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Sample Size Watch, Part One: Strikeouts

Noah K. Murray - USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Judge is making contact and Edwin Encarnacion is not. Is it still too early to care? Maybe not.

Fresh off a stint in South Korea, Milwaukee’s Eric Thames is on pace to mash nearly 80 home runs this season. If you were to ask the average baseball fan to estimate how many long balls the Milwaukee Brewers first baseman will end the year with, chances are they would take the under. It is still April, and the alliterative refrain of “small sample size” has not died quite yet.

That does not mean Thames won’t be a bargain or that his monstrous power surge tells us nothing. Nor does that mean that all statistics accumulated up to this point are insignificant. Rate stats — things like K%, BB%, HR/FB, and others — stabilize over a variety of plate appearance samples.

The earliest of these rate stats to stabilize is strikeout rate at a mere 60 plate appearances. This past week in baseball brought essentially every regular player (including catchers) over the 60 PA threshold. With this in mind, here are three hitters with marked improvements in strikeout reduction and four hitters whose K% have spiked since last season.

MAKING CONTACT

The Rampageous Rookie: Aaron Judge 

Image titleBrad Penner - USA TODAY Sports

YearStrikeout Percent (K%)Plate Appearances (PAs)
201644.2%95
201726.2%84

With Gary Sanchez on the disabled list since Apr. 8, the New York Yankees have turned to another Baby Bomber to rally their offense, and Judge has not disappointed. Standing at 6’7 and weighing 275 pounds, Judge always looked like he could hit one to the moon every time he stepped into the batter’s box. Last season, however, simply hitting the ball was a struggle. Before he was lighting up the StatCast leaderboards, Judge nearly topped the league in strikeout percentage among batters with a minimum of 90 PA.

Judge now leads the American League in home runs (10), is slugging over .700 (.767), and has a mind-boggling wRC+ of 217 after his disappointing 63 wRC+ last season. Now, he does have an unsustainable 52.6% HR/FB ratio in the early going, indicating he will probably come back down to earth before several of his moonshot homers return from orbit. 

However, Judge’s improved K-rate is emblematic of a better approach at the plate overall. By Pitch f/X, he is making more contact in the zone (85.7% to 74.3% Z-Contact%) and chasing far less often (20.3% to 34.9% O-Swing%) than last year. While still higher than the league average K% (21.6%), Judge’s improved strikeout rate bodes well for allowing his insane power to shine.

The Second-Half Stud: Joey Votto

Image titleDavid Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

YearStrikeout Percent (K%)Plate Appearances (PAs)
Career18.4%5,533
201617.7%677
201713.1%99

Speaking of approaches at the plate, Joey Votto is hacking. The cerebral Cincinnati Reds first baseman has made only a marginal improvement to his strikeout rate, but this slight drop in K’s is a symptom of a much less patient Joey Votto, one not seen for at least half a decade. Votto’s swing rate is at 46.4%, higher than last season’s 42.2% and well above his 2012-2015 rates, which were routinely in the mid-to-upper 30s. Needless to say, the analytics community quickly caught on to Votto’s uncharacteristic April. 

Could this drop in strikeouts refer to the “Put it in Play” T-shirt Votto gifted to Reds assistant hitting coach Tony Jaramillo? Could this be a carryover from last season’s second-half surge, during which Joey Votto essentially stopped striking out? The latter is the more optimistic option; after the 2016 All-Star break, Votto slashed .408/.490/.668 in 314 PA. His K% during that time was a measly 10.2%. Though Votto is nowhere near as hot presently, his contact-oriented approach may be an attempt to channel some of that second-half dominance from a season ago.

The Breakout Backstop: J.T. Realmuto

Image titleSteve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

YearStrikeout Percent (K%)Plate Appearances (PAs)
Career16.5%1,123
201618.3%545
20178.6%81

With a 107 wRC+ last season, Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto was already an above-average hitter. In the early part of this year, the 26-year-old is contending with the likes of Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman for the batting title. What changed? Cutting his strikeout rate in half seems like a good place to start.

Unlike Votto, Realmuto is actually swinging slightly less often than last season (47.3% to 48.1%). Not only are his strikeouts down, but Realmuto has also all but eliminated pop-ups from his batted ball profile. Last season, Realmuto was sixth in baseball in the area of infield fly ball percentage (IFFB%) at 16.0%. That number is down to 4.3%, with just a single pop fly to his name in 2017. Though his current stats are bolstered by a .358 BABIP, Realmuto has cut out two nearly automatic outs from his game and could be poised to emerge as an elite offensive backstop this season.

