“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.