Changing the topic this week back to my original favorite sport, baseball. Thanks again to all for your really positive feedback on last week’s edition on franchise-building in the NBA.
“The best way to improve your team is to score more runs and allow fewer runs. I’m not as concerned at how we do it, but our focus is to score more and allow fewer.” Those were the inspiring words of Cleveland Indians general manager Chris Antonetti in an AP story on Dec. 12. Yet, despite that pretty elementary proclamation, all it seems anyone wants to talk about this offseason is strikeouts.
The Cleveland Indians were not very good offensively in 2012. That much, at least, shouldn’t be too difficult for most to comprehend. They overall were not a good baseball team — their 68-94 record should indicate that. So, to a point, Antonetti is dead right and there’s no argument. That’s all that matters: scoring runs, allowing fewer.
But per the Moneyball-obsession of emphasizing on-base percentage as the Bible of stats, somewhere in the last 5-10 years, strikeouts became the enemy. If someone wasn’t getting on-base, then it was bad. Thus, if someone wasn’t even putting the ball in play — meaning there was no opportunity at all to even get a hit — then it was worse.
Sure, overall, strikeouts have never generally been cast as a great thing for any player or team. But in the context of getting on-base most importantly, it was a big deal for a while. More emphasis was placed on players that just didn’t strike out as much.
So my goal today is to place the Indians’ polarizing offseason acquisitions in a little bit of context. I wanted to look at MLB production in 2012, compared side-by-side to strikeout rates, as well as look at the Indians roster for 2012 and 2013, with how it compares to the rest of the AL Central.
For starters, I wanted to be clear about one simple manipulation: In all of the following statistics, I removed pitchers from the equation as much as I could. Of course, pitchers suck at batting. Looking at the 5,913 plate appearances by MLB pitchers in 2012, they batted .129/.162/.166 and struck out in 37.1% of plate appearances. That’s dreadful and skews everything. So it’s truly not fair to include them in any samples, which inherently hurts NL teams.
Thus, with that intro over with, here’s a quick look at the American League:
One could immediately cherry-pick the data — as I’ve been known to do — and point out that Cleveland’s AL Central division friends Kansas City and Minnesota were No. 1 and No. 2 in the AL in least strikeouts. The Indians were No. 3. All three teams were well below league-average in runs scored per game. Jon pointed this out already this offseason in a great tweet.
Yes, that’s undoubtedly accurate. And a great argument against strikeouts mattering. But generally speaking, it’s not the full story. In fact, only one team that had above-average run-scoring also had a K% more than 0.1% worse than the league average. So that kind of shows how strikeouts do kind of matter, and that one should avoid them, right? Kind of. Let’s keep going.
On to the National League:
First key observation: The strikeout rate is the exact same among non-pitchers in both leagues. Isn’t that fascinating? That regardless of pitching and talent level and everything else, strikeout rates for all non-pitchers in both the AL and the NL were right at 19.2% in 2012. That’s just fascinating to me. Inherently, it makes sense, but it’s just amazing.
Next: No matter what I do with removing pitchers’ plate appearances, the runs scored still are a lot lower in the NL. Nothing I can do there. Yet, the Indians — and Royals and Mariners — still scored less than the NL average. So that means they’re pretty bad.
Finally: The same patterns from above don’t work as cleanly as above. The Nationals ranked No. 3 in most strikeouts, with the Diamondbacks and Braves not far behind, yet all had above-average offenses. But the fact only one below-average offense had a K% lower than 19.0% is also interesting.
Here are then the correlation levels between strikeout rates and runs scored per game in the respective leagues:
American League: -0.187
National League: -0.368
OK, then. So is there a potentially negative relationship? Yes, or so indicates the data simply from 2012. But the correlation levels aren’t by any means significant, so for now, statistically, it’s relatively inconclusive.
I could keep going on and on about other years and bigger data sets, here are my two takeaways before I move onto just the Indians and their new players: 1) Strikeouts don’t matter. Or, at least that much, in either direction. 2) Strikeout levels are pretty consistent across both leagues, with the average for both at 19.2% in 2012.
Next topic: The Indians and their roster turnover.
In fact, that’s how we got to this point anyway. Because Chris Antonetti was talking about scoring more runs, no matter how the team does it. Yet all anyone wants to talk about this offseason is strikeouts. First, let’s start with what the 2012 Indians produced:
At first, that seems like a lot of roster turnover. More on that in a little bit.
Secondly, doesn’t it seem like a lot of the guys that are no longer on the 40-man roster struck out much more often? And doesn’t it seem like a lot of the players with fewer PAs had worse OPS+ statistics? Again, more on both those concepts in a moment.
What I just wanted to present was the entire team in order, sorted by plate appearances in 2012. It’s pretty sad, clearly, that only six players on the Indians had more than 320 plate appearances last year. In fact, there were 253 players with 320+ PAs last year; so that’d average to about 8.5 per team, when not factoring in trades and the like. So yes, officially, the Indians had lots and lots of roster turmoil and injuries going on last year.
