Q&A: The Importance of Strikeout Percentage

I don’t usually do a regular Q&A, although I received a few of the same questions a few weeks ago after my write up of Bryce Brentz in the 3/15 Draft Prospects Rundown, in which I said the following:

Brentz had a big week, going 7-for-20 with four homers, raising his season line to .369/.453/.708. Brentz is hitting for a .370/.420/.783 line in 46 at-bats in the month of March, with six homers in his last eight games. He also has a 14 game hitting streak going, with Opening Day being the only game he didn’t get a hit this year. One downside is that Brentz is striking out more than usual. Last year he struck out just 14% of the time. This year he’s up to 26%, which is worse than his freshman year. He went 7-for-20 last week, but struck out in 8 of his remaining 13 at-bats, including four strikeouts on Friday.

The question that I saw was very similar to the question below:

Hi Tim,

I’ve been a fan of your site for a long time and read it every day if I can. You’ve got a lot of great analysis and keep me up to date on everything going on with the Pirates.

One thing, however, keeps popping up in your scouting reports of various players and it raises some questions that have been bugging me lately. You keep mentioning players’ strikeout percentage and how they are too high. It came up a lot with Pedro Alvarez and I see it again in your report on Bryce Brentz. My question is this: is a high strikeout rate really an issue? I feel like strikeouts wouldn’t be any worse than another kind of out (e.g. ground out, but at least with a K there’s no risk of GIDP). I could understand if it was an issue because it was indicative of another problem (like the batter wasn’t making good contact or had bad plate patience or something) but based on the other numbers of Alvarez and Brentz that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Maybe I’m missing something fundamental here or maybe you can give me some information that would enlighten me. Strikeout percentage was just something that got me curious and I figured you could help me out given how informative your site always is.

Thanks a lot and keep up the good work!

Andrew

The importance and significance of strikeouts really depends on the level.  Andrew’s opinion about strikeouts being no worse than any kind of out is one that I share at the major league level.  I’ll take Adam Dunn striking out 200 times a season, as long as he’s also hitting 40 homers and getting on base 38-40% of the time.  You get the “strikeouts aren’t a productive out” argument in response, but strikeouts aren’t the worst kind of out.  A double play is a worse kind of out.  Adam Dunn hitting in to a fielder’s choice, leaving a slow Adam Dunn on first base with two outs is probably worse than a strikeout by Dunn with Nyjer Morgan remaining on first with two outs.

Once you get past the major league level and start going down the ladder, strikeouts start to matter more, as they’re an indicator of skill level.  Using Pedro Alvarez as an example, there were a lot of concerns when he struck out 28.8% of the time to start the 2009 season in high-A.  The high strikeout number either means that the player has a big hole in his swing, or worse, that he’s over-matched at the level or lacks plate patience.  Alvarez moved up to AA and saw a 26.6% strikeout rate, which is still poor, although his offensive numbers were excellent, which indicates more of a hole in his swing than being over-matched.

The problem here is that the higher you advance, the better the pitching gets.  The better the pitching, the more that pitching is going to exploit whatever weakness you’ve got.  I believe that in the case of Alvarez, you’ve got a three true outcomes hitter, kind of like Adam Dunn.  Alvarez may have struck out a lot, but he did walk 13% of the time last year, showing that it’s not a problem with plate patience, and most likely a hole in his swing.  That’s common with big power hitters, and when the pitcher misses that spot, the ball usually travels a long way.

It’s easier to make that assumption about Alvarez though, since he performed so well at the AA level.  In the case of Bryce Brentz, you have a guy who not only is hitting in college baseball, but is hitting in a weak conference.  In 2008, Brentz struck out 22% of the time as a freshman.  He drastically improved that number to 14% in 2009, but this year has slipped to 27% strikeouts.

Pedro Alvarez striking out 27% of the time at the AA level is one thing.  Bryce Brentz striking out 27% of the time in the Sun Belt Conference is completely different.  Sure, Brentz is crushing the ball, with a homer every 10.25 at-bats, and a 1.150 OPS on the season.  But what happens when he can’t use a metal bat?  Will the power numbers still remain and justify the strikeouts?  What happens when he faces pitchers better than the ones he’s seeing in the Sun Belt Conference?  If Sun Belt pitchers can strike him out 27% of the time as a junior, then how is he expected to eventually dominate the AA level?

By comparison, Alvarez had a 26.7% strikeout ratio his freshman year.  However, he improved that to 23.9% in his sophomore year, and 16.8% in his junior year.  Alvarez also played in a major conference, which gives his numbers a little more credibility than Brentz.

I don’t want to make it sound like Brentz is doomed to become a Steve Pearce or Brian Bixler type player who strikes out at an alarming rate at the higher levels.  The strikeouts are just a concern, because a player as highly touted as Brentz should be dominating Sun Belt pitching at the plate, and not the other way around.  In his third year, Brentz should see a progression in his strikeout ratio, kind of like Alvarez saw.  He shouldn’t see a regression.  That raises some questions about whether he’ll be able to handle pitching at the higher levels, especially when you consider the chance that his offensive success could be aided by a metal bat in a weak conference.  Those questions are why, unlike Alvarez at AA or Dunn in the majors, you can’t just look at the offensive numbers for Brentz without some sort of concern.

If you have any questions, feel free to use the Contact Form.  I try to answer every e-mail I get, and if I get a lot of e-mails on the same topic, I usually address it in a post.  I may continue with this format for those types of questions from now on.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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