Wanna win the World Series? Don’t strike out.

Sports is a copycat business. For this very reason, the Sabermetrics movement in Major League Baseball is in full swing and has completely overtaken America’s national pastime, with seemingly every organization in professional baseball adopting some variation of the same blueprint. Young, spry, Ivy League grad front office executives fully delving into analytics, a youth movement in the managerial position, and an on-field philosophy of taking pitches at the plate, working counts, and walking. If you strike out, that’s fine. It’s just another out. These are the permeating centerpieces of the new-school template across the MLB, trickling down now to all levels of competitive baseball. The ideas, in all likelihood, stemmed from the successes of Theo Epstein and the Billy Beane/Paul DePodesta dynamic duo, but they have spread like wildfire, as now almost every single franchise is attempting to unearth the next whiz kid general manager to engineer a team destined for the Promised Land. A few of these hires have enjoyed immediate success, such as David Stearns in Milwaukee. Others, not so much (I’m talking to you, A.J. Preller). Nonetheless, baseball overall is undeniably being revolutionized by the number-crunchers, the white collar geniuses, and, in the most complimentary manner possible, the nerds.

If it wasn’t obvious already, I’m kind of one of those nerds, but even as a Sabermetrics disciple, I don’t need to follow these principles religiously. Never should one stray away from the old adage, the three fundamental ingredients of winning in the game of baseball: pitching, defense, and timely hitting. Come October, pitching oftentimes receives the publicity and is the primary focus in determining a team’s potential postseason success or failure, and rightfully so. Pitching, however, is merely one piece of the pie. Here, we are about to prove why the latter category, timely hitting, is just as, if not more, essential to a baseball team, especially once the postseason hits. Timely hitting and the manufacturing of runs, clearly, entails avoiding the K and putting the ball in play. Of course, logically speaking, this goes without being said, but when examining past World Series winners, the significance of the findings is actually astonishing. Here is a snapshot of the strikeout rates of the World Series winner each year since the turn of the millennium in relation to the league strikeout rate of that respective season, brought to you by R Studio:

k-rates

Strikeout rate is a simple calculation: the percentage of plate appearances of a particular team or player that result in a strikeout. This graph, for one, can serve as a visual representation of Sabermetrics at play, as the league strikeout rate has increased every season since 2005 and has grown at an alarming rate over that span. Digging deeper, we discover a common thread among the majority of the data. We see that 12 of the past 16 World Series Champions struck out at a lower rate than the league average. In fact, 11 of those 12 World Series winners found themselves in the bottom third in strikeout rate in all of baseball in that specific season. The 2011 Fall Classic pitted the eventual champion St. Louis Cardinals, owning the second-lowest strikeout rate in baseball, against the Texas Rangers, the team that struck out on the fewest occasions in baseball that year. The Kansas City Royals of the past two campaigns could very well be considered the poster children of this statistical revelation, as their rise to prominence was a direct result of their model centered on contact and athleticism. One win away in 2014 from being in the rarefied air of back-to-back titles, the Royals terminated a 30-year title drought in 2015. In both 2014 and 2015, Kansas City owned the lowest strikeout rate in the game, punching out at a rate approximately 5% lower than the remainder of baseball, and their identity took the MLB by storm in subsequent Octobers. An Alcides Escobar first pitch inside-the-park home run was the most Royals way possible to lead off a World Series last fall. Let’s not be too quick to forget how they knifed through the Angels and Orioles two seasons ago, exquisitely manufacturing runs and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. Prior, they single-handedly defeated Oakland in the Wild Card Game on the basepaths. That Royals run, in the end, epitomized the vast rewards of merely putting the ball in play. A modest starting rotation devoid of an ace was ameliorated by a dynamite bullpen and the lineup’s ability to pepper opponents’ to death with seeing-eye singles, gappers, productive outs, and blinding speed.

