Are strikeouts the worst outcome for a hitter? Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan seems to think so.
In an interview with MLB.com’s Tracy Ringolsby, Ryan spoke to the command and finesse required to strike out a major league batter, citing standout performers like Clayton Kershaw and Steve Carlton for their ability to catch a hitter swinging with an array of breaking balls. While strikeouts are the calling card of the pitching elite, Ryan also believes that being on the receiving end of one is the least productive play a hitter can make:
I am a believer that the worst thing a hitter can do is strikeout [sic]. A lot of computer guys say it isn’t. The way I look at it, if you don’t put the ball in play there is no chance of doing anything. There’s no hitter. There’s no error. There’s no advancing a runner.
At a glance, Ryan’s logic appears to hold water. Striking out, whether it comes on a called strike three versus Steven Wright’s knuckleball or a whiff on a Felix Hernandez change-up, is certainly not a desirable outcome for any hitter. A batter that doesn’t put the ball in play doesn’t get the opportunity to make a hit or a productive out. On the flip side, a strikeout produces one out, whereas a ball put in play has the potential to produce multiple outs.
In Tom Tango’s comprehensive table of run values, found at InsideTheBook.com, each event is assigned a run value that encapsulates its ability to generate runs or restrict them. A strikeout looking is estimated to be the 38th least-valuable outcome in a game, while a swinging strikeout generates the 42nd least-valuable outcome. The most valuable event by run value, unsurprisingly, is a home run.
If we narrow the list of game events to those under a batter’s control, there are still several plays less productive than whiffing at the plate: line drive, infield fly, grounded into double play (with slight deviations for a non-force double play, double play without grounding out, and fielder’s choice double play) and triple play.
Granted, triple plays are also among the rarest events in baseball. Since 1876, there have been just 708 recorded among all major league teams. Grounding into double plays, however, is far more common, and holds a negative run value of -0.85, several points lower than the negative run value of a called strikeout at -0.28 and a swinging strikeout at -0.30.
Striking out at the plate might be one of the more demoralizing plays a batter can make (says the person who routinely struck out swinging at slow-pitch softball), but contrary to what Nolan Ryan may believe, it’s not nearly the worst thing he can do.