Why Eva Longoria and I Will Elope to WARP-3 Island

Eva LongoriaLet’s play a guessing game. In the last five years, how many mainstream baseball journalists have linked to anything on Baseball Prospectus? I’m going to go ahead and guess “three.”

Today, Todd Zolecki makes it four with an article titled “Phillies show striking out not all that bad.” I believe every dead baseball purist just rolled over in his grave. But there are a few people who are interested in hearing more: me, the other mother’s basement-dwelling nerds, and Eva Longoria (pictured to the right with the caption, “It’s so sexy when a man rattles off statistics”).

Zolecki links to two BP articles:

Just Another Out?

Baseball Prospectus looked at the relationship between teams’ strikeout rates and run production from 1950 to 2002. It found there was no correlation between the two. It also found that a hitter’s strikeout rate correlates positively to power, slugging percentage, and walk rate.

Whiff or Whiff-Out You.

After another look at strikeouts by Baseball Prospectus in 2005, analyst James Click wrote, “On a very rough scale, a strikeout costs a team about three one-hundredths of a run. Looking at team totals from 2004, Reds batters led the league in strikeouts with 1,335. . . . All those failures at the plate cost the Reds an estimated 13.6 runs over the course of the season, or just over one win.”

Most interesting in Zolecki’s article isn’t the plethora of statistics that show strikeouts as rather meaningless for a hitter, but the feelings of Ryan Howard regarding the use of K’s to judge a hitter’s worth:

Ryan Howard struck out 199 times last season, the most strikeouts in a season in baseball history. He’d rather talk about anything else.

“I feel like I’m back in double A,” he said. “That’s all people used to talk about were strikeouts. You don’t hear anybody say, ‘That guy led the league in ground outs last year.’ “

Howard could benefit from reducing his strikeouts, but they are part of his game. He is one of the most feared hitters in baseball. He has hit 100 home runs faster than any other player in baseball history.

“You ground out. You fly out. You strike out. An out is an out,” Howard said. “People want to glorify what they want to glorify. If hitting into double plays were a big thing, then people would make them a big thing.”

Howard’s logical reaction is a breath of fresh air, especially when you consider some of the bigger names in baseball have become all hot and bothered with the advent of in-depth statistical analysis. Derek Jeter, when he was told that “clutch” hitting doesn’t exist, said, “You can take those stat guys and throw them out the window.”

It’s not just the players that have balked at the notion that you can better understand the game of baseball with Microsoft Excel; fans (especially the better-educated sportswriters) have been just as unresponsive to the science of baseball. We, of course, remember Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News, but there’s also Jon Heyman, Bruce Miles, Joe Morgan, and a plethora of other guys out there scowling at the calculations.

For Zolecki to not only link to, but quote a Baseball Prospectus article and to write a non-traditional article like “hitters striking out means nada” — bravo.

Congratulations aside to an honorable Philadelphia sports journalist (one of very few), I do take issue with just one thing he wrote towards the end of his article:

Howard is a career .291 hitter. He has struck out 493 times in 1,461 career at-bats, which means he hits .439 when he puts the ball in play. If he could have cut his strikeouts from 199 to 175 last season, his average would have jumped from .268 to .289. He might have hit 50 homers instead of 47.

First of all, Howard’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .353, not .439.

Zolecki states that if Howard cut down on his K’s, his production would increase as a result of putting the ball in play more often. However, there’s no way to know this, even if we know his BABIP. The theory hinges on all of the variables staying exactly the same except for strikeouts, as if none of them are related to each other. Howard’s power production is, in fact, related to his propensity to strike out.

Look at the kings of not striking out. They are overwhelmingly players with puny to mediocre slugging percentages, like Juan Pierre and Jason Kendall. You don’t see 20+ HR player on the page until you hit Albert Pujols. The defense against a swinging strikeout is a shorter swing. Shortening the swing results in more bat control but less power.

If we learned one thing from Zolecki’s article, it’s that we shouldn’t go into cardiac arrest every time we hear “strike three.” But if we learned another, more important thing — say, from Dan Shaughnessy — it’s that Zolecki and his calculator are “living at home, in the basement, rent free.”

P.S. Sorry, Tony Parker, you just weren’t nerdy enough for her. You didn’t even cry when Gary Gygax died.