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Strikeouts are not the cause of the Yankees’ offensive woes

While the Yankees rank near the top of the league in strikeouts, they do not have the effect on productivity that one might think.

MLB: New York Yankees at Oakland Athletics Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

For quite some time now, the topic of strikeouts in modern baseball has enraged fans on both sides of the baseball divide. To traditional fans, there is nothing worse than a strikeout and the modern game is sacrilegious because it allows them to happen without consequence. To the analytically-minded fan, we often hear that strikeouts don’t matter and that the data backs that up. (For what it’s worth, I’m somewhere in the middle of all this nonsense — that should soon be apparent.)

As it pertains to the Yankees, though, the strikeout discourse gets even messier. Regardless of the broadcast, you’ll hear how this team strikes out a lot and how that is undeniably a bad thing. Hell, even after last year’s playoff exit, there were countless complaints about the strikeout tendencies of this team — ”A team that strikes out this much is simply never going to win anything!” was the chorus around the Yankees-verse — despite the fact that the team ranked in the bottom third of the league in strikeouts in 2020!

Now, I’m not interested in whether strikeouts are detrimental to a team’s overall success — we know they’re not, and all you have to do is glimpse the Tampa Bay Rays’ offensive numbers for proof — but I am interested to see what kind of effect, if any, strikeouts have had on the lineup’s productivity (or lack thereof) this season.

With 19 games left to go in the 2021 campaign, the Yankees currently rank seventh in total strikeouts (1,310), sixth in strikeout rate (24.6 percent), and 12th in wRC+ (100). In terms of Statcast’s plate discipline data, the team ranks second-lowest in the league in both swing percentage and zone contact percentage (44.3 percent and 83 percent respectively), and currently ranks 25th in overall contact percentage (75 percent).

While the stark difference in these statistics may appear odd from the outset, it’s important to note that it’s not exactly an outlier for the Yankees, as they usually rank near the bottom of the league in swing percentages because of their propensity to see a lot of pitches.

The real key to understanding the strikeout’s effect on this team’s productivity is to look at the individual statistics of each player. Here’s a graph comparing regular members (min. 1,000 pitches seen) of this season’s team to their last comparable season:

Baseball Savant & Fangraphs

*Giancarlo Stanton’s last season with 1,000 pitches seen was 2018
**Luke Voit has not reached 1,000 pitches seen yet this year, but he is a key part of this team

There are a few outliers here and there — DJ LeMahieu’s chase percentage and Gio Urshela’s chase contact rate are the most noteworthy of the bunch — but, for the most part, the data differences are negligible over a full season. There are a few noteworthy points to observe, though.

Good news! Both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have cut down their strikeout rates. While Stanton’s is just over two percentage points lower, which isn’t really much of a difference over 162 games, Judge has slashed his by over six percentage points. The key result here, however? Their productivity levels have remained relatively consistent with seasons in which they struck out more. So, while it certainly looks nice on paper and I’ll always take fewer strikeouts from those two, it seems as though the higher strikeout rates from years past didn’t do much to hamper their overall levels of production.

Eyeing the wRC+ column in particular, there are six cases of major drop-offs in production levels this year: LeMahieu, Urshela, Anthony Rizzo, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sánchez, and Brett Gardner. Let’s zero in on them a little bit:

Baseball Savant & Fangraphs

In this graph, I’ve gone through and highlighted the statistical jumps that are large enough to make a difference; red means they’ve gotten worse, while green means they’ve gotten better.

The first thing that should stand out is the fact that there is only one instance of a massive jump in strikeout percentage, and that’s from Urshela. While his health is likely the main culprit behind his massive drop in productivity, his strikeout rate — inflated by an increased whiff percentage and a downright drastic drop in chase contact percentage — certainly isn’t helping.

Beyond Gio, though, the strikeout rates are relatively the same year-over-year, despite the nosedive in production. While LeMahieu, Rizzo, and Gardner have each seen incremental increases in their strikeout rates, these changes simply aren’t big enough to explain their huge dips in production levels. In other words, there has to be another culprit, likely hidden in their batted-ball profiles, that would account for their decreased levels of production.

Furthermore, in some cases, a player’s strikeout rate has actually improved while their productivity has decreased. Just look at the totals for Torres and Sánchez. While they’ve both committed to whiffing less, there are other factors at play that have led to their lack of productivity. In Sánchez’s case, this dip likely has more to do with his batted-ball profile — similar to the other players mentioned above — while Torres has clearly become negatively patient at the plate, as he’s swinging at far too few pitches in the zone.

So what does this data indicate? Mostly that the effect that strikeouts have on a player’s productivity levels are overrated. Strikeouts have had a clear effect on a player’s level of productivity in just two cases: Urshela and Torres. In the case of the former, Urshela’s huge jump in strikeouts and tendency to whiff have clearly led to his dip in productivity, while the latter’s patient approach and, as a result, dip in strikeouts have cut through what made him successful during the early parts of his career.

This is, of course, not to say that strikeouts don’t matter at all, either. Rather, I’m making the point that, in the majority of cases, strikeouts alone don’t lead to noticeable dips in production. However, when batted-ball profiles are down the way they are across the Yankees’ roster — the alarming groundball rates this season have been discussed ad nauseum — strikeouts might actually be preferable to what these players are offering.

In short, strikeouts are not the be-all, end-all that some fans (and broadcasters) make them out to be, but they’re also not entirely devoid of utility when it comes to understanding productivity. While strikeout rates can certainly help explain certain issues, it’s better to view them as a symptom rather than a cause.

Note: All numbers cited were accurate as of the end of play on Saturday night.