Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Three-Outcome Hitter--Fact or Fiction?

Listening like I do to Chicago's 670 The Score I often hear about Adam Dunn. When the White Sox acquired him prior to the 2011 season, I applauded the move--even taking into consideration his prodigious strikeout totals and fielding deficiencies, I was convinced his run-producing ability and willingness to take a walk would be enough to overcome those shortcomings. I understand there are times when a strikeout is simply unacceptable, typically with runners in scoring position and less than two outs, but I thought the positives would outweigh the negatives.

Obviously I was wrong in 2011, as his season ranked among the absolute worst ever in baseball history by WAR. He had a "comeback" season of sorts in 2012 and another "eh" season in 2013. As baseball offense changes and pitching becomes more dominant than at any time in recent memory, two questions came to mind:
1. Is the 3-outcome hitter extinct?
2. Was the 3-outcome hitter ever really a baseball thing?

I purposely defined 3-outcome VERY LOW--30+ home runs, 80+walks and 120+ strikeouts in a season. Personally, I would place the values higher, bumping the walks up to 100 and strikeouts to 150, but chose lower standards to make my point. This chart shows every incidence of these seasons in baseball history, grouped by year:

A pretty low threshold and yet prior to the "enhanced offense" era of 1995-2007, 3-outcome seasons generally didn't happen--they were more anomalies than anything else. For example, the 1958 occurrence is Mickey Mantle, who had 42 home runs, 120 strikeouts and 129 walks--along with a .304 batting average, 1.035 OPS, a major-league leading 188 OPS+, leading to a WAR of 8.7 in a year in which he was rated negatively for his defense. In other words, he barely met the threshold. 1959 and 1960 are Mantle as well, Harmon Killebrew in 1962 and 1964 and then jumping to Bobby Bonds, Jim Wynn and Reggie Jackson in 1969.

By this point a nagging thought should be entering your head: "Those aren't 3-outcome guys, all  those players were known for more than that!" I would agree--in today's vernacular, I define 3-outcome as a player who hits and brings NOTHING ELSE to the team. Prior to the 1990s teams considered players that couldn't field as liabilities, even after the establishment of the DH, but that idea took a back seat as the understanding of the relationship between offense and defense became better-known. The 1990s also saw a spate of new ballparks that were (for the most part) very hitter-friendly, further supporting the willingness to trade off increased strikeouts for more home runs and OBP.

And even this is a stretch, in my mind. I chose my low thresholds purposely to include as many players as possible, and even these low standards total only 163 seasons in baseball history (out of around 88,000). The modern incarnations of the 3-outcome hitter in addition to Adam Dunn were Troy Glaus, Pat Burrell and maybe Manny Ramirez. This chart shows every player with more than one season as a 3-outcome hitter:

Only around 30 or so players in baseball history have met this low threshold, suggesting it's more a figment of sportswriter's imagination that a true trend that ever existed in baseball. I refuse to consider Mike Schmidt as a 3-outcome player since he was among the best defensive third basemen in baseball history, and Alex Rodriguez barely reaches the strikeout threshold in his seasons and more than made up for it with his overall hitting. Other recent examples like Mark Reynolds and Jack Cust accomplished it once, suggesting that Adam Dunn and probably Jim Thome were the only true 3-outcome players over any length of time--the rest were blips that wouldn't meet a more stringent 3-outcome definition.

And none of this matters, because the 3-outcome player is a luxury that only an AL team or a team in an era of increased offensive production can afford. Two points:
1. 6 AL teams had players that were primarily DHs--Billy Butler, Victor Martinez, Kendrys Morales, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols and Seth Smith. There is no way the A's are happy with the production they received from Smith, Albert Pujols isn't going to be paid $23+ million beginning next year to DH, leaving only four dedicated DHs, five if the Dunn/Paul Konerko platoon is included. Other than Ortiz, none of them is making serious money, and none will get new big-money contracts going forward.
2. If offense is indeed truly ebbing, then defense, base running and overall speed will take on increased emphasis. Don't misinterpret me, offense will almost always provide at least 50% of a player's value, and probably higher (I'll look into that in greater detail during the off-season), but even if offense decreases from 70% of value to 60%, it's enough to make the use of a true 3-outcome player a luxury.

Of course, all this can be rendered moot by any number of factors--rosters can be expanded to 30 players (allowing for more specialization), offense might begin to increase again, strike zones could be shrunk to the size of a pea and so on. I can't predict radical change but I can analyze data and see that the 3-outcome player, if he ever really did exist, was ascendant for only about 10 years, and he's done (Dunn) today--there's no one after Adam Dunn to take up the mantle. I wrote some time back (it's gone--no one read it so I deleted it) that Adam Dunn was a dinosaur, hanging around and chewing on tree leaves as he sees a bright glint in the corner of his eye that's a comet about to impact the Earth--the end is near. 

PS--I very rarely ask for comments but would GREATLY appreciate them in this particular regard. As I've begun to follow the Baseball Play Index (@BRefPlayIndex) on Twitter, I've learned a new functionality to using that most useful of tools, the Play Index feature. A subscription is required to use it, but links to searches can be shared, and I'm under the impression these tables are viewable by readers who DON'T subscribe to B-R. I used two such links in this post:
1. ranked among the absolute worst ever
2. 6 AL teams

TELL ME IF THESE LINKS WORKED, especially if you don't subscribe to B-R. Also, if by chance you read this any time after October 25th, likewise tell me if the links work, since there might be a time limit for how long these searches are saved. Since I put these posts up at Reddit but don't routinely read comments that are left there, it would also be helpful if you respond through the comment section of this blog, or you can shoot me an email (off to the side--I WILL respond to that) or tweet me (@ScottLindholm). Thanks for any help you're willing to give--I don't write to state what I think, but what I know, and if this manner of information generation can be seen, I'll use it far more going forward. A big thanks to the Baseball Play Index for making me aware of it.


  1. Yes, the links worked and I am NOT a subscriber at B-R. Very interesting read. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Finally someone in the sabrermetrics community has the courage to put forth research that represents a divergent viewpoint. Bill James in the early sabr years understood this all too well, why his thoughtful pwr & spd research was embraced by mlb execs as opposed to the current day arrogance of #killthewin or #stopthebunt is damaging