It’s pretty widely-known that strikeout rates in MLB have been soaring in recent years. The debates over whether or not this is a “good” thing are still raging, and will for as long as MLB exists. The average MLB-er struck out in 21.7 percent of his plate appearances in 2019, up from 17.7 percent in 2009.
However, the focus of this article is not on the average striker-outer, or even MLB’s skyrocketing strikeout rate. This article is about those hitters who refused to let the league’s conventions define them and struck out at rates either way above or way below the league average.
To see MLB’s 2019 K-rate leaderboard, click here. To be eligible for this article, a player must have had a minimum of 200 plate appearances in 2019. For a humorous take on why high strikeout rates aren’t necessarily a bad thing, click this link.
Keon Broxton had a pretty rough 2019 season. He suited up for the Mets to start the campaign, but was DFA’d in May and eventually traded to the Orioles. Even though his .611 OPS in Baltimore was an improvement on his .371 OPS (.371!) with New York, the Orioles DFA’d him in July. The Mariners claimed Broxton soon afterward, and he put up a .469 OPS before electing free agency at season’s end. The Brewers signed him to a minor-league deal in December and assigned him to their AAA affiliate in San Antonio.
Many of Broxton’s problems on offense can be traced to his eye-popping 45.6 percent strikeout rate. There is simply no way that a major-league baseball player can be successful offensively while striking out that much. In all player seasons going back to the year 1980 (minimum 200 plate appearances), Broxton’s 45.6% strikeout rate in 2019 was the very highest.
To close on a positive note, Keon Broxton’s defense is the stuff of legends, even if his offense isn’t. This Fangraphs article from 2018 discusses his eye-popping defensive ability in detail.
It’s impossible not to feel bad for Chris Davis, who was one of the premier power hitters in baseball not so long ago. He was worth 3.3 WAR as recently as 2016, after which Orioles management signed him to a seven-year, $161 million contract. Over the life of that contract, Davis has been worth -3.8 bWAR. To see all the gory details of Davis’s struggles in recent seasons, click here for his Statcast profile.
Davis’s 2019 was slightly better than his historically awful 2018, but his 2019 strikeout rate was a gnarly 39.5 percent. Three-true-outcome sluggers like Davis are always going to have their share of strikeouts, but it’s pretty difficult to be a productive hitter with a strikeout rate that high. Most of Davis’s strikeout woes came from his 49.3 percent whiff rate on breaking pitches, which is just… ugly. His results against fastballs weren’t much better.
To close on a positive note (again), Davis put on 25 pounds of muscle over the offseason and feels like he can do better in 2020 than he has in recent years. If Davis is able to get his production back up to even league-average levels, he’ll be one of the best stories of the season. Hopefully he can pull things together at least a little bit.
From his debut season, Joey Gallo has always been one of baseball’s great outliers. He’s managed to be a valuable offensive contributor despite a career strikeout rate of 38 percent and a career batting average of .212. Gallo’s plate discipline and raw power are simply unrivaled, and his 2019 breakout season showed what results he is truly capable of.
Despite his 38.4 percent strikeout rate in 2019, Gallo put up 3.0 bWAR in only 70 games before an oblique strain and a broken hamate bone knocked him out for the remainder of the year. When he was healthy, Gallo obliterated major-league pitching to the tune of a .253/.389/.598 triple slash. Somehow, his Statcast results are arguably even more ridiculous than his traditional stats. His average exit velocity ranked sixth in the big leagues, as did his xSLG. His wOBA and XWOBA both placed inside the top fifteen in all of baseball. Gallo has finally broken out as an elite offensive performer, and his strikeout rate is simply a necessary evil of his patient, “wait-for-his-pitch” approach. To read about Gallo’s methods at the plate in greater detail, this Fangraphs article is a great read about one of baseball’s strangest players.
Now comes a pivot to the other side of strikeout rate. Who were the outliers in the other direction (i.e., hitters with the lowest strikeout rates?)
After Bartolo Colon couldn’t find an employer in American baseball last season, Baseball Internet found itself in desperate need of a new, chunky hero. Fortunately, it was able to find that hero in Willians Astudillo, and Astudillo repaid Baseball Internet’s only slightly ironic love with uncountable web gems.
Astudillo has perhaps the most unconventional player profile in baseball. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, three-true-outcomes rates are rising meteorically everywhere in baseball. La Tortuga has dug in his heels and resisted all of it. MLB’s average walk rate was 8.3 percent in 2019. Astudillo’s 2019 walk rate was 2.5 percent. More importantly for the purposes of this article, MLB’s average strikeout rate in 2019 was 21.7 percent. Astudillo had a 3.9 percent strikeout rate in 2019.
This is nothing new for him. His highest strikeout rate in his professional career was 4.8 percent, all the way back in his 2009 rookie ball season. His highest walk rate was 6.8 percent in 2011, and he only ever managed double-digit homers once in a season. Despite his highly unconventional approach, however, Astudillo has been an above-average offensive producer throughout his professional career. He stumbled in his limited big-league playing time last season, so he might open the season in the minors. Hopefully he’ll be able to find himself a spot on Minnesota’s stacked 2020 roster and make an impact at the big-league level in the season to come.
Hey look, another Twin! Luis Arraez burst onto the scene in 2019 with a .334/.399/.439 triple slash, good for a well above-average 123 OPS+. He logged time at second, third, short and left field for Minny last season, albeit with somewhat sketchy defense regardless of position.
Most projections don’t see Arraez sustaining his 2019 level of production in 2020, which makes sense. Arraez’s hard-hit rate was in the bottom 4 percent of MLB last season, and he’s not fast enough to keep his slugging percentage at .439. The projections on Fangraphs see him with a slugging percentage around .410 or so in 2020. Baseball Reference’s .833 OPS projection seems pretty over-optimistic, but computers can dream.
Despite the legitimate concerns about Arraez’s power output, his plate discipline and pure contact ability should maintain his value as a major leaguer. Arraez takes enough walks to make the low-power, slap-hitting middle infielder shtick work (9.8 percent walk rate in 2019 compared to 8.3% league-wide), and he’s basically unrivaled when it comes to putting the bat on the ball. Luis Arraez’s low strikeout rate is an essential, sustainable piece of his skillset, and he should be a valuable contributor all over the diamond for years to come.
Tommy La Stella
Continuing with the Joey Gallo theme of breakout All-Star seasons cut short by injury, Tommy La Stella broke out in a big way in 2019. La Stella played eighty games for the Las Angels Angleles of Anaheimeles, racking up 1.5 bWAR in only 321 plate appearances. He played all over the diamond, and while his historically subpar defense didn’t improve, he was still a useful Swiss Army knife that could be deployed all over the infield.
La Stella’s real value came from his offense. He rebounded from a lukewarm .672 OPS showing in 2018 and slapped his way to an .832 OPS in 2019, good for a 119 OPS+. He managed sixteen home runs in his time on the field, which was pretty remarkable for a player with such a contact-based approach at the plate.
Unfortunately for La Stella, it’ll be tough for him to maintain his 2019 output in the coming seasons. Statcast’s exit-velo metrics pegged him as pretty much exactly league-average last year, and his xSLG and xBA are both well below his actual results. His walk rate is very slightly above-average (8.8 BB percent), but that won’t be enough to save his offensive profile if he regresses to his expected results next season.
With all this in mind, a player who can play all over the infield and hit decently will always be in demand (just ask Brock Holt). If La Stella can maintain good-enough offense going forward, he’ll be a solid bench piece for any team. Expecting more All-Star appearances from him might be slightly unreasonable though.