Dispatch from the Max Schrock Propaganda Machine

Credible baseball analysis, such as the sort which populates this website, is recognizable insofar as it begins with evidence and then works from that evidence towards a conclusion. The present document differs in this way from credible baseball analysis. For the purposes of this post, what the author has done is actually not to begin with evidence, but rather to start with the conclusion itself — and then worked to find evidence that might support that conclusion.

Here’s the conclusion, now and forever: Oakland minor-leaguer Max Schrock is a more promising baseball prospect than so-called “experts” would have everyone believe. Why it’s essential to reach this conclusion, that’s not entirely clear. The return on investment of this eventuality isn’t immediately evident. However, ever since the present author wagered his professional reputation on the suggestion that Schrock would someday become an MVP, any data which supports that unlikely hypothesis has held some interest for him. And so what one finds here is a post that supports that unlikely hypothesis.

This particular dispatch from the Max Schrock Propaganda Machine regards Schrock’s performance at the Arizona Fall League. As of today, the AFL has only a single game remaining on its schedule — namely, the championship contest between Surprise and Schrock’s Mesa squad on Saturday. In other words, the bulk of the data for this year’s edition of the Fall League has been recorded. And what that data suggests, if one can believe it, is that Max Schrock is a more promising baseball prospect than so-called “experts” would have everyone believe.

Let’s begin with a recent observation:

What one finds here is a leaderboard of the AFL’s top qualified batters by strikeout rate, current as of a few days ago. What one also finds is Oakland minor-leaguer Max Schrock at the top of that leaderboard.

On the one hand, it seems fairly intuitive that a batter who strikes out less often has a higher probability of success than a batter who strikes out more often. By that logic, Schrock’s capacity for making contact — not just in the Fall League, but elsewhere — would seem to represent a harbinger of success. On the other hand, contact is merely one means by which a hitter can create value for his club. He can also walk. Or he can hit a home run. Or he can convert a greater-than-average number of his batted balls into hits.

Indeed, at the major-league level, there isn’t necessarily a strong correlation between a batter’s strikeout rate and his overall production. Regard, by way of example, the following custom-made graph, which plots strikeout rate vs. weighted batting among qualified hitters over a five-year interval from 2012 through 2016.

strikeout-rate-vs-weighted-batting-201216

What this graph actually appears to suggest is that a player’s strikeout rate isn’t only immaterial to his weighted batting production, but also that it’s quite possibly correlated positively to his strikeout rate — or, in other words, that he’s more likely to help his club if he strikes out more often.

Of course, such a conclusion defies logic. Given a choice, a hitter would prefer to make more, not less, contact. And so, one concludes that the other factors which inform overall production — walk rate, home-run rate, BABIP — are capable of compensating for whatever penalties a hitter experiences by swinging and missing. Nor is it difficult to witness examples of this phenomenon in action. Baltimore’s Chris Davis, for example, is annually among the league leaders both in home runs and strikeouts. He’s wagered that a high rate of the former will compensate for a high rate of the latter. In his case, it’s a smart wager. Would he become more productive as a high-contact slap-hitter? Is he even capable of doing that? I don’t know. Probably not. But this post isn’t about Chris Davis. This paragraph about Chris Davis has to end.

Even if a low strikeout rate doesn’t possess a clear positive relationship to overall production for major-league hitters, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not a positive indicator of future success. Chris Mitchell, in his work on the KATOH projection system, has found that a low strikeout rate for minor-league hitters is among the most predictive variables of future major-league success. This is what prompted KATOH to designate both Mookie Betts and Jose Ramirez as two of baseball’s three-best young players following the 2014 season. That same early edition of KATOH identified San Diego prospect Luis Urias as a promising young player following his age-17 season in Rookie ball. Because of Urias’s contact abilities, was largely why. A couple years later, Urias has become a fixture on prospects lists like the one Eric Longenhagen recently published for the Padres system.

So batter strikeouts from the minor-league regular season possess some predictive ability. What about from the Fall League, though? It would seem less likely. After all, it’s a developmental league. That said, I found just last week that pitchers who’d recorded high strikeout rates in the AFL fared much better as major leaguers than those who didn’t. Strikeout rate is more central to a pitcher’s success than a batter’s. That said, it’s not immaterial for a young hitter, either.

