Granderson heads towards the dugout after one of his 200+ strikeouts this season. (Image: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

How Problematic Are Granderson's Strikeouts?

Everyone hates when their player strikes out. Not only are strikeouts, well, outs, which are bad, but they aren’t productive outs, which is even worse. They often make the batter look silly and outmatched, and they’re incredibly frustrating to watch as fans.

Curtis Granderson struck out a lot this season. He was also the object of a lot of criticism and frustration from Yankees fans, especially at the end of the season and in the playoffs. Those two statements are probably – no, definitely – related.

In fact, the most common complaint about Granderson is the strikeout. This is probably a fair complaint, since he struck out 195 times in 160 regular season games. If you include the playoffs, Granderson struck out 211 times in 169 games. That’s about 1.25 strikeouts a game. By comparison, the average player struck out about 0.7 times per game. To put it another way, Granderson struck out in 28.5% of his plate appearances. There are only seven qualified batters who struck out at a higher rate. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Curtis Granderson struck out a lot, and fans weren’t happy about it.

But how harmful were Granderson’s strikeouts really? To start answering this question, I decided to look at all qualified batters this season and plot their strikeout rate alongside their wRC+*. Here are the results:

*For those unfamiliar with wRC+, it essentially measures overall offensive performance, and is scaled so that 100 is average, and every point above or below 100 is a percentage point above or below average. So someone with a 120 wRC+ was 20% better offensively than the average player.

Interestingly, there’s basically no correlation between strikeout rate and overall offensive performance. Granderson has a wRC+ of 116, and as you can see, just about fits the trend for wRC+ given his strikeout rate, which actually increases slightly as K% increases (note: this is probably just due to noise as the p-value for the relationship isn’t close to significant). Players like Adam Dunn and Granderson have just as strong a chance at being good hitters as players like Marco Scutaro and Jose Reyes.

This seems a bit counterintuitive. One may expect that more strikeouts would naturally lead to worse offensive performance. But that just isn’t the case. Why, you may ask?

The answer is power. In general, the more a player strikes out, the more power they have. This makes sense. Guys like Granderson, Dunn and Carlos Pena  are probably swinging harder and with more uppercut, as well as guessing on pitches more. This will inevitably lead to less contact and more Ks, but it will also lead to more power. As evidence of this somewhat obvious claim, consider the following table, which graphs K% against Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average):

As you can see, there is a fairly strong relationship between strikeouts and power. Granderson has even more power than would be expected given his strikeout rate, as his ISO is .260. This is what makes strikeouts less harmful than one might initially think. While they don’t help by themselves, they are generally paired with an increase in power, which in turn increases the hitter’s overall offensive performance.

In Granderson’s case, the frustration over his strikeouts is understandable since he had just as much power last year, but with fewer strikeouts. However, simply stating Granderson’s strikeout numbers is not sufficient to show that he has been a bad hitter this year. Strikeouts are negative in that they lead to a lower batting average and fewer RBI, but by themselves, they aren’t a great indication of how well a hitter has hit. Striking out 200 times alongside 15 home runs and a low walk rate is very bad, but doing it alongside 43 home runs and a high walk rate isn’t bad at all.

Of course, I’m not saying that Granderson had a fantastic year by any means. Given his MVP-like production in 2011, he certainly disappointed. But it’s near impossible to be a below-average hitter when you hit 43 home runs. Strikeouts are frustrating, but don’t look past the very positive aspects of Granderson’s performance. He was still a very solid hitter this year, and will be, in all likelihood, well worth the $15 million extension that the Yankees just picked up. If he can decrease the strikeouts, he’ll be even better, but even with them, his power more than makes up for the negative value of the K.

- All stats taken from FanGraphs.
- If you’d like to see more interactive versions of the above graphs, go here for the first, and here for the second.
 
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