Bryce Harper and the Three True Outcomes

As of this writing, Bryce Harper leads the National League in Walks. He leads the National League in Home Runs. He is fourth in the National League in Strikeouts. These, we know, are the Three True Outcomes of a plate appearance. “True,” because they involve only one interaction: the pitcher and the batter, with no intermeddling defense. They are the bedrock of Fielding-Independent Pitching analysis.

Thus far in 2015, 56.6% of Bryce Harper’s plate appearances have ended in a True Outcome. That’s getting up into numbers we haven’t seen in DC since Adam Dunn was a Nat. Yet, surprisingly, doesn’t lead all baseball in what I’m calling True Outcome Percentage (Walks plus strikeouts plus homers, all divided by plate appearances). As of the morning of Saturday, May 9, 2015, your top ten in baseball:

  • Joc Pederson, Dodgers, .623
  • Bryce Harper, Nationals, .566
  • Chris Davis, Orioles, .546 [Leads AL]
  • Steven Sousa Jr., Rays, .534
  • Colby Rasmus, Astros, .532
  • Chris Carter, Astros, .531
  • Kris Bryant, Cubs, .511
  • Adam LaRoche, White Sox, .490
  • George Springer, Astros, .479

Pederson gets the top spot, although Harper has 15 more plate appearances. There’s not a lot to separate Harper and Pederson: Harper has 2 more walks, one less strikeout, and 1 more homer. The other thing that should jump out at you in this quick list is that the Astros dominate the True Outcomes rate leaderboard. but not in a good way: the strikeout is the True Outcome of choice in Houston.

Now, all this got me to thinking: where would Harper’s current .566 True Outcome Rate put him among the All-Time True Outcomes leaders? Bryce Harper’s current Three True Outcomes Rate, if sustained for his career, would put him atop the all-time Three True Outcomes Leaderboard.

And what kind of rarified company would Harper join if his batting approach stays the same? Let’s go down the top ten:

  • Jack Cust, .530. [Long-time journeyman AL designated hitter]
  • Dave Nicholson, .514 [Preferred outcome: Strikeout. Led AL in strikeouts 1963]
  • Russell Branyan, .505, [Russell “the Muscle”: another strikeout machine]
  • Chris Carter, .504 [Yes, the same Chris Carter on the Astros, above]
  • Adam Dunn, .499 [The man who made the Three True Outcomes famous in DC]
  • Rob Deer, .491 [Led AL in strikeouts 4 times!]
  • Melvin Nieves, .486 [Preferred outcome: strikeout]
  • Mark Reynolds, .486 [and dropping]
  • Milt Pappas, .482 [A 2-time All-Star pitcher! And, bonus: as a batter, his most frequent True Outcome was a strikeout–which was also his most frequent True Outcome as a pitcher!]
  • Jim Thome, .476, [Another archetypical True Outcome Slugger]

Which leads us to an important point: although True Outcome Rate brings joy to the baseball nerd, it does not tell us that a batter is good at batting. The all-time leaderboard is  dominated by strikeout machines. Jim Thome dominates the WAR standings here, with 68.9 WAR over a career that began while we were all reading President George Herbert Walker Bush’s lips because Al Gore hadn’t yet invented the Internet and ended sometime during the bazillionth time I watched “Gangnam Style.” Only Adam Dunn has double-digit WAR (25.7). Mark Reynolds might eventually get there (9.9). Jim Thome only managed 8.6 over a career that began in the George Herbert Walker Bush administration and ended last season. Russell Branyan’s untrue-outcome slugging got him 6.2 WAR. Below that, it’s replacement level or worse batting.

Still, it gives you some perspective as to one possible career path for Harper: a kind of Super WAR Donkey.

Play us out, Spandau Ballet:

Edited, because Distinguished Senators pointed out that I got Thome’s WAR total wrong by a full order of magnitude. I am an idiot.

What the hell is the matter with Drew Storen?

Absolutely nothing.

Let me explain: Storen’s 2013 has been pretty bad, right? To date, Storen has a terrible 5.21 ERA. His FIP is a suitably terrible 4.26. How can I possibly say that nothing is wrong, especially when compared to his excellent 2012, where he posted a 2.37 ERA and a 2.40 FIP?

Look at the batted-ball data. In 2012, Storen only gave up 2 home runs all year. In 2013, he has surrendered 3. So, the question we have to ask is: is Drew Storen broken, or just unlucky?

Fortunately, we have a tool that might help us answer that question–it is xFIP, which is just like FIP, but normalized to a league-average HR/FB rate. A quick look at Storen’s ERA, FIP, and xFIP  with Storen’s FB% and HR/FB rate since 2010 gives us these data:

  • 2010: ERA: 3.58; FIP 3.26; xFIP 3.88; 40.3% FB, 5.0% HR/FB;
  • 2011: ERA 2.75; FIP 3.32; xFIP 3.14; 35.5% FB, 11.1% HR/FB
  • 2012: ERA 2.37; FIP 2.40; xFIP 3.52; 28.0% FB, 0.0% HR/FB
  • 2013, Year-to-date: FIP 5.21; FIP 4.26; xFIP 3.95; 37.1%, 13% HR/FB

What are we to make of this? Storen’s xFIP in 2013 is up, relative to what it had been: 3.95 isn’t great. But that’s in line with his 2010 xFIP of 3.88. And curiously, during his annus mirabilis of 2012, Storen posted an xFIP of 3.52–not at all what you’d expect, given his miniscule 2.40 FIP of that year.

If anything, we should look at the xFIP data and figure that the rest of Storen’s 2013 might look a little more like 2011 than 2012. Storen’s game depends on inducing weaker contact, and that means a HR/FB rate lower than league average.

And we have further evidence that Storen, in 2013, has been inducing weaker contact. His line-drive rate is currently 16.1%, which is lower than it was in 2012 (18.3%) or in 2011 (17.2%). Likewise, his ground ball rate in 2013 of 46.8% is down from 2012 (53.7%) and–you guessed it–in line with his 2011 ground ball rate of 47.3%.

So, what does that mean? When batters put the ball in play against Storen, they aren’t squaring it up (declining line-drive rate). They aren’t putting it on the ground as much, either (declining ground-ball rate). They are, however, hitting it up in the air. That should result in quick outs to Harper, Span and (eventually) Werth. But Storen’s been awfully unlucky so far, since his HR/FB rate is higher than the league average.

Once that HR/FB rate normalizes, his FIP will get ever closer to his xFIP–that’s hope for improvement. The declining ground ball and line drive rates are even more encouraging. Weaker contact should make for even lower HR/FB rates. There’s hope for improvement there.

Looking at Storen’s peripheral stats, then, there is plenty to suggest that his 2013 will not end as disastrously as it appears to have begun. Drew Storen is still Drew Storen–and that’s not all that bad.

Epilogue: You will notice that I haven’t addressed his mental state at all. Again, that’s because I have no way of knowing what the hell is going on in Storen’s head. The data we can measure, though, shows that Storen is at least capable of being better than he’s been lately, and that he’s got every chance to show it. If you want to think you know something about his mind, go ahead. But it’s bad enough for me to be an armchair baseball analyst without also becoming an unlicensed, upper-deck psychoanalyst in the bargain.