In the first installment of this series, I used obesity as an introductory analogy to offensive strikeout propensity. The subject of today’s examination, the fourth of seven pieces this week (check out Parts One, Two and Three), is the Atlanta Braves, and that original analogy will be useful to us here, in a tangential sort of way.
We talked about the Astros’ lack of concern over their gaudy strikeout frequency on Monday. They’re like your friend who carries a little extra weight, but keeps it in perspective, and doesn’t spend undue time thinking or obsessing about it. The Braves, by contrast, are that friend who sees an unfortunate picture of themselves at a Memorial Day picnic and spends the rest of the summer reeling, wearing shirts when they go swimming, trying juice cleanses, alternately denouncing and embracing dietary supplements recommended by a friend of a friend.
At the end of August 2014, the Braves were 72-65, only a game and a half out of a Wild Card spot. They were an unimpressive offensive team, to be sure, but they’d been right in the range of average to that point, more than sufficient to the task of making their excellent run prevention stand up. Then September happened. A record of 7-18 almost undersells the ugliness of it. They were outscored by 50 runs in 25 games. Only five teams had worse 25-game jags than the one on which the Braves, essentially, finished the season, and those five teams averaged 68 wins for the entire season. The offense was especially heinous.
Things just went off the rails. No one made good contact. No one punished pitchers’ mistakes. No one worked their way on base. A fascinating piece at Baseball Prospectus Tuesday lays some of the blame at the feet of manager Fredi Gonzalez. If only the Braves themselves had thought to do so. Instead, they blamed—and jettisoned for their crimes—the players who collapsed, and the general manager who brought them together. Since late September, Atlanta has rid itself of Frank Wren, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Tommy La Stella and Evan Gattis. John Hart took over the front office, sold off the four position players listed for pitching prospects, and brought in three veteran free agents to, basically, not be the guys who came before them.
There are two elements of strikeout probability, when you slice the apple open a certain way:
- The probability that the count will reach two strikes; and
- The likelihood of a strikeout once a two-strike count comes about.
While both things contribute to the final, overall strikeout percentage of a given team or player, they’re not strongly correlated with one another, and one is much more strongly correlated with that total whiff rate than the other. There’s no good way to do this, quiz-style or anything, so I’ll just tell you: It’s Factor Two.
In 2014, the correlation between a batter’s overall strikeout rate and his strikeout rate once the count reached two strikes was 0.91. To speculate for a moment, we might guess that pitchers have greater control over whether a count reaches two strikes than batters do—or at least, that they have considerably more control over that than over what happens once that two-strike situation arises. Some batters protect the plate exceptionally well with two strikes. Others keep right on swinging from the heels, more or less at the same pitches they would have swung at earlier in the count. This is the major determinant of how much a player strikes out. The Braves, as the chart above shows, were not wildly out of line in terms of the frequency with which they reached two-strike counts. They just had way too little fight in them once their at-bats got that far. Only the Cubs had a higher strikeout rate in two-strike counts.
Let’s compare the outgoing and incoming Braves hitters, based on their 2014 percentages of plate appearances ending with two-strike situations, and on their strikeout avoidance (or lack thereof) once those situations arose.
|Player||Pct of PA Ending w/ 2 Strikes||K% After 2 Strikes||K%|
|Tommy La Stella||53.6||20.7||11.1|
The sketch here is of a team that, to its credit, understands the right way to cut down on strikeouts. Three of the four Braves who will take the places of the four exiles had significantly lower strikeout rates in two-strike counts than their predecessor. The other, Callaspo, got himself into such situations so much less often that he still whiffed exactly as often as Tommy La Stella did. Say what you will about the Braves’ offseason, but they did the best they could to change their identity from a team hamstrung by too many empty plate appearances to one that will fight pitches off and put the ball in play.
The problem, of course, is that the things they didn’t do to alleviate the problem are the things that most needed doing. Melvin Upton, Jr. and Chris Johnson delivered nearly 1,200 plate appearances of an aggregate 27.8-percent strikeout rate. The Braves’ left-handed batters were above-average against pitchers of either handedness last season. Their right-handed batters were also above-average, when facing lefties. When Braves righty hitters faced righty pitchers, though, the result was a strikeout rate of 25.4 percent and an OPS of .605. Johnson and Upton were the biggest drains on the offense, and their bad contracts made getting rid of them impossible.
More broadly, the problem is that the problem they set out to solve wasn’t the real problem. Sure, the Braves struck out too often in 2014, and needed to rein that in slightly in order to do better going forward. Referring to the first table in this article, though, you can see it: It wasn’t a strikeout spike that broke down the Atlanta offense in September. It was a sudden BABIP plunge, coupled with a power outage. Poor plate discipline was a part of the problem, but only a small part of it. The Braves got a little unlucky and a little tired, and they were rather badly mismanaged. If they’d brought back the exact same team they had in 2014, the data suggest that their strikeout rate would have leveled off, their run production would have bounced back, and they’d be in position to make a run at the playoffs one more time, before Heyward and Justin Upton hit free agency.
Clearly, the Braves prefer a more steady, long-term course. They’ve never been that all-in team, chasing a pennant in one season at the gross expense of the next several. Instead of going into 2015 with two offensive cornerstones in their walk years and the bitter taste of 2014 still in their mouths, the brass chose to dismantle the team, and targeted the strikeouts. The 2015 Braves will be better, offensively, than the 2014 version, though only by coincidence. They’ll certainly put the ball in play more often, and that is a virtue, especially given how often they failed to do so in 2014. Ultimately, though, they put too much weight on one run of bad luck and bad coaching, and broke up a great core of talent in the process, all because they got spooked by the ugliness of the strikeouts and the bad at-bats to close the season.
Articles in this series:Analyzing Proposed Rule Changes, Part 1: The Pitching Clock
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