The Scarlet Letter

Driving to class a couple days ago, a sportscaster said something on the radio that made me shake my head. I’ll paraphrase what he said:

“The Indians signed infielder Jose Hernanez to a one-year contract yesterday. Hernandez, who is known for his strikeouts…”

That was pretty much it. He mentioned the name of the player, and that he strikes out a lot. And that’s it. He conveiniently left out that Hernandez hit 13 home runs in 211 at-bats, that he was a key member of the Dodgers’ playoff run, and that he plays several positions. He just assumed that strikeout=bad and that players who accumulate a lot of them are bad players. Let’s actually look at the numbers, shall we?

Strikeout Leaders, 2004
1. OF Adam Dunn (195)
2. 2B Mark Bellhorn (177)
3. OF Craig Wilson (169)
4. OF Corey Patterson (168)
5. OF Geoff Jenkins (152)
6. OF Brad Wilkerson (152)
7. OF Jim Edmonds (150)
8. 3B Hank Blalock (149)
9. OF Miguel Cabrera (148)
10. OF Andruw Jones (147)

There’s some pretty good players on that list. Something must be wrong here, right? Let’s look at the players who have struck out the least amount of times (min. 400 ABs):

1. C AJ Pierzynski (27)
2. IF Eric Young (28)
3. IF Deivi Cruz (32)
4. OF Juan Pierre (35)
5. 1B Sean Casey (36)
6. 2B Placido Polanco (39)
7. OF Endy Chavez (40)
8. 3B Edgar Alfonso (40)
9. C Toby Hall (41)
10. 2B Joey Cora (41)

After a cursory glance, it doesn’t look like strikeout totals really mean much. After all, a strikeout, for all its attention by the media, is just another out. In the grand scheme of things, the difference between a popfly to right field is essentially the same outcome as a swinging strikeout. So why don’t writers or sportscasters rip a player based on all his groundouts to second? Because it isn’t as romantic as a strikeout. After all, Mighty Casey doesn’t just make an out, he strikes out. A batting average is essentially the percentage of times a batter does not make an out or reach on an error. Nowhere in my description did I mention the word ‘strikeout’.

Yes, there are cases where a bad player strikes out a lot. And there are cases where a good player does not strike out very often. But in no case can you assert that a large amount of strikeouts is always indicative of a bad player or the lack of strikeouts always indicates a good player. It’s what the player does when he isn’t making outs that proves his worth, not the outs themselves.

So next time an announcer remarks that a certain player is leading the league in strikeouts, just go the Internet and look up his statistics. You know, the ones that tell you how good he really is.

[EDIT] “Eric” changed to “Endy” Chavez (assist to Dave Haller)

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