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A Record Number of Three True Outcomes Specialists?

At the start of the season, I posed the question of whether we would see another record number of three true outcomes specialists in 2018. We knew then that the rates of three true outcomes had been steadily increasing through 2017, and that the number of three true outcome specialists peaked at 17 specialists in 2017. The all-star break seems like a good time to check in and see if we are on track for another record breaking season.

Who are the Three True Outcome Specialists?

The three true outcomes rate for the average major league batter has been steadily increasing in recent years. Along with this average change, there has been a more unusual batter who takes an extreme approach at the plate resulting in a dominant three true outcome season. This is a hitter, in the mold of Rob Deer, who has at least 49% of their plate appearances result in either a home run, a strikeout, or a walk.  The number of specialists has been increasing since the 1990s, and peaked last year with 17 three true outcome specialists.

At the 2018 All-Star Break, the number of specialists sits at 10.  Table 1 lists the 10 three true outcome specialists at the All-Star break.  It includes home run, walk, and strikeout rates, and the combined three true outcomes rate.  I got here pretty easily: For each player with at least 170 plate appearances, I added their home runs, strikeouts and walks in a season and divided that by the number of plate appearances.  That provides the proportion of three outcomes plate appearances for each player. The table includes all those batters that crossed the 49% threshold.

Table 1. Three Outcomes Specialists at the All-Star Break

Ian Happ 4% 16% 36% 56%
Joey Gallo 6% 13% 36% 55%
Matt Davidson 5% 13% 36% 53%
Aaron Judge 6% 16% 31% 53%
Robinson Chirinos 4% 10% 38% 52%
Max Muncy 8% 17% 23% 50%
Mike Zunino 5% 5% 39% 49%
Bryce Harper 6% 19% 25% 49%
Jose Bautista 4% 19% 27% 49%
Kyle Schwarber 6% 16% 27% 49%
MLB Average 3% 9% 21% 33%

There are some familiar faces on this list: Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, Mike Zunino, and Kyle Schwarber were on the list last year. And some new ones: Max Muncy has found his power and been a surprise for the Dodgers this year.  Ian Happ’s and Matt Davidson’s newfound plate discipline has moved him onto this list of specialists as has Robinson Chirinos lack of plate discipline. Perhaps seeing Bryce Harper on this list is most surprising. His strikeout rate is about 5% higher than his typical rate, moving him onto the list.

Looking at the MLB Averages is also interesting.  Historically, the 2018 rates of home runs, strikeouts and walks are high – but they are currently the same rates as 2017.  So, maybe, we won’t see an increase in the average three true outcomes rates in 2018. There is still a lot of season left, so too soon to reach any conclusions.

What about those hitters who were on the list of three true outcomes specialists last year, but didn’t make it at the All-Star break?  Table two lists those batters.

Table 2. 13 Previous Three True Outcomes Specialists

Matt Olson 397 5% 10% 25% 40%
Chris Davis 323 3% 8% 36% 47%
Eric Thames 183 7% 11% 29% 48%
Jake Marisnick 166 4% 4% 42% 50%
Miguel Sano 163 4% 9% 41% 54%
Alex Avila 141 3% 15% 42% 60%
Drew Robinson 89 1% 10% 51% 62%
Keon Broxton 52 4% 17% 29% 50%
Jabari Blash 26 0% 12% 50% 62%
Chris Carter 0
Mike Napoli 0
Cameron Rupp 0
Ryan Schimpf 0
MLB Average 3% 9% 21% 33%

The story in this table is plate appearances. First, Matt Olson and Eric Thames are getting their at bats because they are decent hitters. Olson is not quite living up to his late call up last season, Thames is looking slightly better than 2017; both are making contributions. Thames has missed time with injuries this year. A few more of these hitters are not getting at bats for health reasons: Drew Robinson, Jabari Blash and Mike Napoli are all down with injuries. The remaining players are not getting at bats because of a lack of contribution to the team.  Jake Marisnick, Miguel Sano, Keon Broxton, and Cameron Rupp all either started the season in Triple A or were optioned during the season.  Chris Carter and Ryan Schimpf were released by the Twins and Angels respectively. Being a three true outcomes specialist can result in some attention, but it is can also be a vulnerable approach, particularly when strikeout rates get out of hand. MLB teams have become more tolerant of high strikeout rates, but they have their limits.

Chris Davis and Alex Avila are the unusual cases in Table 2.  They are both getting their at bats despite very high strikeout rates. As long as the Orioles and Diamondbacks see some value in them, we might expect them, and perhaps some other newcomers, to make it to the list of three true outcomes specialists at the end of the season.


Will We See a Record Number of Three True Outcomes Specialists in 2018?

Last season was the year of the three true outcomes specialist.  Aaron Judge’s dominant three true outcomes season was the most prominent example of this: he ranked second in home runs (52) and walks (127) and first in strikeouts (208).  In total, 57% of his plate appearances resulted in one of the three true outcomes.  He was the American League Rookie of the Year and in the running for the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player award, finishing second.  His performance helped the Yankees reach the American League Division Series.

