Tuesday, February 27, 2007

When legends of a craft speak up, you listen. Whether it's Bill Gates talking about computers, Tom Hanks talking about acting, and yes, Mike Schmidt -- arguably the best third baseman in baseball history -- talking about hitting, you listen. Ordinarily, Schmidt disclosing the secrets to offensive success is like finding the Fountain of Youth, but recently, it's been akin to taking moneymaking tips from Matthew Lesko, the "question mark guy."

Two weeks ago in Dayton, Ohio, Schmidt stated that a couple players "tick me off. Pat Burrell and Adam Dunn, because they strike out so much."

It is true that they strike out a lot. Burrell and Dunn have never struck out less than 100 times in a season (aside from Dunn's rookie season, where he struck out 74 times in 244 at-bats -- an average of a strikeout every three at-bats). Dunn owns the top two-spots for the all-time single-season record for strikeouts, at 195 and 194 in 2004 and 2006, respectively. But are strikeouts bad?

Schmidt prattled on. "You truly have to not care and feel no pressure on yourself to allow yourself to strikeout more than 150 times a year." This, coming from the player who struck out 100 or more times from 1973, to 1985, save for his 1981 MVP season (which was also strike-shortened; the Phillies only played 107 games), where he struck out only 71 times. Schmidty has struck out 150 or more times on one occasion (1975), but has come close twice, with 149 in 1976, and 148 in 1983. In each of those three years of at least 148 strikeouts, he still hit at least 38 HR and drove in at least 95.

The list of players who truly don't care and feel no pressure on themselves circa 2006: Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, Curtis Granderson, Bill Hall, Alfonso Soriano, Jason Bay, Richie Sexson, Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, and Nick Swisher. Only two players on that list had an OPS lower than Sexson's .842 -- Detroit's Granderson and Cleveland's Peralta. Only four of those players had a VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) below Hall's 44.3: Swisher (28.1), Sexson (24.9), Dunn (23.5), and Granderson (22.7). [Chart]

Likewise with Burrell, his best season came in 2002, when he struck out 153 times. However, he hit .282, hit 37 HR, and drove in 116 runs, earning him the 14th-most points in MVP balloting -- not too shabby.

In Schmidt's ranting on Burrell, he failed to notice that Burrell didn't even strike out the most on his team. 2006 MVP award winner Ryan Howard struck out 181 times while hitting .313 with 58 HR and 149 RBI, and Chase Utley struck out 132 times while hitting .309 with 32 HR and 102 RBI. Burrell struck out 131 times while hitting .258 with 29 HR and 95 RBI in 100 less at-bats than he had in 2005, mostly due to battling injuries with his wrist and foot, and Charlie Manuel's decision to take him out late in games for a defensive substitution, usually Chris Roberson.

The historic third-baseman for the Phillies offered a glimpse of his thought process: "I look at Dunn and Burrell and I go, 'My God, if these guys cut their strikeouts down to 75 or 80, they put the ball in play 85 or 90 more times a year. That's at least 15 more home runs a year and at least 35 more RBIs a year.'"

According to that, Schmidt proposes that with 85-90 more balls put in play, 15 of them will result in homeruns, and 35 more runs will be driven in, a rate of one HR every 5.6-to-6 at-bats, and one RBI every 2.4-to-2.5 at-bats -- historic rates. Hank Aaron averaged one HR every 16.3 at-bats and one RBI every 5.4 at-bats.

And this is the guy that is a special instructor for the Phillies every year for a couple weeks during spring training.

Are strikeouts the worst out in baseball? For the most part yes, with the obvious exception of the double- and triple-play. But how often is a strikeout a worse out than a ground-out or a fly-out?

For a hitter, it is usually best to put the ball in play because it opens up two possibilities. One or more errors can be made by the defense, and, if there are runners on base, they can be advanced (i.e. with a runner on second base, a ground ball to the right side will often move the runner over). There is no statistic that encompasses all of the outs that advance runners, nor that encompasses all of the times the player reached on an error.

Logically, considering that all third-out strikeouts end the inning, the strikeout is no worse than a ground-out or a fly-out. 47 of Burrell's 131 strikeouts (36%) came with two outs. In addition, a strikeout is no worse than any other out if there are no runners on base. Burrell struck out 60 times when the bases were empty (46%) [Note: Some of Burrell's strikeouts may have come with both two outs and no runners on base, so 36% and 46% are not combined].

An OPS of .900 or better is great, but you don't find an OPS like that among any of the leaders in sacrifices. The leaders are Clint Barmes and Cory Sullivan, both of the Colorado Rockies, with 19. An OPS of at least .900 isn't found until Wes Helms, then of the Florida Marlins, with an OPS of .965 and 6 sacrifice hits. This is not to say that players can't be good and be proficient in advancing baserunners, but those players are few and far between.

This article will conclude with one last piece of Schmidt's ill logic. "Now I know that if I had choked up on the bat with two strikes and hadn't been so aggressive and gave in to the pitcher, I wouldn't have struck out so much. And that's what guys like Dunn and Burrell have to realize." He says this after suggesting that Burrell and Dunn are capable of hitting 15 more HR. How is that done? Certainly not by choking up and shortening their swings, thereby reducing their power.

Yesterday, Schmidt released a statement clarifying his comments on Burrell. In speaking with Michael Randano of the Courier-Post and several other beat writers, Schmidt said he attempted to talk with Burrell. "In fact I tried calling him a couple of times. He didn't return my phone calls."

Gee, I wonder why.

When Mike Schmidt came up to the plate during his 18-year career in Philadelphia, everybody looked at their television sets and listened to their radios. Now, when he opens his mouth, people still listen, but his words should be taken with a grain of salt.