About the Braves and All of Their Strikeouts by Jeff Sullivan May 15, 2013 The Astros have the worst team strikeout rate in the history of baseball. It’s not even particularly close, as these things go. The Astros have struck out in 26.8% of their plate appearances. The 2010 Diamondbacks struck out in 24.7% of their plate appearances. That’s a gap of more than two percentage points, in a rate that usually fluctuates between 15-25% or so. That’s terrible, and the only consolation is that the Astros were projected to be terrible so no one really cares. Then right behind the 2010 Diamondbacks are this year’s Braves, at 24.5%. So, this year’s Braves have the third-worst team strikeout rate in the history of baseball. Between third and fourth there’s a gap of another 1.6 percentage points. The Braves, obviously, have the second-worst team strikeout rate this season. Just glancing at their current box score, they’ve struck out six times in four innings against Ian Kennedy on Wednesday. They’re going to strike out more before this game is through. Probably. I guess I can’t be certain. Of course, just as we projected the Astros to be terrible, we projected the Braves to strike out a lot. This was a whole offseason talking point, as people tried to figure out whether or not the Braves had too many strikeouts coming their direction. At some point, the theory goes, you’re striking out so much that you cripple your own offense, that you can’t move runners around or sustain any rallies. There was concern that the Braves wouldn’t make enough contact, and we’ve addressed that concern here before. No one really worried when the Braves were 12-1. At that point, a lot of people were overreacting to the fast start and wondering whether the Braves were the best team in the league. But since then, they’ve gone 10-16, and they’ve nearly given away their NL East division lead. People want to know what’s wrong, and once again, there’s been talk about the strikeouts. The team strikeout rate’s been nearly 26% over the last month. Here’s the short of it: no, it’s not about the strikeouts. It could never be about the strikeouts. A strikeout, in isolation, is an unproductive out, a wasted opportunity, but in context a strikeout is just one of a number of outcomes. The Braves have the National League’s third-highest wRC+, despite an unwell Jason Heyward and an until-recently unavailable Brian McCann. The Braves have the NL’s second-highest ISO, and the first-place Rockies come with an asterisk. Now here’s the fun part. Observers can’t stand strikeouts when they come at times that all but demand a ball in play. This is what critics of the Braves have highlighted: that they’d be incapable of playing smallball, and that somehow this could bring the team down. Baseball-Reference hosts some neat statistics. Let’s look at a couple of them, shall we? Productive outs League average: 32% Braves: 32% Scoring with runner on third, less than two out League average: 50% Braves: 54% The Braves have made no fewer productive outs than the league average, despite their strikeout tendencies. Also despite their strikeout tendencies, they’ve converted an above-average rate of opportunities with runners on third and less than two out. Every time a team fails to bring home the runner in that situation, it seems like a senselessly lost opportunity, but the reality is that the conversion rate is far lower than most would probably assume. And the Braves have been beating it, by a little. If you’ll allow me a quick aside, some people might grumble about baseball players’ diminished capacity to play smallball. That, because no one worries about strikeouts anymore, players have lost their fundamentals. Let’s look at how that last conversion rate has moved around: Scoring with runner on third, less than two out 1963: 47% league average 1973: 47% 1983: 52% 1993: 52% 2003: 52% 2013: 50% The rate has hardly budged. You could say, rightly, that it’s gone down of late, but it hasn’t gone down enough for people to notice. Batters have long been finding ways to not drive runners home from third base with less than two out. It’s not all about just making contact. It’s more complicated, and baseball today is healthy and well. Baseball today just has some different fundamentals. Anyhow, there will be times that the Braves strike out when a non-strikeout would’ve been of greater service. There’ve already been plenty of those times, and there’ll be plenty more. That’s an unchangeable component of the team identity. But the Braves are also going to hit the ball hard, driving in multiple people at once. And one has to understand just what we’re dealing with. It’s not like the Braves strike out all of the time. Their strikeout rate is about four percentage points higher than the league average, which works out to one extra strikeout per 25 plate appearances. If we keep things simple, that’s one extra strikeout per 25 plate appearances in opportunities with runners on base. In the other 24 plate appearances, they’d make a normal amount of contact, and their contact would be harder than most since it’s a team with a bunch of power hitters. Is it really justifiable to be that concerned about one plate appearance per 25, especially when the strikeouts are offset by other team qualities? The overwhelming majority of the time, a given Braves batter won’t strike out. They’re not automatic, and they’re not out of control. Dan Uggla is probably the most strikeout-prone hitter on the team. For his career, with runners on third and less than two out, he’s driven home a run 47% of the time, against a 51% average. That’s not a gap you’d even notice when watching on TV. No, the Braves aren’t going to be the best smallball team in the majors, but there’s no point in exaggerating a perceived problem, because the same approach that leads to the strikeouts is the approach that allows the Braves batters to hit the crap out of the ball much of the rest of the time.