We know that the three true outcomes rate has been increasing.  In part, this is due to the average player increasing his rate of home runs, strikeouts and walks.  But there is also the unusual player in the mold of Judge who takes an extreme approach at the plate resulting in dominant three true outcomes seasons.  The number of these hitters has been increasing over time.

Figure 1. Three True Outcomes Specialists per Season, 1960-2017

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Figure 1 shows the number of dominant three true outcomes player seasons over time.  To get here I examined all players since 1913 with at least 170 plate appearances in a season.  I considered a dominant season one with a three true outcomes rate of at least 49%.  There have been 132 player seasons with a three true outcomes rate of at least 49%.  All of them have taken place after 1960.

The graph shows that the number of dominant seasons has been increasing over time.  Since Dave Nicholson first did it in 1962, most years have had at least one player cross the threshold.  Since 1994, every season has had at least one.  From 2001 to 2010 there were four seasons with five three outcomes hitters.  There was six in 2012 and eight in 2014.  The trend is currently peaking with 13 in 2016 and 16 in 2017.  The trend is a bit more extreme but similar to the average increases in three outcomes rates over time.  It seems that more players pursue (and teams tolerate) an approach to hitting that includes extreme rates of the three outcomes.

It is worth pointing out that those 16 players in 2017 account for about 4% of all players with at least 170 at-bats.  Three true outcomes specialists are more common but still rare.  Who are those 16 players?  Table 1 lists them including the home run, walk and strikeout rates, and the combined three true outcomes rate for the year.

Table 1. Three True Outcomes Specialists, 2017

Joey Gallo 8% 14% 37% 59%
Aaron Judge 8% 19% 31% 57%
Ryan Schimpf 7% 14% 36% 56%
Chris Davis 5% 12% 37% 54%
Miguel Sano 6% 11% 36% 53%
Alex Avila 4% 16% 32% 52%
Mike Zunino 6% 9% 37% 51%
Drew Robinson 5% 12% 35% 51%
Jabari Blash 3% 14% 34% 51%
Keon Broxton 4% 9% 38% 51%
Chris Carter 4% 10% 37% 50%
Mike Napoli 6% 10% 34% 50%
Kyle Schwarber 6% 12% 31% 49%
Matt Olson 11% 10% 28% 49%
Cameron Rupp 4% 10% 34% 49%
Eric Thames 6% 14% 30% 49%
Jake Marisnick 6% 8% 35% 49%
2017 Averages 3% 9% 21% 33%

The list includes many of the unique player stories of the year.  Aaron Judge’s rookie year was historic.  Joey Gallo made waves, particularly for his extreme three true outcomes rates.  Miguel Sano was an All-Star who helped lead the Twins to a bounce back year and a wildcard spot.  Eric Thames was a surprise story of the year, returning from a year in Japan and sparking the Brewers to an early lead in the National League Central.

Notable about this list is the young cohort of hitters who have consistently taken the all or nothing approach of the three true outcomes specialist.  Judge, Olson, and Blash all made their MLB debut in 2017.  Gallo still qualified as a rookie despite making his debut in 2016.  Keon Broxton, Ryan Schimpf, and Kyle Schwarber are in their second year.  Sano has been a specialist for three years running.  Sure, there are old hands like Napoli and Carter, and Davis who take the all or nothing approach, but the record number of specialists the last couple years have been due to this young cohort of three true outcomes specialists.  A new record will come down to 2018 rookies who practice this all or nothing approach heading into their major league debuts, and the number of teams willing to tolerate the strikeouts that come with this approach.

Jim Thome: First and Last Three Outcomes Hall of Famer

Jim Thome was elected to the Hall of Fame on January 24th.  Given my recent obsession with the three true outcomes, I immediately recognized the significance of this event.  I believe Jim Thome is the first, and likely the last three true outcomes Hall of Famer.

Table 1 shows Thome’s home run, walk, and strikeout rates along with his three true outcomes rate for each season.  The final column is the MLB average three true outcomes rate for the season.  Thome was a three true outcomes machine from 1996 until his retirement in 2012.

Table 1. Jim Thome, Three Outcomes Hall of Famer

1991 Indians 104 1% 5% 15% 21% 26%
1992 Indians 131 2% 8% 26% 35% 25%
1993 Indians 192 4% 15% 19% 38% 26%
1994 Indians 369 5% 12% 23% 41% 27%
1995 Indians 557 4% 17% 20% 42% 28%
1996 Indians 636 6% 19% 22% 47% 28%
1997 Indians 627 6% 19% 23% 49% 28%
1998 Indians 537 6% 17% 26% 48% 28%
1999 Indians 629 5% 20% 27% 53% 28%
2000 Indians 684 5% 17% 25% 48% 29%
2001 Indians 644 8% 17% 29% 54% 28%
2002 Indians 613 8% 20% 23% 51% 28%
2003 Phillies 698 7% 16% 26% 49% 28%
2004 Phillies 618 7% 17% 23% 47% 28%
2005 Phillies 242 3% 19% 24% 46% 27%
2006 White Sox 610 7% 18% 24% 49% 28%
2007 White Sox 536 7% 18% 25% 49% 28%
2008 White Sox 602 6% 15% 24% 45% 28%
2009 2 teams 434 5% 16% 28% 50% 29%
2010 Twins 340 7% 18% 24% 49% 29%
2011 2 teams 324 5% 14% 28% 47% 29%
2012 2 teams 186 4% 12% 33% 49% 30%

