Mensching: Tigers’ Gardenhire misses on strikeout evaluation

By Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News
Jeimer Candelario led the Tigers in strikeouts in 2018 with 160.

The Tigers struck out – a lot – in 2018. Enough that a lot of old-school baseball people, manager Ron Gardenhire included, singles it out as one of the areas he would like to see his rebuilding baseball team improve the most.

“We talk about that all the time among us coaches,” Gardenhire said. “Striking out was the worst thing you could do when we were growing up playing. Just put the ball in play. When you strike out, you have no chance to get a hit. But shortening up your swing with two strikes and putting it in play – that’s taboo now.”

The Tigers struck out in more than 22 percent of their at-bats during the season. That’s about twice every time the lineup turns over.

That might sound bad. When you think about the really good hitters in the history of the game, you think about players who didn’t strike out much and put the ball in play. Players with good hand-eye coordination who adjust throughout the at-bat to avoid the strikeout. Players like Tony Gwynn, who struck out about 4 percent of the time during his entire career in the ’80s and ’90s. Or more recently, Ichiro Suzuki, who struck out in about 10 percent of his plate appearances.

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There’s a problem with looking at the game like that. You lose the forest for the trees, and a healthy forest requires a biodiverse ecosystem to thrive.

We used to judge a good ballplayer by looking at his batting average. Then we realized that saying a player batted .300 really doesn’t give you a lot of information about how good of a batter he is. Does he get on base when he’s not getting hits? Are those hits a bunch of singles, or is he pounding the ball over the fence and driving in runners from first?

Maybe the rest of the holy trinity of bubble-gum stats was supposed to capture that information: Home runs told you if a player had power and RBIs told you if he drove in runners.

Of course that ignores doubles and triples. It relies on teammates to get into scoring position before a hitter even steps to the plate.

Stats had to get a lot more complicated, and they had to figure out just how many runs on average say, a single is worth versus a triple.

The next thing you know, one generation of baseball people talks about average and counting stats, while another is chirping about OPS and VORP, then WAR, then wRC+ and wOBA.

It’s like an elementary-school understanding of stats versus grad school. These days most baseball fans have moved beyond elementary school but not a lot of people have the interest – or, frankly, the need – to have the grad school baseball education. Still, their front offices do.

I can’t tell you off the top of my head how to calculate wRC+ or wOBA, either.

But I can tell you that the Tigers’ problem in 2018 wasn’t that their batters struck out too much. It’s just that the team didn’t have enough good batters, period, a problem made even worse when Miguel Cabrera was lost for the year. 

Players who find their way on base are pretty valuable – but that’s more than just a strikeout thing.

Players who get those players home are pretty valuable, too – but that’s more than just a home run thing.

A stat that takes the entirety of a player’s contributions into scope is going to be a lot more useful.

Strikeouts were up across baseball this year. Detroit actually ranked a little better than average in that regard and could easily have been in the top 10, separated only by a couple tenths of a percentage point from the … Royals and Twins.

Yet the Tigers (26th) and Royals (25th) ranked near the bottom of the sport in runs.

Maybe it’s not about the strikeouts.

Incidentally, they ranked 25th (Royals) and 27th (Tigers) in wOBA (weighted on-base average).

Taking a holistic look at the roster is far more important than worrying about any one stat. Strikeouts just aren’t that big of a deal.

Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer.