There seems to be this pervasive notion amongst rabid “old school” fans and analysts that a strikeout is the ultimate sin a batter can commit, and that putting a ball in play is always better (and by extension the player that strikes out less is the better player). The thinking here is that if you put the ball in play you might advance the runner, possibly driving in a run, and you force the defense to make a play which sometimes they won’t. If you strikeout then nothing happens (except for the rare occasion when the catcher drops the ball and the runner reaches). On the surface it makes sense, but when you look closer you begin to see the holes.
Advancing a runner only matters if it results in that runner crossing home plate at some point in that inning. That doesn’t always happen and when it doesn’t, that productive out didn’t really matter. Even then, driving in a run doesn’t always matter. One run isn’t going to help you much if you’re down by 5 late in the game. The point here is that while technically better than a strikeout, if your team doesn’t end up winning that game those outs don’t really matter except maybe to make you feel better, pad a player’s stats, or help your fantasy team.
There are a several ways that an out on a ball in play is no worse than striking out. A fielder’s choice erasing the runner at second is tantamount to a strikeout. It might even be worse if the new runner at first is worse than the previous base runner. Any out where it’s the first out of an inning and there are no base runners isn’t really any different than striking out. Any out that is the third out of an inning is essentially no different than a strikeout. Any out where a batter sees at least 3 pitches but does not advance a runner or drive in a run, an infield pop-up or a shallow fly-out for example, is more or less equal to a strikeout.
I can even think of a few instances where an in-play out has a more detrimental impact on the game than a strikeout. A strikeout requires at least 3 pitches be thrown. Therefore, an at-bat where a player sees 2 or less pitches (pitch counts matter in today’s game) before making an out that does not advance a runner or result in an RBI would be worse than a strikeout. Putting a ball in play that results in a force out at 3rd base or home plate is worse than a strikeout. Hitting into a non-run producing double play is the absolute worst way to make an out. One could argue that even an RBI double play is worse than a strikeout as it erases a base runner and potentially kills a big inning. That might be a stretch but I hope you’re beginning to see my point.
I won’t deny that striking out is a bad thing and there are certain ways to make an out that we’ve labeled as “productive.” But just because a player has a low strikeout rate doesn’t necessarily make him a good offensive player. Placido Palanco, Juan Pierre, and Andrelton Simmons all have a K% of less than 10% which is much lower than the major league average of 19.8%. In fact they have the they have the 4th, 5th, and 8th lowest K% respectively in the majors as of this writing. They must be great right? Well, not a single one of them has an OBP higher than .294. Simmons currently owns a .279 OBP. To put it another way, even though they don’t strike out a lot, in over 70% of their at-bats they’re still making outs. That’s terrible.
Conversely, just because a player strikes out a lot doesn’t mean he’s a bad player or that he’s worse than one who strikes out less. Look at someone like Rickie Weeks, who I’ve heard criticized for his strikeout rate. This year his K% is 26.8% (23.2 for his career). But Weeks current season OBP is .331 (.349 for his career). He strikes out more than those other three, but overall he makes fewer outs. Rickie Weeks is a much better offensive threat despite the strikeouts. By the way, the major league average in 2013 for second basemen is .316 so even in a down year he’s getting on base at a better than average rate.Strikeouts are bad, of course. But people who rail against them seem to forget one simple thing: All outs, in general, are bad. That’s really the crux of my argument. If you’re going to cite a player’s K% you need to put in context with his OBP. Otherwise you’re only giving me part of the story.