Say what? Strikeouts are bad right? It seems like striking out is the worst thing you can do at the plate*. Striking out is an embarrassing failure. So how can it be true that good hitters strike out more than bad ones? Don’t believe it? I’ll try to prove it to you.

*Striking out is not actually the worst thing a hitter can do. Hitting into a double play (or triple play!) is far more damaging than a strikeout. Hitting a ball that causes a runner to get thrown out at the plate is also worse than a whiff. I’m sure there are others as well. If you can think of them be sure to let us know in the comments section below.

When planning out this article I thought of two ways to test my hypothesis that good hitters whiff more than bad hitters. The first way is to sort all the hitters by their strikeout percentage (K%), then look to see if the high K% players have better or worse overall batting lines than the low K% players. The other way to test it is to sort all the hitters by their wRC+ (the best measure of hitting prowess) to see if the high wRC+ hitters whiff more or less than the low wRC+ hitters. Let’s do it!

Round 1

I wanted to avoid a small sample size that could distort the numbers, so instead of using the first 3 weeks of stats from this season I decided to use stats from the full 2015 season. I included every hitter who had 300 or more plate appearances last year. 268 hitters reached that threshold last season. The average K% for these players was 19.2% and the average wRC+ was 103.5*. I divided those 268 players into two halves: a High Whiff group and a Low Whiff group. The 134 players with higher than average K%’s went into one group, and the 134 hitters with lower than average K%’s went into the other group.

*In case you’re wondering, the league average wRC+ is 100. Each point above 100 indicates the player is 1% better than average. Each point below indicates 1% below average. The reason that the average of my sample was 103.5 is because a player has to be pretty good to be given 300 or more plate appearances in a season. Bad players are bench-warmers or get sent to the minors before reaching 300 PAs. So it makes sense that the guys in my sample are better than average as a group.

High Whiff Half Low Whiff Half
K% 23.8% 14.6%
BB% 8.3% 7.3%
AVG 0.255 0.271
OBP 0.322 0.328
SLG 0.433 0.410
OPS 0.755 0.738
wRC+ 105.4 101.6

The high K% group averaged a whopping 23.8 K%. The low strikeout group whiffed at a 14.6% rate on average. That is a BIG difference. So which group actually hit better? The high whiff group posted an average 105.4 wRC+ while the low strikeout group put up an average 101.6 wRC+. The whiffers hit better!

The low whiff group posted a higher batting average, but we as educated fans here on Redleg Nation know that batting average is an extremely poor and misleading way to evaluate hitters in modern baseball. The one surprise for me is that the low whiff group had a slightly better OBP as well. Generally speaking, players who strike out a lot also walk a lot. The high whiff group did walk more often than the low whiff group last year (8.3% to 7.3%) but in most seasons the difference is greater. Last year was a bit of an anomaly in that regard. Striking out and walking go hand-in-hand to a large degree. Hitters who go deep into counts tend to both walk more and strike out more. Both require seeing multiple pitches. If you hit the ball early in the count you won’t strike out but you won’t walk either. If you want to be a star hitter you have to walk a lot (or else you won’t have a high OBP) and you have to hit the ball hard (or else you won’t have a high SLG). Making contact isn’t the goal. Doing damage and producing runs is the goal.

Where the high whiff crowd pulls away is in slugging. The whiffers hit the ball much harder than the non-whiffers. It makes sense, the harder you swing the less likely you are to hit the ball, but when you do hit it you tend to do some real damage. Hitters who try to maximize contact tend to be the smaller, skinnier guys who can’t hit the ball very hard, so they try to compensate by at least hitting it more often.

All things considered the high whiff batters out-produced the low whiff hitters. It wasn’t a huge difference, but it was certainly a statistically significant, real difference. Striking out doesn’t make a hitter better, but it doesn’t prevent them from being better either. Don’t worry about the strikeouts, worry about the wRC+.

Fun Fact: Between Adam Dunn (career batting average .237) and Future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki (career batting average .314), which batter was more likely to make an out each time he came to the plate? The answer is Ichiro was more likely to make an out. Ichiro’s career OBP is .356 compared to .364 for Dunn. Batting Average tells you Ichiro was the better hitter, but nearly every other hitting metric favors Dunn, most of them strongly. Ichiro’s career .406 SLG, .760 OPS and 105 wRC+ pale in comparison to Dunn’s .490 SLG, .854 OPS and 123 wRC+. Yet 95% of fans are convinced that Ichiro was a better hitter than Dunn. That is how behind the times most fans are even in the Information Age. Of course Ichiro was a much, much better fielder and base runner than Dunn. You can make a strong argument that Ichiro Suzuki was a better all-around baseball player than Dunn but the Big Donkey was clearly the better hitter.

Round 2

The second way to make this evaluation is to use the same 268 hitters as in the high/low whiff group. This time we will divide them into halves based on their wRC+. The 134 hitters with the highest wRC+ vs the 134 hitters with the lowest wRC+. Which group struck out more?

High wRC+ Half Low wRC+ Half
K% 19.4% 19.0%
BB% 9.0% 6.5%
AVG 0.276 0.250
OBP 0.348 0.303
SLG 0.467 0.376
OPS 0.814 0.679
wRC+ 122.7 84.3

The table shows the 134 best hitters averaged an excellent 122.7 wRC+ compared to the puny 84.3 wRC+ put up by the 134 lesser hitters. Huge difference there. The difference in K% was small but the good hitters did strike out a shade more often than the poor hitters. Not surprisingly, the good hitters smoked the poor hitters in all of the offensive metrics, especially slugging percentage and OPS. Once again, strikeout rate did not prevent hitters from hitting at stellar levels.

Scenario: You get to manage one major league baseball game. One team’s batters strike out a lot. The other team’s batters rarely strike out. If your team wins the game you get a million dollars. If your team loses the game you get a year in maximum-security prison. Which team would you choose?

If you asked 100 random baseball fans this question I bet 95 of them would choose the low strikeout guys. They would most likely end up in the slammer.

Conclusion

I think the moral of the story is that strikeouts in and of themselves are not a bad thing for hitters. You can’t look at a player who strikes out a lot and condemn him as a bad hitter. On the flip side you can’t look at a hitter who rarely strikes out and say he is a good hitter. Strikeouts are not an effective way to sort good hitters from bad. Many hitters who frequently whiff are actually extremely productive batters. Generally speaking, major league hitters who strike out a lot tend to be more productive hitters than high-contact hitters are (see the first table above). Strikeouts are just another form of out. To identify the best hitters we need to look at how many outs they make, not how they make their outs. We need to look at how much damage a batter does rather than focusing on his strikeouts.

Fun Fact: Babe Ruth held the all-time record for career strikeouts for 35 years. Then Mickey Mantle passed him and held the record for 14 years. Willie Stargell passed him and held the record for 4 years. Reggie Jackson then stole the record and has held it for 34 years. All four of those players are inner-circle Hall of Famers. How bad can strikeouts really be when some of the best hitters ever to play the game struck out the most?