I’ll say it before we start:
Strikeouts are bad for hitters.
This isn’t anything new. It’s no groundbreaking research. It’s obvious. Strikeouts are outs. Outs are bad, because outs are limited. Therefore, any type of out would be bad, strikeouts included. However, the way that this message is usually intimated makes it sound that strikeouts are somehow the worst event that could happen, an out worse than any other outs. In truth, the strikeout is only worth a bit less than a regular out.
Your little league coach always used to say that you should try to put the ball in play because “at least you’ll force the defense to make a mistake.” While he wasn’t necessarily wrong, major leaguers just don’t make enough mistakes for errors to make a big difference with putting the ball in play. However, he was right to some degree. The more balls in play, the more hits you are likely to get.
So players who strike out a lot are bad, right? Not exactly. You see, some players can afford to strike out, while others cannot. The Marlins have perfect examples of both good and bad strikeout guys.
The True Outcome Power Guy
For his career, Dan Uggla has struck out in 22.5% of the time. As a result, his career batting average is .259. Most fans dislike Uggla’s hitting style because of this, but Uggla’s career wOBA of .355 insinuates that he is a damn good hitter despite the strikeouts and low average. Even though Uggla has a mostly league average BABIP (.296 career) and a low average, Uggla has still provided tons of value for the team. The reason?
Uggla career BB%: 10.2%
Uggla career ISO: .225
Uggla career OBP: .345
Uggla career SLG: .484
The reason why Uggla has still been a good player despite his poor average and high K% is that he has a Three True Outcomes style with high power (career HR/FB% of 14.9%) and ability to avoid outs. Essentially, the extra outs that Uggla is making by not putting the ball in play are being made up for by power and the extra outs avoided by forcing walks.
The Contact Speedy Guy
Cameron Maybin has a similar issue with strikeouts, striking out 28.4% of the time and holding a .257 average in 393 PA. This generally agrees with the scouting reports that support a difficulty with contact from his minor league performance. Has Maybin been able to make up for that lack of balls in play with power?
Maybin career BB%: 7.9%
Maybin career ISO: .124
Maybin career OBP: .321
Maybin career SLG: .381
Maybin lacks the power to support the high strikeout rate. He has been able to draw a solid amount of walks, showing surprising patience for someone who is struggling with strikeouts. Maybin so far has swung at 26.7% of pitches outside the zone, displaying difficulty in discerning the strike zone. In comparison, Uggla has a career O-Swing% of 20.6%.
Maybin does have an advantage on balls in play. He has enough speed that he can ensure an increased BABIP, but with his high strikeout rate, he would have to a huge BABIP in order to maintain a decent average and OBP. At this point in the season, Maybin has a .359 BABIP, and yet he still has a feeble .247 average. For context, only 12 players last season had a BABIP that large. The biggest problem for Maybin remains that he strikes out like Uggla or Jack Cust but hits with Chris Coghlan/John Baker power.
Strikeouts simply can’t be used as a measure of player value, but rather as one part of objective determination of skill. Players who strike out a lot are definitely in a deeper hole than other hitters, but it of course is still possible to be a valuable player. With power and a higher walk rate, you can still maintain some value. However, if you are a player like Maybin or Coghlan, who are dependent on contact and lack extra-base power, you will be hard-pressed to be a valuable player. That is the primary hurdle for Maybin’s career and Coghlan’s current slump.