In any small sample of data, you’ll always be able to find things that stand out. Nick Hundley is now apparently Ted Williams, which is kind of a neat trick for a catcher who plays half his games in Petco. Of course, we’ve all had “small sample size” engrained into our thoughts, so we can look at these statistical abnormalities and realize that, given time, they’ll straighten themselves out. By and large, they don’t actually mean anything, but they’re still kind of interesting.
To me, perhaps the most interesting of the early season statistical flukes is the large group of sluggers who have essentially stopped striking out this year. We talked about Joey Votto on Tuesday, but at least his reduction in strikeouts is somewhat understandable — pitchers have just stopped throwing him strikes. However, Votto is far from the only slugger whose K% has taken a drastic nosedive to begin the season.
Seriously, sort the leaderboards by K% and look at the names. A.J. Pierzynski makes sense, since he’s always been about putting the bat on the ball and he has an ISO of .051 so far. Chipper Jones and his one strikeout are somewhat surprising, but he’s also been a higher contact guy for most of his career, and he doesn’t have the power he once had. Miguel Tejada? Omar Infante? Okay, nothing weird there.
Now look at number five on the list. Prince Fielder? What? The guy has struck out 120+ times in five consecutive seasons, and he’s been remarkably consistent the last three years, striking out 134, 138, and 138 times respectively. In the first two weeks of 2011, however, he’s struck out twice. Coming into the season, his career low for any month in which he played regularly was 15 strikeouts, and over the last three years, he’s only had three months with fewer than 20 strikeouts. He’s on pace to finish April with five. He’s made contact with 97.5% of pitches in the strike zone, the same rate that Juan Pierre and Brett Gardner had last year.
And yet, despite putting bat on ball like a speedy leadoff hitter, seven of Fielder’s 15 base hits have gone for extra bases and he’s slugging .718 on the season. That just doesn’t happen.
Keep going down the list – Adrian Gonzalez has three strikeouts in 47 trips to the plate. His teammate David Ortiz — notorious for his slow starts to begin the season the last few years – has four whiffs in 44 plate appearances. Paul Konerko, Joey Votto, and Miguel Cabrera are also among the league leaders in fewest strikeouts per at-bat, despite all still pounding the baseball with regularity.
Justin Upton struck out in 30.7% of his plate appearances last year, but has cut that to 15.9% so far in 2011 and has added 100 points to his ISO at the same time. Troy Tulowitzki, he of the highest of all of baseball, has struck out in under 14% of his trips to the plate. Alex Rodriguez has as many home runs as strikeouts. Matt Kemp’s torrid April has been highlighted by his dramatically reduced K% through the first two weeks of the season.
There’s no way this will last. Albert Pujols had the lowest K% of any hitter with an ISO over .250 last year, and he came in at 12.9%. Only a half dozen guys were able to hit for a lot of power while keeping their strikeout rates below 20%, much less below 10%. There’s a trade-off that is made between contact and power, and big guys wisely choose to take the whiffs in order to get more value out of their hits when they do make contact.
Being able to hit for both contact and power at the same time is a rare combination… except for in April, 2011 apparently.
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