By The Numbers: Minor League Strike-outs

For hitters, strikeouts are naturally pretty ugly. Jack Cust has plenty of detractors due to his propensity to accumulate whiffs. And there's no question, a strikeout is a negative outcome. But like all negative outcomes in baseball, it happens, and it doesn't necessarily indicate bad things when it does. But what does the strikeout mean for minor league hitters? It's a complicated question.

The first thing to remember when dealing with minor league strikeout numbers is to pay attention to the rest of the hitter's numbers. Two in particular are important: the walk rate and the power output.

Hitters who walk generally see lots of pitches, so they put themselves in a lot of two-strike counts where they basically have one chance to avoid the K. Those hitters are also more likely to watch a borderline pitch for strike three. And, of course, power hitters tend to strike out more—no need for explanation as to why there.

A power hitter with plenty of walks, then, has more leeway for strikeouts than an aggressive slap hitter. That's why Jack Cust, Chris Carter and Michael Choice are highly regarded, whereas Michael Gilmartin doesn't get called a hot prospect as much.

Before I get into looking at a few patterns, I want to preface it all by emphasizing that analyzing prospects is an extremely inexact science, and that applying a general pattern to somebody and assuming he is going to follow that pattern is going to leave you confused and/or disappointed quite often. Some players develop normally, others never develop, and still others develop far more than one would expect.

That said…

To start, let's look at what a strikeout means for a batter. Obviously, it's a missed chance to put the ball in play, and thus get a hit. We talk about BABIP (batting average on balls in play) quite a bit in sabermetric circles, and the average BABIP is somewhere around .310. That means that if strikeouts didn't exist, an "average" batting average would be somewhere in the low .300s, since BABIP would be batting average.

In a 600-AB season, 150 strikeouts thus would remove .250 from the equation, so with an average .310 B ABIP, a batter would hit around .233. One hundred K's would mean a .258 average, and just 50 whiffs would translate to hitting around .283, with the average BABIP.

Of course, some hitters can sustain BABIP figures well above the average, mainly by hitting lots of liners and having the speed to beat out grounders. That's why somebody like Ichiro is able to hit well above .300 consistently. High strikeout totals are thus extremely problematic for a player like Gilmartin, who has five home runs this year. He's largely a singles hitter, and he needs those extra chances to get on base in order to be an effective offensive player.

In contrast, a guy like Carter can get away with some strikeouts, because he isn't dependent on batting average. Carter can hit .230 and still be an effective player by hitting 30+ homers, a lot of doubles and getting a ton of walks as well.

So that's what strikeouts mean for players in a present-minded context. Seeing a singles hitter reaching triple digits in Ks should be much more alarming than seeing a cleanup-type hitter do it.

But what about a future-minded context? That's the whole point of minor league analysis, anyway: to project these guys in the majors. The first thing to note is that walk and strikeout numbers in the low minors aren't very representative of what the players' K/BB ratios ultimately will be. Conner Crumbliss and Tyreace House are almost certainly not going to walk 100 times per season in the majors, while somebody like Carter might.

Low-minors pitchers are usually more focused on just executing their own plan, not so much worrying about what hitter does what. Many starters are working on developing their off-speed stuff and are on mandates to throw it x number of times per game. They aren't really pitching to a hitter's weaknesses like big leaguers do.

That makes K/BB ratios for low-level batters largely a function of plate discipline and little else. Crumbliss and House certainly have better plate discipline than teammate Max Stassi, for example.

As those three batters rise up to Midland and Sacramento, though, the pitchers will be more established and more focused on the individual batters. That means that Crumbliss and House will be seeing lots of strikes, as they don't have the power to keep pitchers honest, while pitchers may be more careful to a power hitter like Stassi, giving him more walks and going after him less, leading to fewer strikeouts. It also means a guy like A.J. Kirby-Jones is more likely to maintain his high walk rate than, say, Ryan Pineda.

So, having good power not only mitigates high strikeout totals, it also makes a hitter more likely to get more walks later on, further lessening the negative impact of the whiffs.

Of course, there is certainly a point at which no amount of power can make up for the strikeouts. Mariners prospect Greg Halman, though, has shown that level can be pretty high, as he's whiffed 157 times in 399 AB and still hit .251/.316/.561 in Triple-A. But for every Halman, there are a ton of Cody Johnsons who just don't make it work.

Michael Choice looks like he might be another test case in that regard, as he's already struck out 42 times in 94 at-bats but still has put up a 987 OPS in Vancouver. If Northwest League pitchers are punching him out that frequently, though, Choice clearly has some contact issues that he'll need to clear up somewhat before he projects as an effective hitter in the majors.

Can he? Like I said before, it's anyone's guess, as plenty of players figure this out, while many others stay running in place for seemingly forever.

It's worth noting that many walks-and-power types ultimately go to a more aggressive style at some point in order to cut down on the whiffs. After being bandied about as a sort of Mr. Patience in Moneyball, Jeremy Brown did that, as did fellow book poster boy Kevin Youkilis. Even Cust tried a more aggressive approach last season. It's possible that Choice could one day follow suit, sacrificing a few walks for a few more balls in play. Will it work? Maybe, maybe not; it worked for Youkilis but not so much for Cust. I hate to be so wishy-washy on it, but we're talking about a guy with a polarized profile still in short-season ball, so talking in certainties would be pretty ridiculous.

House's 85 strikeouts are a problem, though, since he needs to be putting the ball in play and making use of his speed. His high walk rate will drop as he moves up, so he's got to work on that. The strikeout rate of guys like Rashun Dixon and Stassi isn't necessarily career-killing, but it certainly underscores the need for them both to get their power strokes going, because 10-15 homer power isn't going to carry a strikeout per game average.

Speaking of striking out once per game, that's usually a pretty good shorthand benchmark to gauge power hitters' contact abilities. If a power guy can keep his whiffs to one per game or less, particularly if he's got a K/BB better than 2/1, the strikeouts aren't a big issue. But for a guy like Stassi, who's whiffed 137 times in 105 games while walking just 44 times, cutting down the strikeouts is imperative to future success. Carter struck out 138 times in 125 games, but with 73 walks and all of the homers and doubles, he's keeping the strikeouts in check just enough to retain his "excellent offensive player" status.

So, Carter should be okay, Choice bears watching, Dixon and Stassi have some work to do, and Anthony Aliotti, Crumbliss, and House's strikeout numbers are more problematic than they seem. On the bright side, a guy like Stephen Parker projects well, and Grant Green may as well. Kirby-Jones also looks solid.

To read more from Nathaniel, visit his blog at The Bleacher Report and chickenfriars.com.


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