s OPS seems to correlate highly with actual runs scored. It’s a very near match when sorting runs scored in descending order and overlaying OPS> With one major exception, Boston. They were anomalous in numerous ways in 2012, but that’s another story….

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    • Vin says:

      So you’re saying a team that hits well will score runs?

      In other news, it gets dark at night.

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      • uspsjeter2 says:

        No Vin, I’m stating a team that gets ON BASE well, reagardless of how, scores runs. Perhaps I made a leap of faith in assuming readers like you understood the difference. I’ll make sure I’m clear in the future.

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    • Deadpool says:

      Yes, Ks are bad. So are groundouts and flyball outs. They may even be worse than those two. Just means you gotta be a better hitter when you don’t K. The secret to baseball isn’t some elusive combination of player types and grit. The secret is get players that produce, doesn’t matter how they go about it.

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      • uspsjeter2 says:

        The entire concept of Moneyball is basing team construction around research suggesting that the concept actually is elusive. Billy Beane was mocked mercilessly for throwing out old axioms regarding hitting and lineup construction, but he stayed the course and shattered a lot of myths and cliches. The problem seems to be either people cannot accept what “production” really is, or that it actually continues to be misunderstood. Jack Cust may be the player that most exemplifies this.

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  13. Marco Scutaro says:

    What is the correlation between K% and W% anyway?

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    • uspsjeter2 says:

      Not really in-depth research, but a quick glance at 2012 shows the A’s, Orioles, Nationals, Braves, and Reds in top 10 teams with highest K%. Indians, Twins, and Royals had the 3 lowest K%. Indications are very low correlation.

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  14. Jthom17 says:

    I saw Arizona lauding the Upton/Prado trade because of how good a base runner Prado was in addition to his contact skills. I thought Upton was a very good base runner.
    After his major offseason moves (Bell, Bauer & Upton) Towers obiviously thinks he is smarter than everyone else. The way the Upton trade was handled definitely lowered his value.

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  15. Synovia says:

    A bit of sloppy writing in this one :

    “Since July, four more high-strikeout players have been given the boot from the organization:… Justin Upton. The quartet featured strikeout rates … 19.0 percent as Diamondbacks the last two seasons. ”

    Right after saying that 19.8 is now league average.

    Justin Upton strikes out less than league average now, so I’d say calling him a high strikeout guy is a bit inaccurate.

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