What to make of Rangers high strikeout numbers

DALLAS - In case you haven’t been informed, we’re in something of a strikeout era in baseball. I don’t know if it will be classified that way in baseball history the same way the dead ball era or steroid era has been, but strikeouts are everywhere these days. Just look at the league average strikeout percentage (strikeouts per plate appearance) since 2007:

Over those ten-plus years, the league average K% has never gone down, and in total has increased 25% over that time. Somehow, it seems that it has become more valuable to have pitchers who get swings-and-misses and strikeout hitters, while at the same time it matters less if a batter strikes out a lot so long as he does enough other stuff (like hit dingers) to make up for it (see: Joey Gallo, Khris Davis, Ryan Schimpf, etc.).

But somewhere along the way, the Rangers got mixed up with which direction their strikeout rates were supposed to be moving for both their pitchers and their hitters. So far through 64 games this season, the Rangers pitching staff has a collective strikeout rate of 18%, which is 3.5% below league average. And their batters have a strikeout rate of 24.4%, which is 2.9% above league average. That’s the wrong side of the line on both accounts.

(Editor's note: These stats were compiled before the Rangers' series with the Mariners over the weekend. Since then the Rangers have struck out a total of 34 times in five games for an average of just 6.8 K/9 after averaging just over nine Ks per game previously. So either Rangers lineup got healthy and happy or they knew their whiffs were about to be put on blast.)

In fact, the 6.4% gap between the Rangers’ pitcher’s K% and batter’s K% is the fifth-largest in the period from 2007 to 2017. The only teams with a larger gap are:

The average wins per season of those teams is 64, while the Rangers are currently sitting with a 32-32 record, or an 81-win pace (sometimes math is easy). That’s not exactly an encouraging barometer for the rest of the Rangers’ season. And while the Rangers led the league in “luck”, or the difference between their Pythagorean record and their actual record last year, this year they have actually been “unlucky”, with a Pythagorean record of 34-20, or two games better than their actual record.

To create a little more context for the rare bird the Rangers have been this year, here is every team’s K% for pitchers and batters plotted together, since 2007:

That red dot is the 2017 Rangers. It’s not the highest in batter K%, or the lowest in pitcher K%, but it’s out there as one of a few lonely islands.

This hasn’t always been a problem for the Rangers. Since 2010, or the “playoff era” of the Rangers as we know them today, this is the first year that both the pitching and hitting K% have been worse than league average:

From 2010 – 2013, the Rangers were better than the league in both categories. Then, in 2014, the pitching K% for the Rangers dropped significantly, but the hitters stayed better than their peers. Now, in 2017, both are not only worse than the league average, but it’s the most worst that both categories have been relative to the league for the Rangers since 2007. The batter’s K% is especially egregious when comparing 2017 to 2016, with a 4.4% jump.

So what gives? Well, perhaps we can say the Rangers have had a tough schedule which has impacted them. They have played the Astros, Nationals, Indians, and Red Sox this year, all of whom are in the top 15 on the positive side of the K% gap when comparing against all teams since 2007.

This is true. However, they’ve also faced the Padres, Phillies, and Athletics, who are all on the wrong side of the equation. If we sum up all of the games played against each team and multiply out against their respective K% rates to get an “expected” average K% rate for the Rangers, here is what we see:

So maybe the schedule has impacted them slightly as both of the variances of actual vs. expected are slightly improved from the league average figures, but still there’s a big gap.

We might be able to say that injuries are a big reason for this anomaly on both the pitching and hitting side. Adrian Beltre has missed a big chunk of the year and his strikeout rate has been right around 10% for the last few years, while his direct backup of Gallo has a K% in the upper-30s. Cole Hamels has also missed most of the season and while he is not a mega-strikeout type of pitcher, he’s better than league average and certainly better than the replacements who have been filling in for him.

There have also been changes made in the lineup to get more power, with the trade-off being more strikeouts as well. Swapping Mitch Moreland out for Mike Napoli, Ian Desmond for Carlos Gomez, and singles-hitter Elvis Andrus for power-threat Elvis Andrus all had a 5-10% change in strikeout rate at those positions.

So is this a problem? In a historical context, it seems like it would be. As I said before, the Rangers have a 6.4% gap between their pitcher and batter K%. Teams with at least a negative 4% gap since 2007 have an average win total of 73 games. However, teams with at least a 4% gap in the positive direction have an average win total of 90 games.

But we are just 40% of the way through the season, and the Rangers have gotten healthier, so there is still plenty of time for these numbers to change. Or, as the Rangers have proven thus far, they can still win even with the deficit in strikeout rate, and by other measures their record to this point isn’t a fluke. It’s a brave new world out there, and the 2017 Rangers are blazing their own trail, one whiff (or ball put in play off one of their pitchers) at a time.

 

How are you feeling about the Rangers offense in this new era of whiffs and dingers? Share you thoughts with Peter on Twitter @FutureGM.

© 2017 WFAA-TV


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