Of course there are anomalies in the data. 2004 sticks out like a sore thumb, with the “Reverse the Curse” Boston Red Sox hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy after amassing the third highest strikeout rate in baseball during the regular season (18.25%). Attached to that historic Red Sox team are the images: the Bloody Sock, the Big Papi clutch gene, critical home runs from freakin’ Mark Bellhorn…the list goes on. We will remember the broken curse and ALCS comeback against the New York Yankees as miracles on Earth, but the true miracle that occurred has been hidden from us. The 2004 Red Sox cut their strikeout rate by an astronomical amount in the playoffs in comparison to their first 162 games. After being the most strikeout-prone team in the American League for the entirety of the regular season, somehow, someway, Boston reduced their strikeout rate to 15.81% during the postseason, an unheard of and almost inexplicable transformation. This included a microscopic rate below 12% in their four-game sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series. Red Sox fans can thank whatever sparked the change in approach at the plate of their team’s lineup for at last tasting victory rather than divine intervention.

The modern-day Oakland Athletics, sadly, do not fall under the category of “World Series Champion” during this timeframe. Billy Beane’s demesne has, however, been one of Major League Baseball’s models of consistency in this period. They are brought up because the revolution begins with them. The A’s were the first organization to fully adopt the computerization of the game from the top-down, treating players as their own separate entities and reforming how a player’s value is appraised. A new on-field philosophy was engendered, where we first see the full-scale implementation and encouragement of working counts and drawing walks.

getonbase

Oakland’s ability to instantly recover from the departures of superstars Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi and immediately return to October baseball with a collection of no-names replacing them caught the eye of the rest of the league. Just as analytics has evolved the game, analytics itself has evolved, so a difference needs to be clarified between what the A’s had and the pervasiveness of numbers today. Analytics has spun out of control and has created a feast-or-famine mess. Today’s Sabermetricians maintain that the strikeout is no more costly than any other way, shape, or form of an out. Ballclubs, simply put, have been geared towards walks, strikeouts, and hitting bombs. The A’s, ironically on the contrary, have finished below the league’s strikeout rate EVERY YEAR since 2001, accumulating 7 postseason appearances in that span on a tight budget with a revolving door of cast-aways year after year. This is a far cry from the analytical approach of 2016. Yes, getting on base is fine and dandy and is the first step of the equation, but the notion that a strikeout is on the same level as, say, a productive out is pure nonsense, and the Royals’ October dominance has irrefutably debunked this myth. There are numerous ways to score a runner at third with less than 2 outs, but the ball has to be put in play for that to be accomplished. In any situation, a strikeout is the worst possible result as a hitter, because you are losing an opportunity to pressurize the defense or find a hole. Placing the ball in fair territory, you have done your job. You have controlled what you can control. Now the onus is on the defense to do the same. This probably sounds just about as rudimentary as it gets, but enough with the overanalysis. Back to the basics. I wish there was an intricate and exact formula to solve the forecasting puzzle, but it’s sports, whose variability and volatility offer little to no predictability, especially when home teams only win 56% of the time. In an era where the strikeout propensity continues to balloon, the team whose style more resembles that of a college baseball team has been the darling of the past two seasons. Also hitting the fewest home runs in baseball each of the past two years, Kansas City has avoided the cold, dense air of October nights, where home runs go to die. Small ball is in, but I guess everyone missed the memo.

Enough of the past. Playoff baseball is nearly upon us, so we must study how the historical commonality in World Series Champs stacks up with 2016’s contenders. Here are their strikeout rates (again, the lower the better):

Team

Strikeout Rate

Toronto Blue Jays

22.03

Baltimore Orioles

21.66

New York Mets

21.60

Los Angeles Dodgers

21.57

Chicago Cubs

21.24

St. Louis Cardinals

21.12

Detroit Tigers

21.11

LEAGUE AVERAGE

21.06

Seattle Mariners

20.54

Cleveland Indians

20.24

Washington Nationals

19.92

Texas Rangers

19.91

New York Yankees

19.63

Boston Red Sox

18.33

San Francisco Giants

17.75

Seven contenders lie both above and below the league average line. The Cubs, who led baseball in strikeouts a season ago, have drastically cut down on their punchout rate, attributed to the addition of Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant decreasing his personal rate by more than eight percentage points. Chicago was diced up by the New York Mets’ flamethrowers last fall, but a higher contact percentage and neither Matt Harvey nor Jacob deGrom in the fold bodes well for the Cubbies in a possible rematch. The American League comes across as a complete and utter crapshoot. Likely filled with high-powered offenses fueled by the long ball, we may see the strikeout rate principle rise to a head in the AL. The Red Sox lineup thrives from gap-to-gap, and their ability to play the merry-go-round, hit parade game will be conducive to shivering October nights in the Northeast.

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