Batters control strikeouts more than pitchers

In 2011, there were 185,245 plate appearances and 34,488 strikeouts, meaning that 18.6% of PAs resulted in strikeouts. This number is obviously the same whether you look at it from the batters’ standpoint or the pitchers’–both groups averaged the same 18.6% strikeout rate.

Among batters, though, we know there is a large variation in strikeouts. Among those who qualified for the batting title, Drew Stubbs (205) and Mark Reynolds (196) led the way while Juan Pierre (41) and Jose Reyes (41) had the fewest. That range of a factor of 5 is larger than that of pitchers. Among starters who qualified for the ERA title, Justin Verlander (250) and Clayton Kershaw (248) had the most while Brad Penny (74) and Josh Tomlin (89) brought up the rear. (Penny and Tomlin also pitched many fewer innings, and their K/9 rates were even closer to the leaders’.)

Click through for a histogram of the 2011 season broken down.

This plot shows the percentage of batters (among those qualified for the batting title) or pitchers (among those qualified for the ERA title) who had a given K per PA rate. At first glance, it may look like the distributions are quite similar. Notice, though, that the pitchers have a higher & narrower peak than the batters. Both groups have their peak in the 17.5 to 20% range but the pitchers have a significantly higher fraction of their members in this bin. The batters, meanwhile, place a higher percentage of players at the edges–below 12.5% and above 25%.

The data shows the same as what we described in words above–that batters have a wider range than pitchers. This means that striking out is really more in the batter’s control than the pitcher’s. Pretty much every starting pitcher will have a K rate within 50% of the average, while many batters do not.

35 thoughts on “Batters control strikeouts more than pitchers

  1. 1
    Doug says:

    “Pretty much every starting pitcher will have a K rate within 50% of the average, while many batters do not.”

    Here are the numbers of 2011.
    – 50% above mean: 1 pitcher (Greinke), 2 batters (Reynolds, Stubbs)
    – 50% below mean: 1 pitcher (Penny), 9 batters (Callaspo, Carlos Lee, Victor Marinez, Molina, Pierre, Polanco, Prado, Pujols, Reyes)

  2. 2
    Voomo Zanzibar says:

    Definitely true.
    A guy like Stubbs, great speed, marginal power, big value on D – product of an era that says ‘hack away’, you’re not gonna get to the Majors by bunting.

    Speed: 93
    Contact: 14

    Those numbers should really be closer.

    • 3
      John Autin says:

      What’s in a name?

      Franklin Stubbs (1984-95) had a 96 OPS+, 3.6% HR rate, some speed, and one of the 40 highest K rates to that point in MLB history.

      Drew Stubbs (2009-11) has a 96 OPS+, 3.1% HR rate, good speed, and the 14th-highest K rate in MLB history (nonpitchers, min. 1000 PAs).

      Baseball Cube rates Franklin a 14 on Contact, same as Drew. They’re not related, as far as I know.

      Stubby Overmire made better contact than either Stubbs, and he was a pitcher.

    • 10
      Tmckelv says:

      I really thought Drew Stubbs 2011 would have the K + SB single season “record” (205 + 40 = 245), but then I noticed Mark Reynolds 2009 season (223K + 24SB = 247). Reynolds can’t be beat when it comes to K’s.

    • 24
      kds says:

      High K rate does not mean the batter is a hacker. Hackers don’t take pitches, so almost universally have low walk rates. Babe Ruth held the career K record for more than 35 years, he was not a hacker. (He held the career walk record for almost twice as long.) Juan Pierre doesn’t strike out often. He is a hacker, but has fairly good contact skills.

  3. 4
    CursedClevelander says:

    Since Jose Hernandez finished 1 short of Bobby Bonds’s K record in 2002 (Hernandez had 188, Bonds had 189), 5 guys have combined for 11 seasons of at least 194 K’s in the period from 2004-2011.

    Take a bow, Mark Reynolds!

    • 5
      Andy says:

      Players and teams were still fighting the stigma of K’s when Hernandez was playing…that’s how Bonds’ record stood for so long. I don’t expect Stubbs’ to stand for very long, though.