With that in mind, I decided to examine the major-league careers of hitters who’d recorded AFL strikeout rates markedly better and markedly worse than the league average in their respective season of play. Specifically, I isolated two groups: those who produced a strikeout rate +1.5 standard deviations or better from the AFL mean and those who recorded strikeout rates that were -1.5 standard deviations or worse from the AFL mean. The sample from which I chose included Fall League batters from 2005 through 2011 who’d recorded 60 plate appearances or more. Why 60 plate appearances? That’s the figure at which strikeout rate begins to show signs of reliability for hitters, according to Russell Carleton*. Sean Dolinar and Jonah Pemstein’s update on reliability suggests that the 60-PA threshold is in the ballpark.

*Who hastens to add that this sort of threshold oughtn’t be regarded as a “magic number,” but rather “the point where a measure of reliability slowly crosses an only-somewhat-arbitrary line in the sand.

This methodology resulted in 30 distinct “low strikeout” and 37 “high strikeout” batters. The low-strikeout group produced a collective 11.4% strikeout rate in their respective AFL seasons; the high-strikeout group, a figure of 31.2%.

Here are the 27 members of the low-strikeout group to have recorded at least one major-league plate appearance, sorted by WAR:

MLB Stats of Top AFL Contact Hitters, 2005-11
Name PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG BABIP wRC+ WAR
Denard Span 4913 8.6% 11.6% .284 .350 .393 .316 105 25.3
Nick Markakis 7336 9.5% 13.1% .289 .358 .426 .316 110 24.4
Yunel Escobar 5576 8.6% 11.4% .283 .351 .385 .309 103 22.6
Daniel Murphy 4201 6.0% 11.8% .296 .339 .447 .319 115 19.1
Kevin Kouzmanoff 2730 4.6% 18.3% .257 .302 .424 .286 95 9.5
Charlie Blackmon 2452 5.5% 15.7% .298 .348 .467 .330 105 8.7
Joe Panik 1245 8.4% 9.8% .280 .343 .403 .298 109 7.8
Darwin Barney 2397 5.7% 11.9% .249 .297 .343 .274 73 7.5
Conor Gillaspie 1464 7.0% 16.1% .256 .309 .397 .287 93 2.1
Brendan Harris 1813 7.1% 18.3% .259 .317 .385 .305 87 1.5
Chris Getz 1574 7.1% 11.0% .250 .309 .307 .281 66 1.2
Josh Anderson 519 5.0% 15.8% .272 .313 .352 .319 74 0.7
Josh Thole 1499 9.0% 14.3% .242 .313 .306 .280 73 0.7
Johnny Giavotella 1334 4.9% 13.0% .256 .295 .361 .286 80 0.3
Jarrett Hoffpauir 53 11.3% 13.2% .217 .308 .283 .256 64 0.2
Don Kelly 1220 7.5% 14.0% .230 .294 .334 .251 71 0.1
Logan Schafer 720 8.6% 18.9% .214 .292 .318 .265 66 -0.1
Wilfredo Tovar 22 4.5% 13.6% .167 .250 .167 .200 13 -0.1
Matt Young 63 6.3% 23.8% .190 .254 .224 .256 34 -0.1
Brad Emaus 42 9.5% 21.4% .162 .262 .162 .214 20 -0.2
Kevin Frandsen 1363 4.7% 9.4% .258 .312 .348 .277 79 -0.3
Steve Lombardozzi 840 3.5% 12.1% .263 .294 .336 .295 71 -0.7
Cedric Hunter 41 7.3% 14.6% .105 .171 .184 .097 -5 -0.7
Cole Gillespie 482 7.1% 20.1% .251 .305 .367 .306 83 -1.1
Chin-lung Hu 214 5.6% 22.9% .176 .225 .259 .221 20 -1.1
Josh Vitters 109 6.4% 30.3% .121 .193 .202 .154 5 -1.5
Emmanuel Burriss 856 6.7% 13.0% .237 .300 .266 .275 56 -1.8