So next, here’s what happens when we segment the 2012 Indians roster into a few different categories. Whether or not they are still on the 40-man roster as of Jan. 30, 2013, or whether or not they had at least 200 PAs in 2012:
Those are the points I hinted at above. Only about 50% of PAs are returning from 2012 to 2013. That seems like a huge amount of turnover, and I’ll place that in a little bit of context first. Most notably though, the returning players had a 15.7% SO/PA rate and a .737 OPS. Both are much better than league average. The players who are no longer on the roster had a perfectly average 19.2% SO/PA rate, with a slightly below average .673 OPS.
A similar pattern also follows for the players that received at least 200 PAs in 2012. To a certain extent, obviously, that shows that the Indians were kind of right with their plate appearance distribution last season. It seems inherent, but the team also deserves some credit: They gave more plate appearances, or at least as many as possible, to the players that were better. And they also kept many of those players. Obviously, Shin-Soo Choo was a clearly above average offensive performer, but besides him, none of the other departing players were that good anyway.
While still on this topic, I wanted to just share this statistic briefly of comparing the Indians’ roster turnover to the rest of the AL Central:
Wow. The Indians roster turnover clearly is the most in the AL Central. No other team lost more than 29% of its plate appearances from the 2012 season going into 2013 — and that second-most team, Minnesota, traded away two of its best players (Denard Span and Ben Revere) in rebuilding moves. Cleveland, on the other hand, because of the turmoil in 2012 and one trade this offseason, is looking to replace over 49% of its plate appearances.
But here’s the notable thing again about those returning players: They only struck out in 15.7% of their plate appearances in 2012. That’s well below league average. Michael Brantley was under 10%, while Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana all hovered around 16%. Those marks all are below the established mark of 19.2%.
So this means that even with the upcoming changes for 2013 — and I’ll finally get to those now — the Indians would have to strike out an absolute ton to make it all the way to even a team mark of 19.2%. Doing some simple math, if you hold over 50% of plate appearances at 15.7%, the remaining 50% of plate appearances would have to strike out 22.7% of the time. And only one-fifth of the 253 players with 320+ plate appearances struck out that often last season. Yet two of those guys are heading to Cleveland.
Here are the new additions to the 40-man roster that didn’t have a plate appearance in Cleveland last year:
Stubbs and Reynolds are two of those well-above average strikeout guys from 2012. Plus Swisher, who also was above the mark of 19.2% last season. Aviles has been fairly good at avoiding them in his MLB career, while the other four players have yet to establish enough of a big league track record. Their numbers listed above are their minor league marks.
So last but not least, I hoped to now estimate out plate appearances for the Indians in 2013, thus estimating strikeout rate based on career averages, and then make a few final comments about the team’s ability to at least score more runs.
Here’s my best shot at estimating 2013 plate appearances based on the current 40-man roster:
A couple notes first:
– The players marked with a star do not have at least a full year’s worth of MLB experience, so I’m using their career minor league numbers. Obviously, those probably are on the low end of what they’d do in the big leagues. But many of the big-leaguers then are at lower levels — because of better patience, such as Michael Brantley — than their career marks, so I’m estimating that these two forces practically will cancel each other out.
– I’ve tried to estimate this to as accurate a pattern as possible. The average AL team had 6,128 plate appearances in 2012. Also, the average AL Central team had about 67% of their plate appearances by their top seven guys — I’ve estimated the Indians for about 70%, which obviously is on the high-end and assumes relative health for all of those regulars. But it also shows how many at bats the other guys always will get, no matter what happens.
So the Indians, in my estimate, should have about a 20% strikeout rate in 2013. This obviously is a rough estimate because baseball projections are always insanely difficult, but the three true outcomes — walks, strikeouts and home runs, as this Indians-based fantasy projection detailed — are generally consistent from year-to-year for specific players.
Comparing 20% to last year’s established average of 19.2%, obviously I’m guessing the Indians will strike out a bit more than league-average this year. That’s a huge jump from the 17% mark in 2012. But it doesn’t necessarily mean anything — the Diamondbacks, Braves, Nationals and White Sox all have above league-average marks with about 20%+ strikeout rates.
And when you look at the changes — swapping one good player in Choo along with scrubs like Hannahan, Kotchman, Duncan and Jose Lopez for three regulars in Swisher, Stubbs, Reynolds, plus more proven depth in Aviles, Gomes, etc. — then I think you have to believe the Indians improved in what matters most: Scoring more runs, no matter how that occurs.
While overall I don’t think the Tribe will be significantly more improved this season — unlike Jordan Bastian, my guess is that 81 wins is likely the best-case scenario — I think the offense should be notably better. Even though we’ll most definitely see a few dozen or hundred more strikeouts along the way.