Monday, July 22, 2013

2013 Atlanta Braves Myths: Part VIII

Some of the most interesting myths concerning the Braves are about strikeouts.  Everybody knew coming into this season that the Braves were going to strike out at a ridiculous rate.  From the moment this team was constructed, arguments against that construction were presented by many, many, MANY commentators, bloggers, and people who think their tweets are valuable.  They won't make productive outs, they said.  They can't win if they strike out, they scream.  STRIKEOUTS ARE BAD, they used all capital letters to say. Twice, I have specifically addressed myths that concern Atlanta's strikeout frequency.  Today, make that three times.

1. Atlanta doesn't make productive outs because of strikeouts.
2. Atlanta seems to fall behind early and has to play catch-up.
3. Atlanta can't win if they keep striking out so much!
4. Anyone would be better than Uggla! 
5. Unless Its a Save Situation, Don't Use Kimbrel.
6. A Lack of a Leadoff Hitter Will Kill the Braves & 7. No World Champion gets shut out as often as the Braves.

8. Strikeouts Are Bad Because They Don't Press the Defense

One of the common complaints historically against strikeouts is that by not putting the ball in play, you take the pressure off the defense.  That isn't in itself wrong.  At lower levels, especially little league and high school ball, putting pressure on the defense can go a long way toward facilitating defensive miscues and with that, help your team score.

Those complaints have also been used to explain why the Braves won't be a true contender.  I don't tend to watch ESPN, but on MLB Network, the lack of pressure put on opposing defenses has often been said by Harold Reynolds and Mitch Williams.  However, just using those names explains the level of intelligence that went into the contention made by the two former players.  Why have facts when you can feel the right answer?

I don't necessarily disagree that for certain players, making contact and pressuring the defense is a key component in their game.  For instance...Reynolds.  During his 12 year career, Reynolds stole 250 bases with an isolated slugging under .100.  His game was getting on base and using speed.  To his credit, he didn't strike out much.  He would be upset if we didn't mention that.  And his speed seemed to have some impact on the defense.  Reynolds reached base 64 times on an error, including two different seasons where he reached base 10 or more times in a single season via the error.  While the infield hit statistic has only been recorded since 1988, 144 of Reynolds' 958 hits from '88 to his retirement were infield hits, an impressive 15%.

However, that was his game.  The Braves don't have a guy just like that.  Jordan Schafer is the closest and he is hurt.  You ask your team to do what they are best suited for.

Regardless, are the Braves noticeably hurt by their strikeouts and their expected inability to put pressure on defenses?  Entering Sunday, the Braves had 840 strikeouts, which led the National League and trailed just the Astros for most strikeouts in baseball.  The league average is 723.

Atlanta had reached base on an error 37 times this season, led by Andrelton Simmons who has reached on an error an astonishing ten times.  Simmons hits his fair share of grounders (46.9%), but not like Norichika Aoki, the man who shares the league-lead in ROE's with ten of his own.  Aoki puts the ball on the ground 63.5% of the time and seems to be faster as well.  Anywho, as a team, where does the Braves 37 ROE's put them?  Fifth place and six above the league average.  Here's a look at the top five with their place in K% added for reference.  Note that the league average is that 19.8% of all plate appearances end in a strikeout.
Team ROE Rank K% Rank
Reds 46 1st 20.0 12th
Angels 43 2nd 18.2 24th
Twins 38 t-3rd 21.1 7th
Rangers 38 t-3rd 17.2 30th
Braves 37 t-5th 22.8 2nd
Cubs 37 t-5th 19.2 18th
Mets 37 t-5th 22.4 3rd

If any number can tell us that making contact over striking out puts pressure on the defense, ROE should do that for us.  Instead, it shows no correlation between ROE and K%.  The Rangers strike out the fewest and they have one more ROE than the Braves and Mets, who strike out over 5% more.  Like usual in this series, the strikeouts themselves mean jack.

In addition, there doesn't to be a correlation between infield hits and K%.  Atlanta has 104 infield hits on the season, good for a tie for 8th place.  The amount of infield hits is also ten more than the league average.  The Rangers have 91 infield hits, good for 18th most and three below league average.  In fact, infield hits doesn't even have a correlation to stolen bases beyond the Brewers, who lead both categories.  

Scientifically, there is little evidence to believe that strikeouts impact the amount of pressure the opposing team's defense truly goes under.  These are professional ballplayers.  Most know how to defend their position and with advanced scouting, are in great position to field the ball even before the pitch.  The idea that striking out provides any noticeable effect on making things easier on the opposition is just not supported by facts.  It feels like the right answer.  For me, that's just not enough.  

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