SWINGS AND MISSES

The Buddies Across the Border: José Bautista & Edwin Encarnación

Image titleNick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports


Career K%
2016 K%
2016 PA
2017 K%
2017 PA
Jose Bautista, TOR
18.2%
19.9%
517
27.4%
106
Edwin Encarnacion, CLE
16.4%
19.7%
702
32.7%
101


I had to pair these former teammates, as both began the season slumping, both are in their mid-30s, and both are pretty near the top of the word associations list when we think of “right-handed power.” If you also imagine these two as all-or-nothing hitters given their prodigious strength, you would be mistaken. Bautista’s K% has not been north of 20% since 2009, the year before he made the adjustments to turn into one of the game’s best home run hitters. Encarnación has not been as high as even 20% since his rookie year in 2005.

If you want to blame age-based regression, that is as good of a guess as any as to why Bautista and Encarnación are struggling out of the gate. Joey Bats looks especially old for the last-place Toronto Blue Jays, given his negative production against fastballs (-4.1 wFB) and a pull rate (32.2%) close to those pre-2010 days. This latter stat could point to an issue with timing rather than age, which provides optimism for Jays fans.

Image titleMark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Encarnación is trickier. There are very few anomalies in his profile outside of those strikeouts. His overall contact rate is down by almost 10 percentage points (77.9% in 2016 to 68.6% at the moment), and he is seeing slightly fewer fastballs this season (50.3% vs. 52.2%). It is tempting to say Encarnación is pressing, as this is the first year of his three-year, $60 million contract with the Cleveland Indians. His career-low swing rate (39.2%) would indicate otherwise. Indians manager Terry Francona just thinks Encarnación needs some time, but also feels “he’s just starting to warm up.”

The Defensive Wizard: Kevin Kiermaier

Image titleKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

YearStrikeout Percent (K%)Plate Appearances (PAs)
Career18.9%1,422
201617.9%414
201726.6%109

When the Tampa Bay Rays signed Kiermaier to a six-year extension worth $53.6 million, the primary reason was his defense. His ability to patrol centerfield is so good that you could make the case he is MVP-worthy based on that alone. By Baseball-Reference dWAR, Kiermaier’s 2015 was the best defensive season for an outfielder ever. His glove is simply otherworldly, and we all know that.

Kiermaier’s bat, though, is solid enough for him to be more than just a good glove. Last season, he posted a slightly above average wRC+ (104) and hit a career-high 12 homers. This year, Kiermaier is seeing more pitches per plate appearance (4.10) than ever before, and deeper counts can naturally lead to more strikeouts. But just as strikeouts and pitches per plate appearance are correlated, so are K% and ISO. We have not seen enough of Kiermaier to determine whether or not power is his goal, but his isolated slugging percentage (.083) leaves much to be desired. Whether his rise in strikeouts points to a more patient approach or an attempt to provide extra value through power, Kiermaier is looking to back up his elite defensive skills with some promise at the plate.

(Here, Kiermaier reminds us that patience at the plate does not equal patience with umpires.)

The Improved Whiffer?: César Hernández

Image titleRichard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

YearStrikeout Percent (K%)Plate Appearances (PAs)
Career19.9%1,429
201618.6%622
201724.2%99

We started with the 6’7 Judge and end with the 5’10 Hernández, who patrols second base for the Philadelphia Phillies. Hernández is criminally underrated, a side effect of playing for a team that has averaged 95 losses over the past two years. Last season, Hernández was a four-win player due to a solid eye at the plate (.371 OBP) and elite defense. He also had almost no power, with just six homers and an isolated slugging percentage of .099.

Remember how I said K% and ISO were positively correlated? Even though Hernández is striking out more often, he is also pulling the ball more frequently, hitting more fly balls, and has nearly doubled his ISO (.196) from last year. As with Kiermaier, it is too early to say if this change is sustainable. However, it seems Hernández might be taking the advice of new Phillies hitting coach Matt Stairs and ditching his old punch-and-judy approach. Short and scrappy hitters may be a thing of the past, and Hernández is yet another prime example.


All statistics accurate as of Saturday, April 29th.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, David Kaptzan.

SQuiz
Who is the only batter to strike out 200+ times in three straight seasons?
Created 5/1/17
  1. Mark Reynolds
  2. Chris Carter
  3. Chris Davis
  4. Adam Dunn

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