This is not just about the Cardinals’ shortstop Paul DeJong. He’s the subject of the sarcastic tweet below, but the point is that this sort of sentiment — surprise at a walk from a player with poor plate discipline — is increasingly more common in today’s game.
PAUL DEJONG WALK
— Gif Weaver (@SimulacruMusial) July 28, 2017
It’s true, he walked! It’s also true he hasn’t walked much this year, and that he strikes out a lot. For the season, he has coupled a 2.6% BB% with a 31.3% K%. Yikes! But, with today’s power environment, this sort of plate discipline is more…allowable. Used to be, if you struck out four times for every walk, you just didn’t have a spot in baseball. That’s not true any more.
Take a look. Here’s a raw count per season of all the players with four strikeouts to every walk. I used a minimum of 200 plate appearances, so DeJong (and his 10 strikeouts per walk) didn’t qualify, but he’s here in spirit.
As the league strikeout rate has gone up, so has the number of players with terrible plate discipline. Is this a function of the power environment, though, or just the product of the highest strikeout rate in baseball history? It’s hard to separate the two, given the fact that both strikeouts and power are at historic highs.
Most likely, it’s a little bit of both. The league’s strikeout rate makes the strikeout rate more okay, but the players with this terrible rate of strikeouts per walk are also sporting the highest aggregated isolated slugging percentage in baseball history. The 37 players that have had 200 plate appearances so far this year and are sporting four strikeouts per walk are averaging a .173 ISO, and the second-highest ISO for the group came in 2009 with a .161 number.
White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson may be in trouble. He’s projected for a .121 ISO, far below that average, and yet he’s inching close to 10 strikeouts per walk. There’s hope for him, yet, though. He’s 24 and that means at least two years of improving his strikeout rate, by normal aging curves. He had a .149 ISO last year. And despite poor defensive numbers last year, his reputation there has been impeccable, and he’s baseball’s third-fastest shortstop, so he brings athleticism to the table.
In years past, he might not have had a chance. The margins might also be razor thin for teammate Matt Davidson, who doesn’t probably bring plus defense at third and is projected to be worse than our benchmark. The good news is that he already has 19 home runs, and if he can keep that up, and improve the walk rate at all, he might carve out a role for a while. The Wins Above Replacement model won’t love him much, though, because for all of his power right now, he’s only league average with the bat and not an asset anywhere else.
San Diego rookie Franchy Cordero may have a plus-plus name, but with a 44% strikeout rate against a 6% walk rate, and 32% to 5% projected, he would have had insurmountable obstacles in the past. He may fit into the DeJong category, though, as he’s played center field and may provide some defense and baserunning. He’ll have to do much better than the projected .131 ISO to stick, though. Right now he’s back in Triple-A.
There are other interesting rookies that fit the bill. The Athletics’ Chad Pinder (31%/6%), the Yankees’ Clint Frazier (current — 28%/3%, projected — 28%/7%), and the White Sox’ Adam Engel (31%/7%) all qualify for our ‘terrible plate discipline’ group. These three, though, have the ability to offer defensive value, and the first two have the power to stick. The Athletics also boast Ryon Healy (26%/4%), so maybe they, like the White Sox, have a higher threshold for pain in this matter. Produce power and/or defense, and you’re okay.
Of course, it’s much harder if DeJong and Anderson maintain a ten to one pace. Only Ivan Rodriguez (once, in 2007), and Sean Rodriguez (in 2015) have managed to play more than 120 games with that sort of ratio. Only Miguel Olivo has done it twice, and only Rodriguez and Olivo have managed to put up a win of value while doing it. DeJong probably have to push his ratio to at least his projected levels (28%/5%) to be a regular, while Anderson may have to make real improvements beyond his (27%/3%). They aren’t catchers, after all.
You might have written all of these young players completely off in the past due to their plate discipline problems. But today’s game has a place for them. We’re living in the age of Bo Jackson (32%/8%), maybe.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.