In the Era of The Three True Outcomes, Let’s Talk About the Exceptions

Posted: 08/20/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

Aaron Judge has now struck out in 36 consecutive games, a new record. Strikeouts are the result of 32.1% of his plate appearances, which tellingly is nowhere near the highest in baseball (Joey Gallo strikes out 37.1% of the time). Judge also walks 17.4% of the time and homers 7.2% of the time. That means 56.7% of his plate appearances end in a strikeout, walk, or homer — also known as the three true outcomes, which in other words means a PA that ends without a ball being hit in play. Gallo’s TTO% is 59.7%, and Miguel Sano’s is 53.1%. Those three guys lead the league, and they also have more in common. Gallo is 23-years-old, Sano is 24, and Judge is 25. That’s indicative of a league-wide trend of young players with hitting styles that try to maximize homers and walks at the expense of an increase in whiffs. Why is MLB becoming more and more K, BB, and HR happy? Well, just look at the results. Judge has been one of the best hitters in baseball, with a 1.015 OPS and 165 wRC+. Gallo and Sano have been 28% and 27% better than the average hitter, and they’ve posted a .893 and .870 OPS respectively. It’s not just those three, either. Seven of the 12 most strikeout-prone batters have posted at least a 120 wRC+ this season. Just four of the 12 least strikeout-prone hitters have done the same. Overall, high TTO players have been more effective hitters, which explains why the TTO% has exploded from 30.7% to 33.5% in just the last two years. Gone are the days that Adam Dunn (long the TTO king) can lead baseball with a 48% TTO%, as he did in 2005.

I’m not going to argue with the data. I recognize that hitting more homers and drawing more walks (batting average and K-rate be damned) is a good way for hitters to provide value for their teams. I also don’t see this strategy changing anytime soon, both because the hitters are seeing good results from it and because the increased velocity and strikeout stuff that most young pitchers have necessitates it. That’s a shame, because I think it takes away from MLB’s overall product. Sure, homers are exciting, but long plate appearances and tons of walks and strikeouts aren’t. The average hitter sees 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.75 in 2005. That adds up over the course of a game and a season. I’m also a fan of amazing defensive plays and hilarious gaffes, both of which come less often with fewer balls hit in play. Speed and baserunning strategy are also marginalized without, well, baserunners. So I want to take some time to celebrate the exceptions, the players who have been tremendous players despite hitting for contact and not always power. I’m not talking about the Ben Revere type (as you may expect, Revere laps the field with a 12.8% TTO%). I’m talking about guys who could be legitimate MVP candidates. In particular, I’m talking about Justin Turner, Daniel Murphy, and Jose Altuve.

Before I get to the stats, let’s talk narrative. All three infielders have something in common: they were relatively unheralded. Altuve, who at 5’6″ is the shortest player in baseball, was signed by the Astros in 2007 as an undrafted free agent. His signing bonus was $15,000. Turner and Murphy were seventh and 13th round picks respectively and are both Mets castoffs. It really is quite incredible that New York managed to lose — for nothing — two players who are now among the best infielders in baseball. Murphy left after 2015, a 30-year-old with a career .755 OPS, a statistic that’s misleading because it doesn’t include Murphy’s 1.115 postseason OPS in 2015, when he powered the Mets to the World Series and parlayed his postseason into a three year deal with the Nationals. He went to Washington and immediately slashed .347/.390/.595, finishing second in the NL MVP voting (and posting a glorious 20.1% TTO%). His OPS is close to .950 this season. Turner left New York as a free agent after 2013. He was 28-years-old and had a career .684 OPS. In his four years in LA, he’s hit .307/.380/.507 and is now the three-hole hitter on one of the best teams in baseball’s history. The three players have all taken unconventional routes to stardom, so it’s no surprise that they have unconventional approaches in the era of Ks, BBs, and HRs.

Here’s a chart of the three players’ TTO breakdown:

K% BB% HR% TTO%
Murphy 10% 7.8% 4.3% 23.1%
Altuve 12.4% 8.6% 3.6% 24.6%
Turner 9.5% 11.4% 4.2% 25.1%

As you can see, it’s not like any of the three players lack power. They’re all going to end up hitting somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 homers, which in most eras would be an excellent total for a second baseman (as Murphy and Altuve are) or a third baseman (as Turner is). And they all walk at least a respectable amount.

Murphy isn’t even that selective. He swings at 30.6% of pitches that are outside the zone (per Baseball Info Solutions), a rate that ranks him 88th of 152 qualified hitters, right behind Yasiel Puig. And he’s in the top half of the league in terms of total swing percentage at 47.1%. What makes Murphy special is that he just doesn’t whiff. He has a beautiful and short swing which becomes even shorter with two strikes. His contact rate on pitches outside the zone is 81%, third in baseball. On pitches inside the zone, it’s 93.6%. With two strikes, he’s seen 401 pitches and swung and missed at 40 of them. That 10% rate is lower than the total swing and miss rate of more than half of qualified hitters. His swing and miss rate overall ranks 146th of 152 qualified hitters. Even the pitch that strikes him out the most (the slider) is a dangerous one to throw. Murphy’s slugging .533 against the slider, although he’s struggled against a slider with two strikes (he’s seen 72 two-strike sliders, striking out 14 times and notching just eight hits). First and foremost, though, Murphy is still a fastball hitter who is really good at fighting off changeups. Last year, he was one of the best fastball hitters in the game. He’s seen a bit of regression this year, which is to be expected, but he’s remained frighteningly good at teeing off on fastballs.

