You have no doubt seen, in virtually every analysis of the Indians’ offseason acquisitions, that the four most prominent new offensive players—Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, and Drew Stubbs—struck out a combined 621 times last season. That represents a bit more than ten percent of the plate appearances the Indians had in 2012, so if you were thinking that’s a lot, you are correct.
What is less clear is whether it matters. Five of the top ten in the AL in wins above replacement last year struck out more than a hundred times, so strikeouts and strong performance are not mutually exclusive. However, of the top ten in WAR, only one struck out in more than 22 percent of his plate appearances. Swisher and Bourn were right around there; Reynolds and Stubbs were over 30 percent. It would seem there is a point where strikeouts do have a detrimental effect on overall performance, possibly at above 25 percent of plate appearances. Unless you are Adam Dunn.
I think the key thing about strikeouts is that there are two kinds. There’s the kind where the pitcher throws it as hard as he can, the batter swings as hard as he can, and, mano a mano, the pitcher comes out ahead. This is okay, provided that when the batter comes out ahead something pretty spectacular happens (see Mr. Dunn, for example) and that the hitter is smart enough to recognize that swinging as hard as possible is not always the best strategy. The other kind of strikeout is the kind where you have no stinking clue what kind of pitch is coming, no plan for how to approach the at bat, you are just gonna swing hard and see what happens. As much as I loved Grady Sizemore, there were times when it seemed like this is what was happening with him.
The question is, how can you tell which category the four new Indians fit into? Well, there is one situation where a strikeout is completely unacceptable: a runner on third, less than two outs. In this situation, any kind of contact is very likely to result in a run, so the sensible thing to do is to swing a bit less wildly and put the bat on the ball. A hitter who has a decent grasp of what he is doing should be able to adjust his approach in this situation and avoid the strikeout. It would follow that performance in this situation is a good indicator of which category a strikeout-prone hitter falls into. With all the standard warnings for small sample size, here are the career conversion percentages with a runner at third and less than two out for the four newest Indians (MLB average is 51%):
- Bourn: 50%
- Swisher: 49%
- Reynolds: 44%
- Stubbs: 36%
This is not a big surprise. The two players who strike out the most frequently have the lowest conversion percentage. This also matches the eye test—because Stubbs, who in the times I have watched seems to have the worst approach to his at bats, is by far the worst in this situation. Swisher and, to a lesser extent, Reynolds are big swingers who are able to make contact when the situation demands it. They also have the extra base hit power that tends to justify a higher number of strikeouts. Stubbs has 51 home runs in three full major league seasons, indicating that he is simply a poor hitter, nothing more.
Bourn is more of a mystery. With his speed and lack of power, he should be making every effort to make contact or draw walks, but his career high in walks is 70 and he routinely strikes out in more than 20 percent of his plate appearances. His strikeouts are more detrimental than most because he has a chance to beat out almost any ground ball that is not fielded cleanly, and he obviously does not generate the extra-base hits that would justify swinging hard all the time. So let’s hope he works on this.
It is critical for the Indians’ offense that Bourn and Michael Brantley to get on base at least 35 percent of the time so that Asdrubal Cabrera, Swisher, and Carlos Santana have plenty of chances to drive in runs. Brantley has been steadily trending in this direction and it seems likely he will continue to improve. If Bourn does not change his approach enough to maintain a solid on-base percentage, I hope that Terry Francona will follow logic over tradition and put the guy who does the best job getting on base in the leadoff spot.