And now the 23 members of high-strikeout group to have appeared in the majors:

MLB Stats of Bottom AFL Contact Hitters, 2005-11
Name PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG BABIP wRC+ WAR
Mike Trout 3558 13.4% 22.0% .306 .405 .557 .360 168 47.7
Josh Reddick 2934 8.1% 17.1% .255 .316 .430 .280 105 15.9
Brandon Moss 3120 9.3% 26.9% .241 .319 .455 .291 110 9.2
Sean Rodriguez 2435 6.9% 25.1% .234 .303 .390 .292 92 7.6
Matt Adams 1486 6.0% 22.9% .270 .314 .455 .319 111 4.1
Casper Wells 758 7.5% 26.5% .230 .299 .395 .288 93 3.0
Wilin Rosario 1601 4.6% 22.1% .273 .306 .473 .311 94 2.6
Anthony Gose 1252 8.1% 28.2% .240 .309 .348 .339 81 2.0
Will Middlebrooks 1195 5.3% 26.0% .228 .273 .392 .275 77 0.7
Brent Clevlen 84 6.0% 36.9% .234 .280 .429 .349 80 0.4
Jordan Danks 390 9.7% 31.0% .224 .300 .322 .315 73 0.2
Jai Miller 73 5.5% 39.7% .235 .288 .368 .378 79 0.1
Kyle Skipworth 4 25.0% 25.0% .000 .250 .000 .000 1 0.0
Adam Loewen 42 7.1% 31.0% .189 .286 .297 .261 64 -0.1
Joe Koshansky 55 5.5% 40.0% .180 .236 .440 .231 60 -0.1
Kevin Mahar 18 0.0% 38.9% .167 .167 .222 .273 -13 -0.3
Brandon Hicks 340 11.8% 35.0% .153 .258 .310 .206 63 -0.3
Mike Wilson 28 3.6% 25.0% .148 .179 .185 .200 0 -0.4
Mike Costanzo 21 4.8% 47.6% .056 .095 .056 .100 -67 -0.4
Greg Halman 121 2.5% 35.5% .207 .233 .302 .310 49 -0.4
Reggie Abercrombie 421 5.0% 29.2% .223 .274 .355 .301 61 -0.4
Tommy Field 126 5.6% 30.2% .214 .264 .274 .299 42 -0.6
Mike Olt 400 9.3% 37.0% .168 .250 .330 .221 61 -1.8

The reader is free to mine the data for whatever conclusions he or she considers worthy. Relevant to the present concern, however, here are some possibly helpful observations:

  • Among the low-strikeout group, 27 of 30 hitters (90%) have recorded at least one major-league plate appearance. Among the high-strikeout group, only 23 of 37 (or, 62%) have.
  • The low-strikeout group has produced a median figure of 1,038 plate appearances. The high-strikeout group, only 42 plate appearances.
  • The low-strikeout group has produced a median 72 wRC+. The high-strikeout group, just a median 42 wRC+, or 30 points lower.
  • Hitters from the low-strikeout group have compiled a collective 124.0 WAR, or 4.1 wins per hitter. The high-strikeout group, despite featuring the best player of any generation, has produced just an 88.7 WAR collectively, or 2.4 wins per hitter.

Immediately, the presence of Mike Trout among the high-strikeout group ought to illustrate that making contact infrequently at the Fall League isn’t a death knell — certainly not in the way that posting a low strikeout rate is for pitchers. The Angels center fielder recorded a 29.7% in 111 plate appearances for the Scottsdale Scorpions as a 19-year-old in 2011. The next season, he produced the highest win total in the majors. Things worked out fine, it would seem.

However, even with the generation’s best player included within the sample, the high-strikeout group has experienced less success overall than the low-strikeout one — in terms of getting to the majors, in terms of staying there, and in terms hitting while there. There does appear to be a relationship between low strikeout rates in the Fall League and future success in the majors. Which is the way to end this post about Max Schrock and his future success in the majors.

We hoped you liked reading Dispatch from the Max Schrock Propaganda Machine by Carson Cistulli!

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Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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