The true outcome kings of 2008

I’ve written about the Three True Outcomes from a historical perspective, so I decided to turn my focus to the 2008 season for a contemporary snapshot.

The idea of players failing to test the defense is fascinating. While it’s a method that guarantees neither success nor failure, it’s proof there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

With that in mind, here are last year’s top five TTOs.

5. Ryan Howard
700 PA, 48 HR, 199 SO, 81 BB
TTO% – 46.9%

Howard received a late (and misguided) push for the NL MVP award thanks to his September run in which he hit .352/.422/.852 with 11 home runs while the Phillies charged past the Mets for the Eastern Division title.

That late season surge helped hide the fact that Howard had the least productive year of his career last summer with low marks for batting average (.254) and on-base percentage (.339. almost 90 points below the .425 OBP he posted in his MVP year of 2006.) Obviously, his fall in OBP can be attributed to a precipitous decline in walk rate. Last year, he walked just 12 percent of the time, which was the lowest rate (for a full season) of his career. However, there are other reasons his production has fallen over the last two seasons.

One is his contact rate. According to data collected by FanGraphs, Howard swung at 74 percent of the pitches he saw in the strike zone. While that percentage is a bit on the high side for someone who has drawn a fair share of walks in the past, what’s more notable is that on those swings, he made contact 77 percent of the time. That rate of contact when swinging at pitches that would fit in the strike zone was the fourth lowest among players who qualified for the batting title and was down from his 81 percent contact rate from ’06. It’s an ever-so-slight dip, but it’s one that would most certainly have an impact on his batting average and OBP.

Another reason for his decline was the approach opposing teams have adopted. In his rookie season of 2005, pitchers served him fastballs 58 percent of the time. As you would expect, the league was quick to adjust to the new power hitter. In 2006, he saw fastballs 53 percent of the time and he bottomed out at 51 percent last summer.

While pitchers are throwing Howard fewer fastballs, they’re countering with more sliders. He saw sliders just 12 percent of the time in ’05, but that rate climbed to 20 percent in ’08. And while pitchers are throwing him fewer fastballs, infielders are now applying a shift when Howard is at bat, with good reason. A majority of the balls he hits on the ground are pulled to the right side of the infield. And note the cluster of ground outs in shallow right field. Those plots correspond with where the fielder collected the ball. He made quite a few outs into the teeth of the shift, outs that don’t exist on his 2006 hit chart. (The chart reflects only his plate appearances at his home park.)

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The changes in percentages of his contact rates and types of pitches he sees in his plate appearances are subtle. But those, along with a new defensive alignment, are certainly enough to effect his OBP.

4. Carlos Pena
607 PA, 31 HR, 166 SO, 96 BB
TTO% – 48.3%

Pena’s production dropped from 2007, when he posted a 1.037 OPS, down to .871. While his three true outcome percentage stayed roughly the same (it was 47.5 percent last year) it was a bit deceptive because his walk rate decreased and his strikeouts increased. Obviously, his OBP would feel the effects of a decrease in walks. His other numbers took a hit as well.

   Year      BA       OBP      SLG      ISO
   2007     .282     .411     .627     .345
   2008     .247     .377     .494     .247

Pena hit a ton of fly balls last year. On balls he put in play, a whopping 50 percent were classified as fly balls, which was the second highest percentage in baseball (Kevin Millar was at 51 percent). If you figure that a few of those fly balls didn’t have the distance to be extra base hits (which they didn’t), that can account for the drop in his rate stats across the board. He hit 15 fewer home runs in 2009 than in 2008 and collected 17 fewer hits overall.

It was going to be incredibly difficult for Pena to repeat his ’07 performance. This underscores how difficult it was. His 2008 season feels a little closer to reality.

3. Mark Reynolds
613 PA, 28 HR, 204 SO, 64 BB
TTO% – 48.3%

Reynolds is like Howard on this list: Not enough walks to overcome the number of outs he makes, strikeouts or otherwise. Because he takes a free pass just under 11 percent of the time, he has the lowest walk rate and the lowest on-base percentage (.320 OBP) of those on this list.

Reynolds is proof that if you whiff almost 38 percent of the time, you’re going to make a list like this—even when you hit fewer than 30 home runs.

2. Adam Dunn
651 PA, 40 HR, 164 SO, 122 BB
TTO% – 50%

Dunn had a hammerlock on this category until a young upstart arrived and stole his thunder.

He hasn’t helped his case for the TTO championship by lowering his strikeout rate ever so slightly over the last couple of seasons. Entering the 2007 season, Dunn had whiffed almost 33 percent of the time over his career. However, the last two seasons, he’s been striking out at around 31.5 percent. It’s a glacial movement, to be sure, but it’s enough to lower his TTO percentage, which was as high as 52 percent in 2004.

Dunn’s static walk rate (between 16 and 17 percent from ’03 to ’07 with a spike last summer to 19 percent) means his OBP is similarly consistent. However, teams don’t sign guys like Dunn because he can get on base. They sign him because he can mash. As his ISO chart from FanGraphs illustrates, his power has hardly deviated over the years. Maybe that’s because he’s bombed exactly 40 home runs for four consecutive seasons.

According to the Baseball Reference similarity scores, his two closest comps through age 28 are Darryl Strawberry and Jose Canseco. Forget about the issues that surrounded those two off the field. At similar points of their careers, they were superstars who were making a beeline for Cooperstown. Of course, plenty happened between their age 28 seasons and the end of their careers to derail them, but the point is those two were considered among the finest in the game at that stage in their career.

Dunn’s other comparable players are Harmon Killebrew, Rocky Colavito and Reggie Jackson. That’s not to say Dunn is a Hall of Famer. But he is certainly a guy who can help a team offensively. (We’re generous and will leave his glove out of this discussion.)

Even in a time when clubs are suddenly beginning to pinch pennies, it’s difficult to understand why someone wouldn’t step forward to claim Dunn. Maybe it’s because he has no chance to win the TTO title as long as the next guy is around.

1. Jack Cust
598 PA, 33 HR, 197 SO, 111 BB
TTO% – 57%

Cust is a Three True Outcomes monster. His lofty percentage in 2008 was actually lower than his 2007 rate of 58.2 percent, which was the highest TTO percentage going back to the start of the expansion era.

He’s unique to this list in that he hits more ground balls than fly balls. His career GB/FB ratio of 1.15 skews more to the ground ball side than anyone else featured here. Most of those ground balls are ripped to the right side of the infield. Looking at his spray chart, the ideal “Cust Shift” would employ three infielders positioned between first and second along with four outfielders spread out softball-style. While Cust pulls nearly all of his ground balls, he hits for power to all fields.

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Cust has become the poster boy for the argument that batting average matters only when you’re playing fantasy baseball. His .375 OBP ranked him 11th in the American League and his nearly 150 point discrepancy between his batting average and on-base percentage was by far the highest in the league. He scored only 77 runs, in part because he was part of an Oakland lineup that finished dead last in OBP (.318) and slugging percentage (.369). Imagine what that lineup would have hit without Cust.

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