If you’ve been following the Texas Rangers at all this season, you know that the team is striking out more than in 2016. Its been talked about a great deal, with many of the folks who cover the team pointing to it as a major problem that has to be fixed if the Rangers are going to succeed in the second half of the season, and has been presented as one of the two big problems holding the Rangers back this year (with the bullpen being the other).
I’m just not sure, though, that there’s any evidence to support the notion that the team striking out too much is hindering the offense.
First of all, the numbers — Texas Rangers hitters have struck out 819 times this season, 3rd highest in the American League. They are striking out in 24.7% of their plate appearances. Last year, the Rangers struck out in 20.0% of their plate appearances, which was 11th highest in the American League. So they are striking out more! A ha!
Of course, one must ask why the Rangers are striking out more. Its worth noting that the recent trend of an increase in strikeouts has continued this season — last year A.L. teams struck out 20.8% of the time, whereas this year it is up to 21.5% of the time.
So that would seem to be part of it. With the Rangers, however, there’s also a pretty simple explanation for the increase that I’ve discussed before — the additions of Mike Napoli and Joey Gallo. Napoli and Gallo are extremely high strikeout guys — Napoli has fanned in 32.5% of his plate appearances, and Gallo in 38.5% of his plate appearances. Both are playing every day this year, but didn’t last year. Remove Napoli and Gallo from the equation, and the rest of the team is striking out 22.4% of the time -- just a bit above average.
In addition to Napoli and Gallo, you have Carlos Gomez and Delino DeShields getting a bunch of plate appearances this year. Both are extremely high-K guys -- Gomez has struck out 33.9% of the time this year, DeShields 28.3% of the time.
There are 129 players in the A.L. this season with at least 200 plate appearances, and the Rangers have four of the top twenty in K percentage — Gallo (3rd), Gomez (9th), Napoli (10th), and DeShields (19th). Gallo and Napoli are striking out about as much as you would expect them to, while Gomez and DeShields are somewhat higher.
As for the other regulars, there’s no particular spike compared to expectations. Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus are striking out a little bit more often than they did last year. Nomar Mazara and Adrian Beltre are almost exactly the same. Shin-Soo Choo and Jonathan Lucroy are striking out less.
So the short answer to why the Rangers have a lineup that strikes out a lot is that they put together a roster of players who are going to strike out a lot. Specifically, you added Napoli and Gallo to the mix, who you know are going to strike out a ton, and you are giving more time to Gomez and DeShields, who are high strikeout guys as well.
So when we say the strikeouts are a problem and the Rangers need to improve on that, where is the improvement coming from? Are we wanting to bench Gallo, or change his approach? Sit Gomez or DeShields or Napoli more often? What player are you going to plug into the lineup instead who will perform and have a lower K rate? Robinson Chirinos has been used more often, with Lucroy going to DH, but he’s striking out 28.1% of the time. Ryan Rua, now in AAA, was fanning 37.6% of the time. Drew Robinson is up now, but he was striking out 23.9% of the time in AAA, and is probably going to be fanning around 30% of the time if he’s in the majors.
But setting the issue of “why” the Rangers are striking out aside, the more important thing, I think, is this — does it even matter?
The Rangers are 3rd in the American League in runs scored per game this year, at 5.05. Yes, they in a offense-friendly home park, but that’s still impressive — Boston and Cleveland are tied for fourth at 4.84 RPG, so it isn’t as if they are barely ahead. Scoring runs hasn’t been a problem.
But you know what has been a problem for the Rangers? Hitting for average and getting on base. The Rangers are 14th in batting average in the A.L. Yes, yes, I know, batting average doesn’t matter, so let’s skip to OBP — the Rangers are 10th in the A.L. in OBP. They are 5th in slugging, which is nice, but the end result is that the Rangers, despite their bat-friendly home park, are 8th in the A.L. in OPS. They are 11th in the A.L. in wRC+.
Now, if you want to say that the Rangers need to hit better, do a better job of getting on base, I wouldn’t take issue with that at all — they clearly do. The Rangers’ individual offensive components, as reflected in wRC+, indicate that the offense as a whole isn’t good, and that’s largely due (as we have discussed before) to Napoli, Lucroy and Odor having poor offensive seasons.
But they aren’t having poor offensive seasons because they’re striking out too much.
Nevertheless, the argument that is offered up is that the strikeouts are a problem because they kill rallies. The Rangers, it is argued, don’t get runners home, miss out on productive outs, don’t get as many runs across as they should because of the high number of Ks.
Except, as I explained above, they are 3rd in the A.L. in runs scored despite being 8th in OPS, and 7th in wOBA. If the high strikeout totals were such a hindrance, so much worse than regular outs, the you’d expect fewer runs compared to what the team’s OPS and wOBA suggest, not more.
And as for productive outs, advancing runners and the like? Baseball Reference has a “Productive Out” figure that it calculates. In 2017, the A.L. as a whole has made a “productive out,” as defined by B-R, 29% of the time when a “productive out” situation has arisen.
The Rangers? They are at 35%, first in the A.L. Contrary to what has been suggested, that the Rangers are suffering because their high strikeout totals are limiting productive outs, the team has been the best in the league at that.
Scoring runners from third with less than two out? The Rangers are middle of the pack in that — they’ve brought the runner home from third with less than two out exactly half the time, 77 times in 154 opportunities, identical to the 50% benchmark for the league as a whole.
In fact, diving down a little deeper, we can see that the Rangers’ strike out most often with no one on base (26.3% of the time), whereas with men on, its right around league average (22.4%). The K rate spikes with two outs (26.0%), as well — a time when a K isn’t any better or worse than a ground out or a fly out.
So what does all this mean? Well, it means the Rangers built a team that has a lot of high-strikeout guys who play a lot, but despite all the Ks, the Rangers are doing as good a job, or a better job, of scoring runs, making productive outs, and getting runners home from third as they would if there were fewer Ks and more ball-in-play outs.
Which means that, while the strikeouts are frustrating, and overall offensive performance needs to improve, the idea that strikeouts are killing this team somehow is simply false.