Lots of Whiffs, but where are the Ks?

Sort among batters for swinging strike rate over the past three years, and (unsurprisingly) you’ll get a list that features most of the strikeout kings at the plate. Mark Reynolds (17.5% swinging strikes) and Ryan Howard (15.3%) obviously belong based on their respective career strikeout rates (38.7% and 32% respectively). But track a little further down the list and you’ll notice that a high swinging strike rate is not always a harbinger of a high strikeout rate.

You won’t have to go far. Even third place on the list, Josh Hamilton, has a decent strikeout rate (20.6%) despite his high swinging strike rate (13.7%). Delmon Young even pairs a better-than-average strikeout rate (18.6% career) with a top-ten worst swinging strike percentage (12.7%) over the last three years. Clearly, the tendency to swing and miss at offerings is not the sole determinant of a batter’s strikeout rate.

Follow the list down to the way 20th spot to where a possible reason for these outliers might become clear. Yes, Vladimir Guerrero comes in as the 20th-highest swing-and-misser by swinging strike rate over the last three years, and yet his career strikeout rate (12.2%) is well below average (usually around 20%). Now you’re looking at three players (five if you count Jeff Francoeur and Kevin Kouzmanoff) that pair decent strikeout rates with poor swinging strike rates, and all of the players have something in common.

Yup, all five players have below-average walk rates and are known for being free swingers. The lowest three-year reach rate of this crew was Kouzmanoff’s 34.5%, so they were all well-above average in that category, and though Hamilton’s career walk rate (8.3%) is decent, he has dropped that number to 6.6% and 7.5% the last few years. It looks like aggressive free swingers can avoid the strikeout even in the face of poor swinging strike numbers.

And in a way that’s completely understandable. Swing often, and early, and you may never get to that two strike count where the whiff means a K. By take more pitches, the count gets deeper, and the likelihood of a strikeout rises. A lower strikeout rate is a strange ‘benefit’ to having a free-swinging approach, but it looks to be true.

The effect seems to hold. Let’s set the three-year benchmarks so that a player has to have swung at more than 34% of pitches outside the zone and walked less than 8% of the time while showing a swinging strike percentage over 10. The highest three-year strikeout rate given that collection of statistics? The 20.8% put forth by Adam Jones. (Brennan Boesch qualified and put up a 21.3% strikeout rate last year but doesn’t have three years of data yet). Obviously, there’s some selection bias here- a player that reaches often, doesn’t walk, and has a poor strikeout rate might not survive long enough to show in a three-year sample. But there’s a long way from an average strikeout rate (around 20%) to a poor-but-passable one (around 30%), and none of these free-swingers ended up in that zone either.

It’s a tricky spot to be in – a player with contact problems may be best served (at least in the arena of strikeouts) by gripping and ripping it. An aggressive approach could help him lower his strikeout rate as we see here. Then again, that same aggressive approach will remove some of the player’s value by cutting his walk rate. Screwed if you do, screwed if you don’t?

(H/T to Paul Bourdett and Sky Kalkman for the twitter convo that inspired this post.)

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.