This is the point where I would usually nitpick Murphy and say that he should really draw more walks. He’s walked 36 times this year, but even that number’s misleading, as a third of them have been intentional free passes. But because this post is about finding the best anti TTO players, I’m going to give Daniel a free pass (get it?). Overall, he has one of the most interesting profiles in the league, simply because he swings at a lot of pitches and hits almost everything. When he puts it in play, he sprays it around the ballpark, hitting line drives to all areas of the field. He really is a refreshing counter to pull-happy, strikeout-heavy sluggers like Judge, Sano, and Gallo.

Jose Altuve’s probably the favorite for AL MVP, and he’d be a deserving winner. He’s hitting .364/.425/.572 with 19 homers and 28 steals, a type of line you rarely see. I know the season isn’t over yet, but nobody’s hit .350 since Josh Hamilton did it in 2010. Add in the type of power/speed combo Altuve has (at 5’6″!) and you have a unique player. As you would expect of a player with such a high average, Altuve’s BABIP is sky-high at .390. That’s partly because he hits the ball to all fields, partly because he’s fast. His homer/FB% of 14.2% is about average, which means he’s hitting about as many homers as would be expected given how many fly balls he’s hitting. Altuve strikes out significantly more than the other two, but still not very much. He’s also even more aggressive on balls outside the zone than Murphy is. He swings at 34.2% of pitches outside the zone, putting him in the bottom quartile of the league in terms of laying off pitches. That’s why he sees only 3.46 pitches per plate appearances, fifth fewest in baseball. He’s fairly good at laying off of high pitches, but he does chase low pitches, although he’s good at fouling them off. Altuve swings and misses more than Murphy and Turner do, but not much more. He’s actually a normal hitter in that two strike sliders devastate him. 46 of his at-bats have ended on a slider with two strikes, and half of those resulted in strikeouts (five were singles and one a double). Luckily, Altuve doesn’t need to have much of a two strike approach because he rarely lets a PA get that far. In fact, 109 of his at-bats have ended with a swing on the first pitch. Of those 109 balls put in play (or over the fence), Altuve is 53-for-109 (.486) with nine homers and 21 extra base hits, which is good for a .862 SLG%. That’s where so much of his power comes from (and, thus, where his status as a low TTO player is endangered), because he really shortens his swing with two strikes, when he hasn’t hit a single homer. It’s true that Jose struggles with two strikes — Altuve’s hitting .234 with a .311 OBP with two strikes, and he’s striking out 32.8% of the time. So Jose’s strategy is understandably to jump on the first pitch he can hit. By the way, want the difference between Judge and Altuve (approach-wise) in a nutshell?

0-0 Count 3-2 Count
Judge 37 ABs (.405 AVG, .730 SLG) 126 PAs (38.1% K, 35.7% BB)
Altuve 109 ABs (.486 AVG, .862 SLG) 55 PAs (20% K, 38.2% BB)

Overall, Altuve’s been seemingly impossible to get out, especially against righties, against whom he’s hitting .372. Per Brooks Baseball, Altuve’s hitting at least .300 against every single pitch thrown by a righty, which is really unbelievable given that he’s a right-handed hitter. According to Fangraphs, on a per-pitch basis he’s the third best hitter against fastballs, top-20 against sliders, top-30 against curves, and top-30 against changeups. No wonder he’s on the AL MVP shortlist.

Justin Turner’s been quite good throughout his tenure with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but this year’s been way different from any of the ones that have preceded it. From 2014-16, Turner struck out roughly one every six times he came to the plate and walked about one every 12 times. The average strikeout percentage is 21.5% and walks come 8.5% of the time, so Turner struck out a fair amount less and walked a smidge less than the average player. As you saw in the table above, this year Turner’s walking 11.4% of the time and striking out on 9.5% of his plate appearances. He’s walking 1.2 times for each strikeout, a ratio that ranks second in baseball to the unmatched Joey Votto (1.54 BB:K ratio). That’s where he distances himself from Murphy (.71) and Altuve (.69). He also is tied with Dustin Pedroia for the lowest strikeout rate among qualified players, which really burnishes his TTO resume. Turner swings at 26.2% of pitches that are outside of the zone, which is a meaningfully lower percentage than both Murphy and Altuve. His overall swing rate of 44.4% is in the league’s 35th percentile. So he’s a more patient hitter than the other two, which helps explain why he walks more often. He’s also significantly more comfortable with two strikes than Altuve (who, remember, hits .234/.311/.297 with two strikes) and Murphy (.223/.253/.417). When there are two strikes against him, Turner’s hitting .292/.390/.380, so he’s a good example of someone who can shorten up his swing and make contact with two strikes.

 

Turner’s been a good fastball hitter throughout his Dodgers career, so it’s no surprise that he’s hitting .357 against fastballs (also, it’s hard to hit .344 overall and not be seeing fastballs well). The cutter has historically hurt Turner, and he’s only hitting .250 against it this year, but I’m really picking nits here. Turner has been one of the best, purest hitters in baseball this year. He’s hitting .344/.434/.561, and it’s not a fluke. His two strike hitting and ability to put the ball in play have been the catalysts for his career season.

So there you have it: Justin Turner, Jose Altuve, and Daniel Murphy are your low TTO kings. In terms of pure TTO%, here’s the bottom 10 of qualified hitters (Ben Revere and others do not have enough PAs to qualify):

Eduardo Nunez (16%)
Yuli Gurriel (17.1%)
Dee Gordon (17.3%)
Brandon Phillips (17.5%)
Jose Iglesias (18%)
Jose Peraza (18.3%)
Jonathan Lucroy (18.6%) * – not qualified but almost so why not
Andrelton Simmons (19.6%)
DJ LeMahieu (20.1%)
Joe Panik (20.2%)

So yes, the original point is correct: most good hitters hit a lot of homers, draw a lot of walks, and strike out a lot. But that makes Turner, Murphy, and Altuve that much more impressive.

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Comments
  1. Anonymous says:

    Love it.

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