Strikeouts are up across MLB, but Rockies aren’t down with that

Charlie Blackmon and the Colorado Rockies are putting the ball in play this year.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Here and elsewhere, Rob Neyer has discussed, at some length, a trend he refers to as the Strikeout Scourge. Whether you’re for it, against it, or neutral, there’s no denying what’s going on — strikeouts are rising, league-wide.

Strikeouts are just a common part of the game, and statistical benchmarks you used to consider familiar and stable no longer have the same meaning. Just about everybody is striking out more.

So it’s no longer odd to notice a rising strikeout rate. What’s odd is to notice the very opposite of that, and this brings us to something most curious about the so-far surprising Colorado Rockies.

One of the hottest players out of the gate has been Charlie Blackmon, after spending spring training not sure if he’d have a regular job. Blackmon’s been one of the most valuable players in baseball, and as a component of his success, he’s all but completely stopped striking out. The single most valuable player in baseball, meanwhile, has been teammate Troy Tulowitzki, and he’s also an excellent contact hitter. Nolan Arenado has established a new franchise record with a 28-game hitting streak, and he makes a habit of putting the ball in play. The Rockies have hit the snot out of the ball, and driving that is that they’ve actually hit the ball.

Compared to last season, right now 20 teams are posting higher strikeout rates at the plate. Five teams are lower by one percentage point or less, and there are another three within two percentage points. The Indians have lowered their team strikeout rate by about three percentage points. The Rockies are down more than four. If you leave pitchers out of it, this year’s lowest team strikeout rate belongs to Colorado, and they’re also in possession of baseball’s most productive offense.

What about walks, you say? The walks are unchanged. What about differences in personnel? That’s valid — year over year, a baseball team ends up with a different roster. The 2013 Rockies can’t be directly compared to the 2014 Rockies. But the players themselves can be directly compared to themselves, and, below, a table of all the Rockies hitters who’ve batted at least 50 times so far this season. The table includes data for this year and last year.

You’ve got last year’s walk rate, this year’s walk rate, and the difference between the two. Then you’ve got last year’s strikeout rate, this year’s strikeout rate, and the difference between the two. Six of the 12 players have drawn more walks. But the real key is the last column — nine of the 12 players have trimmed their strikeouts, and another two have stayed the same while the league average has risen around them. Only Jordan Pacheco has struck out more often in 2014, and interestingly enough, this year he’s been better about making contact when he’s swung. He’s sitting on only 53 plate appearances.

Blackmon’s chopped his strikeouts by more than half. Rosario’s chopped them by almost half. Gonzalez has shed a third, and Cuddyer has shed more than that, and so on and so forth. Young players and veterans alike have whiffed less often, and strikeout rate is one of those numbers that stabilizes fairly quickly. Or, if you prefer different terminology: strikeout rate tends not to be that noisy. You can generally read into it sooner than you can read into, say, batting average, or a pitcher’s ERA. The Rockies haven’t stopped striking out, but they’ve been better about it without sacrificing walks, and we’re at the point in the year where that’s starting to look fascinating.

A year ago, the 12 players above put the ball in play with 40 percent of their swings. So far this year, they’re up to 44 percent, and the Rockies are uniquely positioned to take advantage of more balls in play, since they spend half their games in a hitter’s paradise with a massive open outfield. Another thing to consider: last year, the Rockies struck out in 40 percent of their two-strike counts, with league-average productivity. This year they’ve struck out in 35 percent of their two-strike counts, with a league-best batting average and a league-best OPS. Even when behind, the Rockies have been hard to put away.

So, let’s say we have something here. It’s one thing to identify a trend of interest. It’s another to try to explain it. What might be the root cause of the Rockies’ adjustments? That, I can’t actually prove, but one notes that this season the team has a new hitting instructor, named Blake Doyle. A year ago, he was occasionally around as a consultant, but he’s never worked full-time for a big-league organization, and not a lot is known about his philosophies. It’s too easy to put it all on him, and I won’t put it all on him, but this could be something more than a coincidence. Prior to Doyle, the Rockies’ hitting-coach position featured something of a revolving door.

Here’s an article that talks a little bit about the Rockies’ collective goal of becoming tougher outs. Doyle and Walt Weiss wanted the hitters to do the pitchers fewer favors, especially off the plate away, and while every team presumably encourages better discipline, it’s at least clear that Doyle is recommending different things from Dante Bichette before him. The Rockies hitters have been staying within themselves, and as a consequence they’ve had a lot more success up the middle and to the opposite field without sacrificing any pull power.

I do have to introduce one asterisk. It’s early enough that one ought to still consider quality of competition, and as it turns out, the Rockies have faced a group of opposing pitchers who have slightly below-average strikeout ability. Weighted by innings thrown, pitchers the Rockies have faced have an average projected strikeout rate of 7.1 per nine innings. The league average is about 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings, so that’s probably a partial explanation for why the Rockies haven’t whiffed. But that doesn’t explain everything. Madison Bumgarner, for example, has struck out 21 percent of Rockies, and 27 percent  of the others. Wade Miley has struck out 7 percent of Rockies, and 24 percent of the others.

Every hitter is different, so every hitter receives different coaching, but team-wide, this year’s Rockies have done a better job of not striking out, and they’ve done that without sacrificing walks. Implied is a change in approach, and that same change in approach might explain why the Rockies have also been able to drive the ball better on contact. Their marks have improved across the board, and the changes in discipline suggest there could be some real sustainability to this. The Rockies might not finish at their current 5.8 runs per game. With any extreme performance, you have to pull it closer to the average going forward. But here’s the upside: the Rockies don’t need to score 5.8 runs per game to be good. All they needed was to get better, and now this is truly a team to be afraid of.