20 September 2010

Blind as a Batters' Eye?

Tomorrow's strikeout record holds little historical significance, when the Diamondbacks breeze by the all time seasonal futility mark. That's because our precious candy smackers swing away in baseball's most extreme strikeout era. Eight clubs have tallied 1300 Ks since Milwaukee set the standard (1399) in 2001, and the Marlins could be the ninth next week.

The record does carry contemporary significance, however, for several reasons:

-- Arizona makes less frequent contact than their competitors, which means quality contact is that much more critical when bat does occasionally meet ball.

-- They are not tiptoeing past this standard. It's sobering to consider that if whaler-in-chief Mark Reynolds had been replaced all season by a third baseman making average contact (somebody has to make those 600 plate appearances), the Dbacks would still own the dubious record by season's end.

-- They are doing this playing half the schedule in a hitters' park, featuring what is universally recognized as an advantageous "batters' eye".

This last point stands out, because strikeouts are so often associated with seeing the ball. Everybody hits better at Chase, in terms of homers and OPS. You'd think the windfall would extend to strikeouts, but Arizona wiffs more at home than anyone else and their K rate isnt appreciably higher on the road either.

I had theorized that maybe the batter's eye was in some ways a crutch and that an ocular countereffect might be occuring. Our team performs more often under these excellent visual conditions, and wondered if some of them werent developing lazy visual habits. Somewhat analogous to playing a video game on an easy level, "playing down" to that level, then struggling when you ramp up to "normal".

There is evidence the Dbacks emerge from spring training some years, hitting unusually well in April, with their effectively "new" background once they head north, and then the bats kind of fade as the seasons wear on. But I'm not sure if it applies to strikeouts so neatly. This year, for example, Arizona led the NL and majors in that category every single month, although interestingly, Toronto just nipped Arizona for the April mark.

The bigger factor, certainly, is the players that Josh Byrnes valued and acquired. Relative to other teams, the Dbacks started to strike out a lot in 2008, despite the fact all the core "offenders" excepting Upton, were full timers in 2007. Reynolds, Young, Drew, Snyder. Their collective strikeout rate has actually increased over time - and with experience. Could that be a long term batters' eye issue? Coaching and approach? Or something else?

Beyond the why, how important are all these swings and misses? That can make for a colorful debate, let me tell you. And it's not as simple as it sounds. We know that plenty of marvelously productive hitters strike out a lot. And that high strikeout teams score a fair amount of aggregate runs. But we also know that high strikeout pitchers are generally more successful. By successful, I mean recording outs and winning games. Strikeout pitchers limit the overall number of balls put in play, and may also better dictate the distribution of aggregate runs (ie by reaching back for a K at critical junctures).

Even those of us who recognize there's not much of a relationship between a lineup's seasonal strikeouts and total runs, also realize it would benefit the Dbacks to get more men on base - all else being equal. If it's true that pitchers can manipulate game results to their advantage via the strikeout, it stands to reason there are manipulated lineups out there, and we should acknowledge the most vulnerable among them.

1 comment:

LoveMyDbacks said...

Very well written. I dont agree with everything you say or write, but I do like to read properly written material. Definately strike outs are a serious issue for the D'Backs. There was an article in the Az Republic recently on this matter.