In Friday night's game against the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cleveland Indians struck out 18 times. Granted, the game lasted for 11 innings, but in the first 9 innings, the Tribe struck out 14 times. In a regulation game that consists of 27 outs, striking out nearly 52% of the time is not an optimal strategy for a winning ball club. As of right now, the Cleveland Indians are 17th in the league in strikeouts with 172. Broken down by player, here are how many strikeouts each player has:
Everyone knew that the Tribe rotation was bound to be a strikeout machine; with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer all having good to excellent strikeout rates, it was expected that the pitching staff of the Indians would be frustrating hitters all season long. The Tribe offense, on the other hand, was not supposed to contribute to the high strikeout amounts.So, is the team striking out more often than before? To start, look at whether or not the team is swinging and missing more than usual. Here is the data in comparison to last season:
(Note: Keep in mind that, because the 2016 season is only 20 games old, the following analysis is based on small sample sizes and could change over the course of the season)
At first glance, nothing seems too egregiously out of the ordinary. Tribe hitters seem to have a slightly better eye at the plate than last year, as they are only swinging at 27.6% of pitches outside of the zone as compared to the 28.5% from 2015. I did find it interesting that, when looking at pitches in the zone, the Tribe have swung at the exact same percentage of pitches in the zone this year as they did last year (65.7%). After this, things get a bit more interesting, and not in a good way.
In terms of connecting with the ball, the Indians are making contact 4% less than last year. If you break the stat down to compare contact on balls in the zone vs. balls out of the zone, the Indians are connecting with pitches in the zone 4% less than in 2015 and connecting on pitches outside of the zone 6.7% less than in 2015. It may not seem like a lot, but when you take into account how many more swings and misses that is, it can really add up over the course of a season. In short, the Tribe is swinging at more pitches overall, yet is missing more overall as well.
So, who is the main perpetrator? Is this a team-wide trend, or are the stats inflated by a select few individuals? Here are the stats (note: I've excluded Tyler Naquin, Roberto Perez, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Michael Brantley. I excluded Naquin because, since this is his first year in the majors, there's no data to compare to, and I've excluded the other three because they haven't had enough playing time to justify adding their stats to this already SSS-riddled discussion):
Gomes, who is back healthy and should hopefully get some more playing time this season, looks like he is swinging more than last season, and he's making more contact out of the zone by a hair, yet less contact in the zone by 4.6%, leading his overall contact to be down. He's making more contact on bad pitches, yet less contact on good pitches.
Here's the man that seems to be the strikeout king as of late (last night, he added four more to bring his dismal season total to 29). Compared to last season, Napster is swinging slightly more overall; despite this, he's actually making contact on pitches out of the zone slightly more than he was last year, but when it comes to connecting on pitches in the zone, Nap is making contact 8.4% less. Nap is spoiling bad pitches, but he's not hitting the good ones. For someone who's known for working a pitcher and making contact, this is slightly worrisome.
Everyone harps on Napoli's numbers, but to me, Kip's are far more troubling. He currently has four fewer strikeouts than Napoli, but his swing rates and contact rates seem much worse in comparison to last year. He's being more selective and his swinging at fewer pitches than he was a year ago; however, when he does swing, he's missing a lot more than we are accustomed to. In 2015, when swinging at pitches outside of the zone, Kipnis made contact with 67.5% of pitches, but his O-Contact% is down by 8.8%.
Looking at pitches in the zone, it looks worse, but it's actually not as bad as you would think; Kip's Z-Contact% is down by 9.1%, but he's still connecting with pitches in the zone 83.0% of the time (the average is right around 87%). In this regard, Kip went from being above average to below average. His overall contact rate is down by an alarming 8.9%.
It seems as if the swing-and-miss bug spares no one, as Francisco Lindor is being impacted by a good amount as well. He's swinging at fewer pitches, but he's also missing more, especially on pitches outside of the zone. When pitches are in the zone, Lindor is still seeing and connecting with the ball very well; however, when pitches are out of the zone, his contact % is down by a terrifying 17.1%.
