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Indians collecting strikeouts at record rate

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There was talk before the season about strikeouts being a problem for the Indians this season. The talk was right.

Jason Miller

There's something you may have noticed about the Indians' offense, something that does not require a keen eye or fine-tuned understanding of the game's finer points, it's something even a child could pick up on...

So many [indiscernible, but likely profane] STRIKEOUTS!!!

I know that on the Indians' list of problems, there are bigger ones than this (one very big problem runs about 6'5", 210 pounds). The strikeouts are ugly though, they give an added air of futility to the operation, and it's not just that they've been striking out a lot, they've been striking out at an historic pace. Strikeout rate (K%) is a fairly simple statistic, found by dividing strikeouts by plate appearances. It can be used on an individual level or for a team (or for an entire league, if you like), and it can be used for pitchers or for hitters (or for [insert joke about lack of sexual prowess]).

Highest K% in American League history (through 2012):
  1. 2012 Oakland Athletics: 22.4%
  2. 2012 Tampa Bay Rays: 21.7%
  3. 2011 Seattle Mariners: 21.4%
  4. 2012 Baltimore Orioles: 21.3%
  5. 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays: 21.1%
  6. 2012 Seattle Mariners: 20.8%
  7. 2011 Cleveland Indians: 20.7%
  8. 2010 Tampa Bay Rays: 20.6%
  9. 2012 Toronto Blue Jays: 20.5%
  10. 2009 Texas Rangers: 20.5%
Highest K% in Indians history (through 2012):
  1. 2011: 20.7%
  2. 2008: 19.3%
  3. 2010: 19.2%
  4. 2009: 19.2%
  5. 2006: 19.1%
  6. 2007: 18.9%
  7. 1963: 18.0%
  8. 2012: 17.5%
  9. 2005: 17.5%
  10. 2003: 17.2%

The 2013 Indians' strikeout rate right now: 23.2%


(It may make you feel better to know the Indians aren't actually on track to set the A.L. record though, because the Astros are striking out even more prodigiously, with a rate of 26.4%. Welcome to the Junior Circuit, Houston!)

Before going any further into the Tribe's current situation, a few things that jump out from those lists:

The oldest season on the all-time list is from 2007, not exactly the distant past. Strikeouts have been trending upwards throughout baseball history. In the 1920s the MLB rate was ~7%, in the 1950s it climbed from ~10% to ~13%, and then spiked to ~16% in the late 60s before settling back to ~13% for much of the 70s and early 80s. By 1995 it was back up to 16% and it's steadily risen since then, hitting 17% in 2001, 18% in 2010, and 19% in 2012.

Nine of the Indians' ten highest strikeout rates are from the last decade, with one outlier: 1963 (that's fifty years ago, for those of you not interested in doing any math). Those Indians (led by the strikeout power of Willie Kirkland and Woodie Held, the 54th best player in franchise history) set a record by becoming the first American League team with a strikeout rate of 18%.

Three of those ten teams made the playoffs and five won at least 87 games, so a high strikeout rate isn't necessarily a deal breaker for contending.

Okay, back to 2013.

The leading culprits for all the strikeouts so far:

Drew Stubbs: 17 K in 45 PA, 37.8%
Lonnie Chisenhall: 13 K in 41 PA, 31.7%
Jason Kipnis: 11 K in 35 PA, 31.4%
Asdrubal Cabrera: 16 K in 57 PA, 28.1%
Mark Reynolds: 12 K in 49 PA, 24.5% (this would actually be the lowest K% of his career)

Only ten players in A.L. history have had a strikeout rate of at least 30% in a qualified season, right now the Tribe has three such players (the record was set by Adam Dunn last year, at 34.2%). Strikeouts are only marginally worse than other outs, but the options for a PA that ends in an strikeout weren't just other types of outs, they could have become walks or hits, even home runs.

The Indians' strikeout rate right now is 23.2% (115 K in 495 PA). The American League's combined strikeout rate last season was 19.3% (a record high). That additional 3.9% amounts to 19 additional strikeouts so far.

The Indians are averaging .85 HR for every 19 non-strikeout PA so far, meaning there's a good chance that with an average strikeout rate they'd have hit another home run. The Indians walk rate (BB%) is 9.1%, a couple of those PA would probably have become walks. With a league average BABIP of .300, if those 19 additional strikeouts were instead put into play, 6 of them would turn into hits (though, compounding their problems, the Indians' BABIP at the moment is just .272).

If you carry out those rates over a full season, you're looking at more than 200 strikeouts above league average, costing the team 8-10 home runs, 20+ walks, and dozens of other hits. Some of those hits lead to runs and some of those runs lead to wins. Last year's Oakland team proved you can win with a whole mess of strikeouts, but they did it by allowing the second-fewest runs in the league, something no one thinks the Indians are capable (I mean no one).

The Indians are hitting .231 as a team right now, which would be the worst mark in franchise history (.234 in 1968). I'm not concerned that the team's average is going to stay that low, but this many strikeouts really narrows the margin for error in every other facet of the game.