      • 7
        CursedClevelander says:

        I agree we’re going to see more 200 K seasons, but I still don’t know how many guys we’re going to see who whiff as prodigiously as Mark Reynolds.

        But yes, I think we now realize that K’s, in and of themselves, aren’t all that bad. Mark Reynolds isn’t a hugely valuable player, but that’s largely because he’s a truly horrible defensive player. If he had an average glove, he’d be a very good player.

        In that same vein, Hernandez’s near record-breaking K year was by far his best season, with a 4.2 rWAR.

      • 9
        Voomo Zanzibar says:

        Andy, Stubbs doesn’t have the record:

      • 22
        Dr. Doom says:

        At the end of 2002, the Brewers were absolutely miserable. The fans really had nothing to cheer for. So they got excited about Hernandez setting the strikeout record. They started cheering when he struck out. They booed when he didn’t. For some reason, he found this offensive. He got really mad.

        Anyway, he would up sitting out the last series of the year (at St. Louis) to avoid setting the record. The fans were kind of upset, because it was the one interesting thing happening to the team that year. And it prevented the Brewers from (at the time) having the single-season SO leader in both leagues, as Rob Deer’s 186 in 1987 has still only been topped once in the AL, by Jack Cust in 2008.

    • 6
      CursedClevelander says:

      Alas, though Mark Reynolds left as the learner, Russell the Muscle is still the TTO master:

      Career TTO%:

      Reynolds: 50.1%
      Branyan: 50.5%

      • 8
        Doug says:

        Jack Cust is at 53% TTO for his career.

        • 13
          CursedClevelander says:

          You’re right, Cust is even higher than Russ, though Russ is over the 3,000 PA cutoff used for a lot of rate stat records.

      • 12
        Doug says:

        Adam Dunn is at 49.4%.

        Dunn has 7 seasons with 25+ HR, 100+ BB and 150+ K. Jim Thome has 4 such seasons. Nobody else has more than two.

        • 23
          Mike L says:

          Thome’s slash lines in those four years
          .277/.426/.540 OPS+141
          .266/.398/.532 OPS+132
          .291/.416/.624 OPS+170
          .266/.385/.573 OPS+154
          he had eight full seasons with an OPS+ of over 150 with no less than 134K in any of those years and a 9th with (only) 113K. In 2002 he had an OPS+ of 197 with 139 Ks. I guess he hit them pretty well when he connected

      • 25
        bstar says:

        Embarrassed for being uninformed, but what exactly is TTO% again?

        • 26
          birtelcom says:

          No need for embarrassment — it’s Three True Outcomes: walk, strikeout, homer. “True” outcomes because not dependent on the vagaries of the placement and skill of the fielders on defense.

  4. 15
    birtelcom says:

    Highest career K/PA% by a hitter (min. 1600 PAs):
    Dave Nicholson 34.50%
    Mark Reynolds 33.15%
    Russell Branyan 32.90%
    Bo Jackson 32.03%
    Jack Cust 31.73%
    Rob Deer 31.23%
    Wily Mo Pena 30.30%

    Reynolds and Branyan are career “slash line” clones:
    Reynolds: .232 BA/.329 OBP/.485 SLG/.814 OPS
    Branyan: .238 BA/.331 OBP/.483 SLG/.815 OPS

    • 16
      Andy says:

      In 1989 Bo struck out 30.7% of the time but had a 124 OPS+ and 2.7 oWAR.

    • 17
      Doug says:

      Reynolds has the highest single season rate – 35.4% in 2010.

      Of 21 qualifying seasons over 30%, Reynolds and Rob Deer have 4 each, Jose Hernandez and Jack Cust each have 3, and Nicholson only one in 1963 (because it was his only qualifying season).

    • 19
      Doug says:

      Biggest gap between #1 and #2 on ML season K list.

