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Striking out with runners in scoring position

A strikeout is just another out, unless it happens with runners on base. Is there a difference in strikeout rate depending on if there are runners in scoring position?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

I wasn't able to watch the Cubs-Mets game last Wednesday evening due to other commitments, which disappointed me because I wanted to watch Matt Harvey pitch. The game was tied 1-1 when I got home, and in the bottom of the 9th, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro singled, and Miguel Montero was intentionally walked to fill the bases. Jorge Soler came to bat, bases loaded and no outs, so Mets manager Terry Collins brought in, well, I don't really remember who, but brought in someone as a fifth infielder. He also brought in Jeurys Familia, who used this pitch pattern against Soler:


Soler ended up striking out swinging, and the final pitch (#5) was a slider that dropped off the face of the Earth, and yet Soler chased it. Chris Coghlan batted next and was walked to force in the game-winning run by pinch runner Matt Szczur, what Cubs TV color man Jim Deshaies called a walk-off walk, and something that is about as bad a mistake as can be made in my Mistake Index.

But that's not my point--about the only thing Jorge Soler couldn't do in that at-bat was strike out. Soler's job in that at-bat was to make contact. Familia didn't make it easy for him and got Soler to swing at pitches outside the strike zone and lived to see another batter.

This made me curious as to how well teams avoid strikeouts with runners on the base. This first chart, derived from Baseball-Reference split data, shows the strikeout rate when teams have less than two outs and the bases are empty contrasted with less than two outs and runners in scoring position (RISP) since 1980:


The data is normalized to 600 plate appearances, and I won't speak for others, but I was certainly surprised when I saw this. Immediately after that Soler at-bat I tweeted out:

I knew I was being irrational even as I sent that tweet. Analysis and execution are about as far apart as anything, and the process of recognizing something should never be confused with the ability to make it happen. The failure of Soler to get wood on the ball stuck in my mind, overshadowing those times when players do make contact. Hitters strike out at a rate of almost fifteen percent less with RISP, implying they're taking a different approach, and that gap also appears to be improving over time.

This table shows how well teams do in these two splits so far in 2015 (data through Thursday):

Team Empty PA K/600 PA RISP PA K/600 PA Diff
Angels 541 129 153 137 7%
Astros 569 153 146 127 -17%
Athletics 581 116 202 74 -36%
Blue Jays 561 127 198 118 -7%
Braves 538 105 160 56 -46%
Brewers 571 135 143 138 3%
Cardinals 523 123 173 104 -15%
Cubs 536 148 198 167 13%
Diamondbacks 538 115 178 101 -12%
Dodgers 531 129 182 119 -8%
Giants 543 113 165 127 13%
Indians 505 106 175 75 -29%
Mariners 544 128 173 125 -2%
Marlins 538 143 210 106 -26%
Mets 530 127 169 82 -36%
Nationals 555 129 173 97 -25%
Orioles 504 137 179 80 -41%
Padres 557 124 183 128 3%
Phillies 558 129 154 113 -12%
Pirates 559 131 160 116 -11%
Rangers 559 147 177 108 -26%
Rays 564 138 166 116 -16%
Red Sox 561 110 157 118 8%
Reds 555 119 167 133 12%
Rockies 491 123 141 98 -21%
Royals 523 106 187 67 -36%
Tigers 526 139 209 86 -38%
Twins 522 124 224 137 10%
White Sox 484 115 166 87 -25%
Yankees 577 130 171 119 -8%

This is just over thirty games of data, and the size of the splits can potentially be distorting. However, generally speaking, teams strike out at a lower rate in RISP situations--except for the Cubs and some other teams.

The 2015 Cubs are a free-swinging group--with 355 strikeouts through Saturday, they're on a pace for almost 1,600 strikeouts, which would be an all-time record, even without strikeout machines Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara on the big league roster. They've managed to overcome these proclivities, are 21-15 and would be a playoff team if the season ended today. Their extremely young lineup will learn to be more selective as they get more experience, but for now, they're walking a dangerous line in being more prone to striking out in RISP situations.

Let me be clear--there are worse things that can happen than striking out in these situations, like hitting into a double play, but at least putting a ball in play gives a runner chance to score. Pitchers will do their best to give hitters absolutely nothing to hit, in which case patience is called for, or at least a narrower strike zone.

Strikeouts have increased since 1980, but at the same time, batters have taken a more disciplined approach in  RISP situations. There will be occasions like Soler's at-bat, but generally speaking, hitters are more selective and purposefully trying to put the ball in play, and they might even be getting better at it. This is one of those occasions in which it appears that better data did lead to better outcomes--and one that baseball fans (like me) didn't recognize as it was happening.

Scott Lindholm writes for the Baseball Prospectus Cubs site, BP Wrigleyville and lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.