Obviously, Lindor is still one of the best offensive players on the team, but once teams start figuring out that Lindor is apt to swing and miss at pitches out of the zone, he could be in for a bit of trouble.
Lando Slamtana has always had an elite batting eye, and it seems as if this year is no different. He is swinging slightly less than he was last year, and he is missing the ball slightly more than usual, but his overall contact % is almost identical to what it was last year.
With many other players on the team swinging and missing noticeably more than usual, Santana should not be the one that fans are concerned about (but, who am I kidding, they are definitely going to worry about him for some other unfounded reason).
Jose "Angry Hamster" Ramirez has really gotten off to a hot start this year, and he's done his best to earn as much playing time as possible. Because of his aggressiveness at the plate (he's swinging 9.2% more of the time), he's making contact at a slightly worse rate than last year. On pitches out of the zone, Ramirez is connecting more than last year, but he's missing on pitches in the zone more frequently. His contact rate is down a moderate amount from last year but, similar to Santana, Ramirez isn't the main culprit of the high strikeout rates.
"Feast Mode" as my friend used to call Uribe when he was with the Dodgers, has... actually not been too bad at the plate in terms of swings and misses. In fact, his contact rates across the board are all elevated from last year. His K% is slightly higher than his career norm, but not by an alarming amount. In fact, his wRC+ for the year is 88, and his career wRC+ is 87.
People may be frustrated with Uribe, and it may be upsetting to know that he's actually putting the bat on the ball more often than he has in recent years, but this is just the type of player that Uribe is, unfortunately.
The man who seemingly always joined in on Detroit's beat downs of the Tribe, Davis has been a pleasant offensive force so far, and it shows in his swing rates. He's swinging more than he did last year, and he's making good contact with the ball more often as well. So far, he's been good for a wRC+ of 131, which is about as much as you can ask for a 35-year-old outfielder. Keep it up, Davis!
Similar to Davis, there's really not much more you could be asking from Marlon Byrd. Yes, his overall contact rate is down slightly from 2015, but he's making more contact on pitches in the zone. His wRC+ for 2016 is currently at 127; I wouldn't expect that to stay constant, and his contact rate on pitches out of the zone is the reason why.
Compared to an average O-Contact%, Byrd is almost 20% below where you would want him to be, and it shows; he's striking out at an alarming 28.6%. At some point this season, the other shoe is going to drop and Marlon Byrd's production will spiral downward.
* * *
So it seems like, for the most part, every player on the team is swinging and missing at rates slightly worse than they were last year. There are a couple of players (namely Davis and Uribe) who are making more contact, but their positive contributions are not large enough to offset some of the larger negative contributions (Napoli, Kipnis, and Gomes being the primary culprits).
Hopefully, as the team starts to lock in at the plate, the swings and misses will start to decrease. No one, except maybe Kipnis, has numbers so bad or so far off of their career norms that it should be alarming. After another month of games, if these numbers don't start to turn around, there could be a real cause for concern.
Keep in mind that last year, the Tribe struck out a total of 1157 times which, when divided over 161 games (because there was no game 162 last season), averages out to about 7.2 strikeouts per game. With 20 games in the book this season and 172 strikeouts, that rate is up to 8.6. It's a number that is higher, but should normalize over the course of a season. If we extrapolate that 8.6 rate to a full season, the expected strikeout total for the team would be around 1393. In 2015, only 1 team had more strikeouts (the Cubs with 1518). In fact, when looking at the Cleveland Indians history, at no point has the team exceeded 1393 strikeouts in a single season; actually, no team ever went over 1300. The closest that the team ever came was in 2013 when the Tribe recorded 1283 Ks, their highest strikeout total in team history.
Aside from a couple of players who are swinging and missing a little more than what would be expected, there's no reason to believe that the strikeouts won't decrease as the season progresses.