      40, Gorman Thomas, 1979
      37, Gorman Thomas, 1980
      37, Mark Reynolds, 2009
      35, Bobby Bonds, 1969
      33, Bobby Bonds, 1970
      33, Vince DiMaggio, 1938
      32, Ryan Howard, 2007
      31, Chet Ross, 1940
      30, Jake Stahl, 1910
      30, Billy Maloney, 1906

  5. 20
    Cyril Morong says:

    Interesting post. You may know that looking at the variation in certain stats and comparing hitters to pitchers has been done before. I did something on it, building on Bill James and Rob Wood. Here is the link:

    Called “The Batter-Pitcher Matchup Revisited”

    It seems like in stats like SO rate, BB rate, HR rate, Hit rate, batters vary more than pitchers

    In his article “Hitter or Pitcher,” which appeared in the “By the Numbers,” the newsletter of SABR’s statistical analysis committee, Rob Wood supposed that there is a league where all the pitchers are of equal ability but the hitters vary as they normally do. Then we have to conclude that all the variation in what happens is due to the hitters. Baseball would be 100% hitting. So he looked at the variance in several stats of AL hitters and pitchers in 1987. One advantage of using the AL was that the pitchers don’t bat so their poor performance would not artificially increase the variance of the hitters.

    So he found the variance in various stats for the pitchers and hitters. Then he added them to get total variance.

    Most of the variation easily came from the hitters.

    • 34
      kds says:

      I think you would expect this. Position players can be good different ways. Ozzie Smith’s career value is to far from Frank Thomas’, but they did it completely differently. We could probably find another good RF/CF with as much offensive value as Ichiro, but much more power, many more K’s and BB’s, much lower BA. For pitchers they really have much less opportunity to add value in different ways. Basically, the pitcher has to get guys out without allowing many runs to score. Fielding his position, shutting down the running game, and batting can all help, but only at the margins. And while pitching there is only so much he can control. No starter, with 200 IP could expect to give up only 5 HR, or only walk 10, or K 400. If they tried to do one of those they would do so very badly on other aspects of pitching that they would be worse off. Pitchers are selected to be in the ML in no small part by their abilities in the things measured by the rate stats given above.

      • 35
        Cyril Morong says:

        Interesting point. Maybe we should do the hitters variance by position (I think that I have heard that before but can’t recall where)

  6. 28
    Albanate says:

    I don’t know if anyone’s brought this up before, but I mostly read HHS on my mobile device, and I think that one small change to the site would really help people like me who look at the site using mobile devices.

    When I look at the site, there are usually a half dozen new posts or more (That’s because unlike most of you, I have a job, kids to raise, and don’t live in my mom’s basement and thus can’t be on the site 24/7–Kidding, kidding–please no hate mail) I usually start with the newest posts, read all the comments…then I want to move to the next newest post…but getting there, at least on my device, isn’t so easy. It’d be cool if there was a button for “next post” at the end of the comments.

    • 29
      Andy says:

      Unfortunately the mobile theme is a lot less customizable than the desktop theme, where I have added a lot of plugins and done a lot of manual coding to add all the features we have. I think there are some pay options out there for mobile themes I could get that have more options but I can’t really justify the cost right now.

  7. 30
    Mike L says:

    Albanate. You could try to toggle back to the regular display by clicking on off on the mobile theme at the bottom of the screen

  8. 31
    Albanate says:

    Mile L–thanks for the suggestion. Not sure what you mean though. Will show to a more tech savvy friend who hopefully can explain.

  9. 32
    birtelcom says:

    Re strikeouts: Here’s a shout-out to just-retired Mike Cameron, who had a marvelous career (sadly with no World Series appearances to show for it) and who is also the all-time strikeout king of center fielders.

    Using the PI’s Batting Game Finder, here are the top 10 most strikeouts accumulated in games played as a center fielder (number of PAs in games played as a CF are in parens):
    1. Mike Cameron 1,773 (7,402)
    2. Jim Edmonds 1,586 (7,323)
    3. Willie Mays 1,447 (12,085)
    4. Ken Griffey Jr. 1,442 (9,346)
    5. Devon White 1,404 (7,509)
    6. Andruw Jones 1,395 (7,225)
    7. Mickey Mantle 1,275 (7,558)
    8. Rick Monday 1,259 (6,055)
    9. Steve Finley 1,209 (9,750)
    10. Marquis Grissom 1,161 (8,512)

  10. 33
    Mike L says:

    Alba. Try going to the very bottom of the comments and keep scrolling below that to the very bottom of the page. You should see Mobile Theme and a button to the right that says On. Tap that and see if it works

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