The case of the Texas Rangers and the incredibly shrinking strikeout rates

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One of things that really stood out when I was doing projections over the last month was how the 2011 Rangers had a bunch of guys that didn’t strike out anywhere near as much as usual. In fact, seven of their nine veterans with at least 400 plate appearances last season set new career-lows when it came to their strikeout rates.

Here’s this list, comparing their 2010 strikeout rates (K/PA) to their 2011 marks. I’m also adding their previous career lows.

Ian Kinsler: 12.4% to 9.8% (previous career low: 11.5%)
Adrian Beltre: 12.8% to 10.1% (previous career low: 12.8%)
Elvis Andrus: 14.2% to 11.1% (previous career low: 14.2%)
Michael Young: 16.0% to 11.3% (previous career low: 12.0%)
David Murphy: 15.1% to 13.9% (previous career low: 15.1%)
Yorvit Torrealba: 18.5% to 15.5% (previous career low: 16.5%)*
Mike Napoli: 26.9% to 19.7% (previous career low: 23.8%)

Josh Hamilton: 16.6% to 17.3%
Nelson Cruz: 18.2% to 22.6%

Torrealba came in at 12.9% in 136 at-bats as a rookie in 2002. 16.5% was his low mark in any of his six previous seasons with at least 200 at-bats.

I didn’t include sophomore Mitch Moreland in the above list. His strikeout rate went from 20.8% in 2010 to 18.0% last season, but given that he had just 145 major league at-bats entering the year, I didn’t think that was a big enough sample. Besides, I hardly needed him to help make my point. Seven career lows. Five of the team’s seven most important hitters (tossing out Murphy and Torrealba) lowered their strikeout rates by at least 20 percent.

That’s just incredible, in my opinion. Andrus is the only one of the seven players who is still on the upswing of his career. The others should be holding steady at best.

As for the two who declined, Hamilton still beat his career average. Cruz’s mark was slightly worse than his career average.

The data is so stark that I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the Rangers were getting some help. Maybe they could have been stealing signs at home? The team as a whole had a K rate of 14.0% at home and 15.7% on the road. That’s a significantly larger gap than the league home-away splits (17.7% at home, 18.3% on the road), but not a big enough difference to suggest that something fishy was going on, not when they were still so much better than average on the road.

It will be interesting to see if the Rangers can keep it going this year. Napoli, Young, Beltre and Kinsler all have to be viewed as candidates to decline after exceeding expectations in 2011. I think Kinsler may avoid that fate and the Texas offense could make up for some of that production with better health (Beltre, Napoli, Hamilton and Cruz all played in fewer than 125 games last year), but barring a Prince Fielder signing, it’s going to be difficult to score quite so many runs again.

Bud Norris exits outing with right knee soreness

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Angels’ right-handed reliever Bud Norris made his 23rd appearance of the season on Friday, and after just three pitches, he was done for the night. He worked a 2-1 count to Marlins’ Dee Gordon in the eighth inning, then promptly exited the field after experiencing some tightness in his right knee. Neither Norris nor manager Mike Scioscia believe the injury is cause for major concern, and the 32-year-old right-hander admitted that it may have had something to do with his lack of stretching before he took the mound. For now, he’s day-to-day with right knee soreness, with the hope that the issue doesn’t escalate over the next few days.

While the Angels are lucky to have avoided serious injury, they’ll need Norris to pitch at 100% if they want to stay competitive within the AL West. They currently sit a full nine games behind the league-leading Astros, and haven’t been helping their cause after taking five losses in their last eight games. Friday’s 8-5 finale marked their third consecutive loss of the week.

 

When healthy, Norris has been one of the better arms in the Angels’ bullpen. Through 23 2/3 innings, he’s pitched to a 2.66 ERA, 3.4 BB/9 and an outstanding 11.8 SO/9 in 23 outings. The righty hasn’t allowed a single run in four straight appearances, recording three saves and helping the club clinch four wins in that span. This is his second setback of the year after sustaining a partial fingernail tear on his pitching hand during spring training.

Video: Max Scherzer sets record with 13-strikeout outing

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Max Scherzer is a force to be reckoned with. The Nationals’ right-hander delivered a season-high 13 strikeouts against the Padres on Friday, locking down his fifth win and his fourth double-digit strikeout performance of the year.

More remarkably, it was also the 53rd double-digit strikeout performance of Scherzer’s career, tying Clayton Kershaw for the most 10+ strikeout appearances by an active major league pitcher. Chris Sale is a distant third, with 43 to his name, though he’s been making considerable strides to catch up so far this spring.

Scherzer took the Padres to task on Friday night, whiffing 13 of 31 batters during his 108-pitch outing. He started strong, catching Allen Cordoba swinging on a 1-2 count to start the game and keeping the game scoreless until Ryan Schimpf unleashed a home run in the fourth inning. That was the first and final run the Padres managed off of Scherzer, who retired 14 consecutive batters following the blast and came one out shy of a complete game in the ninth inning. (Fittingly, Koda Glover polished off the win with a final strikeout, bringing the total to 14 on the night.)

It’ll take more than one stellar start to advance Scherzer and Kershaw on the all-time list, however. Their 53-game record ranks 13th, about 159 games behind second-place Hall of Fame hurler Randy Johnson and a full 162 games shy of the inimitable Nolan Ryan.