Thome was part of a small group of specialists with multiple dominant three true outcomes seasons.  Table 2 provides a list of players with 4 or more of these dominant seasons.  I consider a season with at least 170 plate appearances and a 49% three true outcome rate as a dominant season.  The casual three true outcomes observer will recognize the players on this list as notable specialists.  Rob Deer, of course, is the iconic three true outcomes hitter.  I used Deer’s career three true outcomes rate of 49% and 4 dominant season to construct the table.

Table 2. Dominant Three True Outcomes Specialists

Player Career Seasons
Jim Thome 1991-2012 10
Adam Dunn 2001-2014 9
Russell Branyan 1998-2011 8
Mark McGwire 1986-2001 6
Jack Cust 2001-2011 5
Chris Carter 2010-2017 5
Rob Deer 1984-1996 4
Chris Davis 2008-2017 4
Alex Avila 2009-2017 4

Thome’s 10 dominant seasons are more than any other player.  He is also the only Hall of Famer on the list.

Maybe Mark McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame (depending on your PED era position).  Already past eligibility to be inducted by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), perhaps he will have a chance in the future with the Veterans Committee.

Adam Dunn will be on the 2020 ballot.  He was a consistent three true outcomes specialist, but we will see if the BBWAA consider him a dominant player over the course of his career.

Russel Branyan and Jack Cust are interesting players to see on this list.  Branyan makes the list because of my 170 plate appearance requirement.  Cust was a dominant three true outcomes hitter for five straight years, 2007-2011.  Neither are on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Carter and Avila do not have contracts for 2018, but could land somewhere.  Davis is signed with Baltimore through 2022.  Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge are two young hitters in the three true outcomes mold not yet on the list.  So maybe it is too soon to make a judgement on the Hall of Fame potential of three true outcomes hitters in the future?

But I am going out on a limb to say that despite the trend towards three true outcomes baseball, we have seen our first and last three true outcomes Hall of Famer in Jim Thome.

A Steady Slog Toward Three Outcomes Baseball

During this quiet winter of baseball, I’ve entertained myself with a mild obsession with the three true outcomes (not outfits).  Dave Cameron took note of the three outcomes trend in early April 2017, only one week into the new season.

 “…while samples are still tiny for players and teams, things tend to stabilize pretty quickly at the league level. And, not surprisingly, the first week of the season was filled with the two things MLB games are becoming known for; strikeouts and home runs.”

Cameron goes on to predict a record year for the three true outcomes in 2017.  He was right.

A steady slog towards three outcomes baseball

Figure 1 is an update of Bill Petti’s analysis back in 2012.  It looks at the average rate of the three outcomes by player for each season since 1913.  The top blue line shows the proportion of plate appearances that have resulted in either a home run, strikeout or walk across seasons.  I got here pretty easily: Like Bill, for each player, I added their home runs, strikeouts and walks in a season and divided that by the number of plate appearances.  That provides the proportion of three outcomes plate appearances for each player.  Unlike Bill, I used at least 170 plate appearances in a season as my cut off (rather than 500).  Then, for each season, I found the average proportion of three outcomes plate appearances for eligible players.  I followed this procedure for home runs, strikeouts and walks separately.

The trend of the blue line is clear: players’ average rates of three outcomes have increased starting around 1920, dropping off a bit in the 70s, and continuing on through 2017.  There has been a spike in recent years, and the 2017 average rate of 33% three outcomes is clearly the highest since 1913.

It is interesting to look at each outcome separately as well.  The tremendous growth in strikeout rates is clearly a big part of this story.  Average walk rates have consistently hovered around 8 or 9 % of plate appearances after peaking just over 10% in 1948.  Home run rates are increasing, but home runs are still rare compared to the other outcomes.  Through the 1940s average home run rates per player averaged around 1% of plate appearances.  They jumped to around 2% in the 1950s, and stayed pretty consistent until the mid-1990s.  Since then they have been increasing and peaked in 2017 with an average of 3% of plate appearances.

What does this trend towards three outcomes mean for the game?  Perhaps Cameron subtly showed his feelings about it when he titled his essay, “The League’s Continuing March Towards Three Outcomes Baseball.”  A march; a steady march.  Figure 1 suggests an uphill march.  Cameron could have called it the race towards three outcomes.  Or the growing excitement of three outcomes baseball.  Even the uphill battle of three outcomes baseball sounds more engaging than a march.  Is three outcomes baseball more of a slog than it is an exciting new dynamic in the game?