True Outcomes and Players Through Time

Most readers understand that the phrase Three True Outcomes (TTO) refers to walks, strike outs and home runs. In an August 2000 article at Baseball Prospectus, Rany Jazayerli noted that these outcomes are “true” in the sense that they are largely independent of all things — outside that mano-a-mano moment between the batter and the pitcher:

Together, the Three True Outcomes distill the game to its essence, the battle of pitcher against hitter, free from the distractions of the defense, the distortion of foot speed or the corruption of managerial tactics like the bunt and his wicked brother, the hit-and-run.

None of the three true outcomes are significantly impacted by what happens outside the batters box*. Therefore, players with a higher percentage of plate appearances that end in TTOs have their fate largely decided at the plate. The poster child for the TTO? Rob Deer. His career TTO percentage ((HR+SO+BB)/(PA)) was 49.7%.

I thought it’d be interesting to look at how TTO players have evolved over time and what accounts for their successes and failures.

This visual shows how the percentage of full-time position players classified as TTO has changed over time. The white bars are the percentage of TTO players in a given season compared to other full time players (>= 500 PAs). The lines illustrate the trends in league-wide home run, strikeout and walk rates per plate appearance.

And who’s that lone player in 1920? He’s Babe Ruth. After that Ruth season, we don’t see any TTO players again until Mickey Mantle, in 1961. After the Mantle year there are only a few TTO players sprinkled in here and there. But in 1986 we see a string of 26 uninterrupted seasons — with the exception of 1994 — with at least one full- time player who reached the TTO plateau.

In 2008, Major League Baseball saw the most TTO players (seven) and the highest-ever percentage of TTO players (5%).

If we raise the qualifying bar a bit — to home runs, strikeouts and walks greater than or equal to 50% of all plate appearances — we get the following:

I wanted to go back the Ruth era, so I didn’t exclude intentional walks because that data was not available until 1955. Either way, though, it’s pretty clear what drove the rise of TTO players: home runs and strikeouts.

Between 1920 and 2011, league-wide strikeouts per plate appearance increased 139%. Home runs? A whopping 258%. Walks, though, only increased 12%. The degree to which batters walked actually peaked back in the late-1940s. Strikeout and home run rates peaked much later.

As far as individual players go, the tables below show the number of times players qualified with TTO seasons at both the 50% and 45% levels (sorted on 45%, top 20 only):

Player (with iBB) 50% 45%
Jim Thome 3 12
Adam Dunn 3 8
Rob Deer 3 6
Carlos Pena 1 5
Mark McGwire 3 4
Mark Reynolds 2 4
Barry Bonds 2 4
Jim Edmonds 0 4
Jack Cust 2 3
Jack Clark 2 3
Ryan Howard 1 3
Mickey Tettleton 1 2
Jose Canseco 0 2
Mike Schmidt 0 2
Mark Bellhorn 0 2
Danny Tartabull 0 2
Mickey Mantle 0 2
Reggie Jackson 0 2
Jay Buhner 1 1
Dave Nicholson 1 1

While Rob Deer is typically known as the embodiment of TTO, Jim Thome has a legitimate claim to the throne, too. Thome had three seasons with a TTO above 50% and 12 seasons with a TTO above 45%.

If we remove intentional walks, Thome still looks good:

Player (w/out iBB) 50% 45%
Jim Thome 2 10
Adam Dunn 1 8
Rob Deer 3 6
Carlos Pena 0 5
Mark McGwire 1 4
Mark Reynolds 2 4
Jim Edmonds 0 3
Jack Cust 2 3
Jack Clark 1 3
Ryan Howard 1 3
Mickey Tettleton 1 2
Mike Schmidt 0 2
Mark Bellhorn 0 2
Barry Bonds 0 1
Jose Canseco 0 1
Jay Buhner 1 1
Dave Nicholson 1 1
Jimmy Wynn 0 1
Cecil Fielder 0 1
Gorman Thomas 0 1

Deer might have one more season over 50% than Thome, but Thome still has 10 seasons above 45%, which is four more than Deer and  two more than Adam Dunn. Not only that, but Thome was much more productive than Deer. Thome has a career wRC+ of 145, while Deer only managed to be 9% better than league average. Now, a 109 wRC+ for your career is nothing to sneeze at, but Thome has clearly been the better overall hitter.

