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The case of the Texas Rangers and the incredibly shrinking strikeout rates

Jan 23, 2012, 5:48 PM EDT

Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli Getty Images

One of things that really stood out when I was doing projections over the last month was how the 2011 Rangers had a bunch of guys that didn’t strike out anywhere near as much as usual. In fact, seven of their nine veterans with at least 400 plate appearances last season set new career-lows when it came to their strikeout rates.

Here’s this list, comparing their 2010 strikeout rates (K/PA) to their 2011 marks. I’m also adding their previous career lows.

Ian Kinsler: 12.4% to 9.8% (previous career low: 11.5%)
Adrian Beltre: 12.8% to 10.1% (previous career low: 12.8%)
Elvis Andrus: 14.2% to 11.1% (previous career low: 14.2%)
Michael Young: 16.0% to 11.3% (previous career low: 12.0%)
David Murphy: 15.1% to 13.9% (previous career low: 15.1%)
Yorvit Torrealba: 18.5% to 15.5% (previous career low: 16.5%)*
Mike Napoli: 26.9% to 19.7% (previous career low: 23.8%)

Josh Hamilton: 16.6% to 17.3%
Nelson Cruz: 18.2% to 22.6%

Torrealba came in at 12.9% in 136 at-bats as a rookie in 2002. 16.5% was his low mark in any of his six previous seasons with at least 200 at-bats.

I didn’t include sophomore Mitch Moreland in the above list. His strikeout rate went from 20.8% in 2010 to 18.0% last season, but given that he had just 145 major league at-bats entering the year, I didn’t think that was a big enough sample. Besides, I hardly needed him to help make my point. Seven career lows. Five of the team’s seven most important hitters (tossing out Murphy and Torrealba) lowered their strikeout rates by at least 20 percent.

That’s just incredible, in my opinion. Andrus is the only one of the seven players who is still on the upswing of his career. The others should be holding steady at best.

As for the two who declined, Hamilton still beat his career average. Cruz’s mark was slightly worse than his career average.

The data is so stark that I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the Rangers were getting some help. Maybe they could have been stealing signs at home? The team as a whole had a K rate of 14.0% at home and 15.7% on the road. That’s a significantly larger gap than the league home-away splits (17.7% at home, 18.3% on the road), but not a big enough difference to suggest that something fishy was going on, not when they were still so much better than average on the road.

It will be interesting to see if the Rangers can keep it going this year. Napoli, Young, Beltre and Kinsler all have to be viewed as candidates to decline after exceeding expectations in 2011. I think Kinsler may avoid that fate and the Texas offense could make up for some of that production with better health (Beltre, Napoli, Hamilton and Cruz all played in fewer than 125 games last year), but barring a Prince Fielder signing, it’s going to be difficult to score quite so many runs again.

  1. aaronmoreno - Jan 23, 2012 at 5:58 PM

    Maybe they did something legitimate instead of cheating? Hitting coach or something like that?

    • Matthew Pouliot - Jan 23, 2012 at 6:02 PM

      I would have given the hitting coach a nod in the article, if I knew which one to pick. They actually fired Thad Bosley in June and replaced him with Scott Coolbaugh. They also had Johnny Narron as an assistant hitting coach/Hamilton mentor.

      • proudlycanadian - Jan 23, 2012 at 7:15 PM

        If it wasn’t the hitting coaches and better pitch selection by the hitters, then ESPN would likely conclude that it was probably somebody in the stands relaying pitch information and would then build a case out of nothing.

      • Jonny 5 - Jan 23, 2012 at 7:22 PM

        Looks like they either cheated, got really lucky all at the same time, or they fired a hitting genius. That’s kinda funny because you have to think it’s option 3 because there’s no way Coolbaugh got them that much better since June. From what I understand the players didn’t like Bosley that much, they probably should have loved him.

  2. Ben - Jan 23, 2012 at 5:58 PM

    Totally cool. It looks like the Rangers as a team cut their K% from 15.6 to 14.9 year over year. Is there enough data to look at year over year jumps in K% (or BB%) to see how often stuff like this happens?

  3. proudlycanadian - Jan 23, 2012 at 5:59 PM

    Time for ESPN to try to do a hatchet job on the Rangers. I bet that ESPN will claim that someone saw a person in white relaying signals to the hitters from the outfield.

  4. cur68 - Jan 23, 2012 at 6:02 PM

    I’m going to say that sign stealing didn’t have as much to do with it as good hitters hit well in a ballpark that makes the most of the fly ball. Anyways, I thought it was only the Blue Jays stealing signs?

  5. mojosmagic - Jan 23, 2012 at 6:12 PM

    I think that’s great. I wonder what the dramatic decline is attributable too? A lot of times it is as simple as cutting down on your swing especially with two strikes. Contact and hit it where it is pitched instead of trying to pull and jack it of the park.

    • cur68 - Jan 23, 2012 at 6:22 PM

      I can buy that, but I have a combination thought now. See, I was kind on the page of park characteristics affecting batting approach. If the hitter knows that the pitch he usually flies out on will be a homer at a given park, then he swings at it, rather than lays off. By swinging at more types of pitches, the good hitters will get contact where they might have been caught looking before, since a good hitter gets more contact than a poor one (duh). Ergo the fly out that becomes a homer due to park characteristics can also be seen in the reduced SO rate.

      Now add your approach to mine: cut down 2 strike swing & change in plate approach due to park characteristics. Some of those cut down sing shots leave the field, especially if that park is Arlington. As a hitting approach, I like it. No matter what, the SO rate likely drops.

  6. spytdi - Jan 23, 2012 at 6:19 PM

    What is this? The Crucible? What a bitch article.

  7. brewcitybummer - Jan 23, 2012 at 7:37 PM

    I think there could be some significance in the 2 players who’s rates rose. They are the two power hitters who would get the most respect from opposing starters. The rest of the lineup got better pitches to hit because of the overall talent of the lineup. You pitch around the best two guys and then challenge the rest of the lineup to beat you.

  8. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jan 23, 2012 at 7:56 PM

    Also seems to be a corresponding drop in BB rate as well. Maybe guys were far more aggressive in hitting so they didn’t get into many 2-2/3-2 counts? I’d post the info but is there any way to format stuff in html so it doesn’t come out all fubar?

  9. unclearnie - Jan 23, 2012 at 9:31 PM

    Perhaps they struck out less because they saw more pitches from borderline relievers. After all, with that line up, they were probably into the bullpen by the 5th inning most nights. Maybe some of those relievers should have been at AAA ball. Jim Fregosi used to say that hitting was contagious because once the best hitters knocked out the best pitchers on the other team, the good (but not best hitters) got more hitable pitches from the pen. Anybody know how many innings of relievers they saw in 2011 vs 2010?

    • jasonwinter - Jan 24, 2012 at 11:45 AM

      2010 Rangers: 4212 PA vs. SP, 2086 PA vs. RP (33.1%)

      2011 Rangers: 4122 PA vs. SP, 2139 PA vs. RP (34.2%)

  10. bleed4philly - Jan 23, 2012 at 11:34 PM

    Maybe they read the moneyball book and realized they probably should cut down on the strikeouts? Just a thought.

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