Assessing The Viability of Big Strikeout Rate Improvements

As more batters push up past 60 PA, we have reached one of the first major stabilization points of the season with strikeouts. It doesn’t mean that we’re observing their true talent level after 60 PA, but rather that we may be experiencing a shift in that talent, so it is worth looking at some of the major outliers to see if they have made observable changes to fueling the improvement.

Omar Narváez, MIL | -20 pts to 11% in 65 PA

His 2020 collapse really felt like an outlier. He moved to the Brewers and while they seemed to do a great job at teaching him how to better catch, it came at the expense of his bat. Now it probably isn’t as simple as “he focused so much on defense that he let his hitting lag” and it probably has much more to do with it being a small 126 PA sample (60 wRC+, 31% K).

Narvaez brought an 18% K rate into 2020 along with a 112 wRC+ so it was hard to believe that he was just cooked as a hitter. He has been a contact machine so far this year, slicing his swinging strike rate from 13% to 6% which definitely helps support the massive strikeout rate gains. It is still best to project him for a mid-to-high teens strikeout rate the rest of the way. He is also unlikely to maintain his 186 wRC+ all year, but I see him holding a 110-120 mark from here on out.

Ronald Acuña Jr., ATL | -16 pts to 13% in 82 PA

The league is in deep trouble. How terrifying is it that Acuña is getting even better? Like Narvaez, he has experienced a major drop in swinging strike rate, going from 12% in each of his first three seasons to just 6% so far this year. Obviously, striking out more than a quarter of the time (career 26% mark heading into ’21) hasn’t hampered Acuña, but there is no doubt that a near 1:1 K/BB ratio is a huge improvement and could foster a career-best season from the 23-year-old superstar.

Another factor could be that Acuña is seeing fastballs at a 60% clip, the highest of his career. He has always done his best work against heat so seeing more is great. That said, no pitch is consistently getting him out right now so even if the opposition alters their approach again him, I don’t foresee a substantial downturn. He will have his cold streaks like anyone does, but a healthy Acuña is just so damn elite and a healthy Acuña who doesn’t really strikeout probably needs a league above the majors to be truly challenged.

Matt Olson, OAK | -16 pts to 15% in 79 PA

Prior to last year, Olson was a sneaky AVG asset for such a power stud. It wasn’t Freddie Freeman/Paul Goldschmidt level, but his .256 AVG from 2017-19 was solid and you didn’t have to plan ahead to take on the 37 HR per 600 PA power he offered. Compare that to the .239 AVG of a Rhys Hoskins, who carried similar power upside and was drafted around Olson. A deeper look at Olson’s 2020 had me thinking his .195 AVG/31% K combo was small sample variance as opposed to the beginning of a problem.

He went through a similar run in 2018 but had time to rebound which the 2020 didn’t afford him or other who started slowly. He has gone beyond improving the ’20 rate to deliver a career-best 15% mark and one key factor seems to be him dialing up the aggressiveness. He is swinging at pitches 48% of the time with an 11-point jump in contact rate and 5-point jump on balls in play to 28%, also a career-high*.

I still see a 40 HR season coming from Olson, perhaps even this year, but I am not quite ready to project a .300 season, or even a .290+ right now. He should beat the ugly .195 from last year and I would plan for something in the .250s the rest of the way.

*well, it was at 30% in 28 PA

Ryan McMahon, COL | -11 pts to 23% in 83 PA

Unlike the others, McMahon’s strikeout drop hasn’t been accompanied by a similarly strong dip in swinging strike rate. His mark is down just 1 point to 14%. The one major change in McMahon’s plate profile that highlights the early season strikeout dip is that he is swinging at a lot more first pitches, something he had done pretty regularly prior to 2020, too.

His first-pitch swing rate was 43% from 2017-19 and then dropped to 29% last year. It has surged back up to 48%, a career high if you don’t count his 24 PA “season” from 2017. That jump in first-pitch swing rate also helps explain why his walk rate is down to just 4% (10% career).

If he continues posting an .889 OPS with gobs of homers, I am not sure anyone will mind, but I do question how well he will be able to maintain his success if the strikeout rate pushes back, even if the walk rate moves back up, too. Of the four on this list, McMahon is the one I would be most interested selling high on all the while understanding that even a high return on McMahon won’t be that great.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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McMahon’s BB% went from 1.3% yesterday to 3.6% in a day… this is not improvement. It’s random. His OBP was like .289 and now it’s .301. This is squinting really hard at him and lying to ourselves to feel good about a guy with 7 HR. The SLG is all he has, his other numbers are bad because he is not yet very good.

J.D. Martin
J.D. Martin

It also omits the most interesting thing about McMahon this year, supposedly he was working on a new swing in the offseason and spring training and so far he has pretty much flipped his GB/FB splits: his career split is 49.1 GB%/30.6 FB% but he’s at 35.0 GB%/43.3 FB% so far this year (if you prefer Statcast his launch angle has basically doubled from 9.4 deg to 19.4 deg). The average will probably never be great with his current approach but there’s some nice power upside if he keeps that new LA