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.

Milestones on K Street?

A friend of mine remarked recently:

So the Rays’ pitchers just set the record for most K’s in a season by an AL team with 1,246. The 2003 Cubs hold the MLB record with 1,404. The Nats currently have 1,237 K’s on the season. What are the odds that the Nats’ pitchers break the Cubs’ mark in the next 3 years? I say even money.

This is one of those things that sneaks up on you. As much as I follow the Nats’ pitching staff, I had not really been keeping track of their cumulative strikeout figures. Currently, the Nats are third in the league, behind the Phillies (1290) and the Brewers (1299), although I have to believe the Brewers’ strikeout totals are somewhat inflated from having to face the Astros and the Pirates (who are, respectively first and second in strike-outs while batting) so often.

Let’s get one obvious thing out of the way. The Nats pitching staff posts a collective 8.18 K/9. There are about 90 innings left in the year. Assuming nothing changes radically, we’d expect around 82 more strikeouts through the end of this year, bringing the total to something like 1,328 or so. So, no way the 2012 Nats come close to the 2003 Cubs’ unbelievable strikeout totals.

Could the Nats equal such a mark?

We can try to make an extremely crude projection. Let’s assume an unlimited, 200-inning Stephen Strasburg. Let’s further assume that Edwin Jackson re-signs with the organization, and that Ross Detwiler remains in the rotation. That gives us a five-man rotation of Strasburg, Gio, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler. So let’s start by looking at how they’d do.

Looking at totals since 2008, here’s what the K/9 rates look like:

Strasburg: 11.21
Gonzalez: 8.79
Zimmermmann: 7.41
Jackson: 6.92
Detwiler: 5.48

Assuming all of them pitch 190 innings (I know, very very crude here), this is what it looks like:

Strasburg: 236 strikeouts
Gonzalez: 186 strikeouts
Zimmermann: 156 strikeouts
Jackson: 146 strikeouts
Detwiler: 116 strikeouts.

That gives us a starting pitching rotation total of 840 strikeouts. So far, in 2012, those same five have recorded 800 strikeouts. This seems plausible. So the 840 strikeouts from the starting rotation would need an additional 564 strikeouts from relievers to equal the 2003 Cubs. 2012 Nats relievers put up 433 strikeouts, all together.

What if we don’t bother with all this tiresome averaging over the past several years, and assume the Nats pitch at the same level they’ve done in 2012? Well, assuming 190 innings for everybody:

Strasburg: 11.13 K/9; 235 K’s
Gonzalez: 9.36 K/9; 198 K
Zimmermann: 6.95 K/9; 147 K
Jackson: 8.03 K/9; 170 K
Detwiler: 5.68 K/9; 120 K

For a staff total of 870 strikeouts.

But let’s look back at those 2003 Cubs K/9 rates:

Kerry Wood: 11.35 K/9; 211 IP; 266 K
Mark Prior: 10.43 K/9; 211.1 IP; 245 K
Matt Clement: 7.63 K/9; 201.2 IP; 171 K
Carlos Zambrano 7.07 K/9: 214 IP; 168 K
Shawn Estes: 6.11 K/9; 151.2 IP; 103 K

Wow. Strasburg today has nothing on Wood and Prior in 2003. They got more strikeouts, more often, over far more innings than we now think prudent. The forgotten man here was Shawn Estes, who racked up 103 strikeouts in 28 starts for the 2003 Cubs.

If the Nats are going to challenge the 2003 Cubs for the most strikeouts by a pitching staff in a single season, they’re going to have to hope that several of the following happen in the same year:

  • Stephen Strasburg pitches over 200 innings
  • Jordan Zimmermann pitches over 200 innings
  • Gio Gonzalez pitches over 200 innings
  • Ross Detwiler discovers some way to get 2 more strikeouts per 9 innings
  • The bullpen gets more strikeouts

Touched by an Angel

Called strikes: Angel Hernandez on Bryce Harper, Aug. 8, 2012

Called strikes: Angel Hernandez on Bryce Harper, Aug. 8, 2012. Note the red dots outside the box.

All of Nats town is about ready to kill umpire Angel Hernandez for his lousy officiating of last night’s Nats v. Astros game.

Thanks to the magic of Pitch/FX and the most excellent Texasleaguers Pitch/FX Database, I present to you, without further comment, a plot of pitches that Angel Hernandez called strikes on Bryce Harper.