So while Deer might be the poster-child for TTO, it’s safe to say that Thome — with his overall production and edge in true outcome seasons— is the greatest TTO hitter of all time.

—————-

*Of course, there is the occasional inside the park home run, which relies on batter speed, hit location, and defense. There is also the rare play where an outfielder makes a play on a fly ball and aids the ball over the fence that otherwise would have remained in the park. But, by and large, these outcomes are independent of events and variables outside of the batter’s box.




Print This Post



Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team and appears on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.


24 Responses to “True Outcomes and Players Through Time”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. cwendt says:

    Of course, 2 of the outcomes (Ks & BB) are only “True” if you assume the catcher has no effect on the ability to get strikes & balls…which we now know isn’t correct.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bill Petti says:

      Fair point, but the effect isn’t so large that we can’t still talk about those outcomes as “true”. At least, they are “truer” than others.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • cwendt says:

        Pretty much. For any one pitcher, the WAR shift if probably .1 going from the worst to the best pitcher. But it’s still there.

        At the other end, some ground balls are “truer” than others…notably the ones that are caused by a consistent ability to generate weak contact, making them easier to corral & lowering a pitcher’s BABIP.

        And if we really want to get into it, HR are a product of the pitcher, hitter & park.

        But now I’m just nitpicking. It would be interesting to lay these things out on a scale, and see how independent they really are.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. saucypony says:

    *Rany Jazayerli

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. J-Doug says:

    Any reason you chose 45% and 50% as the cutoffs? Or is it just for illustrative purposes?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Bellhorn was unique. Only middle infielder on here.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. Telo2 says:

    Jim Thome Hall of Fame?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Ian says:

    Honestly surprised Harmon Killebrew isn’t on this list.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bill Petti says:

      He just missed the cut. Had a TTO% of 44.4% in 1962.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Jon L. says:

      Killebrew put up big numbers in all three “true” outcomes his whole career, but he tended to strike out more often in his twenties, and struck out less as he started to walk more in his thirties. That sets him apart from a guy like Thome, who managed to peak in both strikeouts and walks his whole career.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. chongo says:

    My unscientific observation over the decades closely mimics that graph; there was a point in the late 1980s when Canseco- in an attempt to justify so many strikeouts in a season (which wasn’t so common then)- said to the effect that strikeouts were part of the entertainment of the game, that they were what the fans really wanted, and that even fans would prefer seeing him or a slugger strikeout than see a Gwynn or Boggs punch a single to the opposite field. It just seems that the game since that point has flooded with these TTO players. Yet another debt that we owe the great Canseco?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. BDF says:

    Bill,

    This is extremely interesting, thank you. I knew/suspected it was true in some vague but I love how you’ve quantified the dramatic change. What conclusions do you draw about the cause and/or effect and/or the nature of the game from this?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. JimNYC says:

    That first list there… Take out Mantle and you’ve basically got a straight up list of the most boring hitters to watch of all time. Barry Bonds’ PA’s got downright tedious toward the end of his career, and those early ’90′s Tigers teams — Deer, Fielder, Incaviglia, Tettleton, Tony Phillips — were probably the most unwatchable baseball teams of all time.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • bstar says:

      Yeah, watching Mike Schmidt, Jim Thome, and Reggie Jackson is/was really boring. I distinctly remember Canseco’s at-bats being a must-see, especially in the late 80s when we really hadn’t ever seen a guy that muscular swing that hard at a baseball before.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Rob says:

    3TO, not TTO.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. David says:

    No love for Russell Branyan, eh? His TTO is 50.4% – higher, even, than Rob Deer’s; I’m just guessing he didn’t have enough PAs to qualify.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bill Petti says:

      For the individual leader board I used >= 500 PAs in a season. Branyan only had one such season (2009) and he did have a TTO% of over 47%, but I just listed the top 20 in the article.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Ken says:

    Ground rule doubles apparently are not be included/counted for some reason? Perhaps, they don’t amount to a significant number, or they are not recorded or distinguished in the record books? And, is the strikeout that results in the batter reaching base due to a wild pitch or passed ball counted? If so, is it a positive number or negative?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. Spa City says:

    HBP is not a true outcome?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. Spa City says:

    HBP is not a true outcome?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current ye@r *