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A Closer Look At David Wright's Strikeouts

Much has been made of the fact that David Wright has been striking out far more often this season than in the past, and pet theories explaining this phenomenon abound. Some speculate that he has changed his approach at the plate to adjust to Citi Field's spacious dimensions. Others suggest that he may be trying too hard to make up for the absence of Carlos Delgado in the lineup or, the corollary to that, Wright is simply seeing more off-speed pitches because he doesn't have Delgado in the lineup to protect him (or vice versa).

Whatever the reason, all of the whiffs have some concerned that Wright will strikeout 200 some times this season, and that strikeouts aren't productive, yada yada. We all remember how good Wright was in prior years at keeping at-bats alive when he fell behind 0-2 or just otherwise had two strikes in the count. It can't be surprising, then, that he has been far worse in 0-2, 1-2 and 2-2 situations in 2009 than over the course of his career.

Count Career K% 2009 K% % Change
On 0-2 50.10% 83.30% 66.27%
On 1-2 41.10% 42.50% 3.41%
On 2-2 37.90% 53.30% 40.63%
After 0-2 39.00% 60.00% 53.85%
After 1-2 35.30% 41.70% 18.13%
After 2-2 31.10% 40.70% 30.87%

Just to clarify what the first column represents: "On" counts represent plate appearances that ended on the very next pitch. "After" counts represent all plate appearances that were ever in that count. So, "On 0-2" is a subset of "After 0-2", with the latter including plate appearances that began 0-2 but may have evolved into some other count before reaching their conclusion.

Not pictured in this chart is Wright's .516 OPS on 0-2 counts and his .000 2009 OPS on 0-2 counts, where he has struck out in 15 of 18 plate appearances. All of baseball has struck out 46.5% of the time on 0-2 counts (3,185 strikeouts in 6,846 plate appearances). Wright has struck out 83.3% of the time. That's alarming.

Another interesting thing about Wright's strikeouts is how they have come. Anecdotally, I can remember him striking out swinging at a lot of balls in the dirt and off the plate this year, and while it's true that his swinging strikeouts have gone up this year, it's actually his backwards kays that have increased the most.

Year kL kS kTot
2004 3.20% 11.00% 14.20%
2005 5.00% 12.20% 17.20%
2006 5.30% 11.80% 17.10%
2007 5.40% 10.80% 16.20%
2008 4.20% 11.90% 16.10%
2009 8.90% 14.40% 23.30%

I wasn't expecting this. Wright has struck out looking more than twice as often this year than last year, going from 4.2% of his plate appearances to 8.9%. How can we explain this? It's a little perplexing. One possibility is that he's guessing more than in the past (which would explain all of the swinging strikeouts, too), and that he's taking pitches over the plate because he was expecting something else entirely. Though, one might expect his homeruns to actually increase if he were guessing so much, as he might turn into more of a swatter than a swinger, making solid contact less frequently but hitting the ball farther when he did. Not helping this theory is the fact that his line drive rate has improved since 2008, and one might expect him to make worse contact if he were always guessing at the next offering.

Or, maybe Wright has just been waiting for the perfect pitch to come along at the expense of taking otherwise decent pitches. If that were the case we could probably expect to see his walk rate increase by virtue of seeing more pitches, but that hasn't really happened; his unintentional walk rate has only gone up marginally from 12.1% last year to 12.2% this year.

What actually seems to be happening is that he is swinging and missing more pitches, but those misses are coming earlier in the count, with the called strikes ultimately ending the at-bat more often than in the past.

Year Sw% Mis% Ct% Fl% InP% Tk% TkB% TkS%
2004 48.70% 13.30% 86.70% 50.30% 49.70% 51.30% 65.60% 34.40%
2005 41.90% 14.20% 85.80% 50.60% 49.40% 58.00% 68.40% 31.60%
2006 43.40% 15.20% 84.80% 50.10% 49.90% 56.50% 69.00% 31.00%
2007 41.80% 16.70% 83.30% 49.70% 50.30% 58.20% 70.90% 29.10%
2008 44.20% 16.30% 83.70% 52.20% 47.80% 55.80% 73.90% 26.10%
2009 41.60% 19.20% 80.80% 55.20% 44.80% 58.40% 72.00% 28.00%

(Sw% = swing percentage, Mis% = swing-and-miss percentage, Ct% = contact percentage, Fl% = foul percentage, InP% = in play percentage, Tk% = take percentage, TkB% = taken ball percentage, TkS% = taken strike percentage).

Wright has been swinging less often than in the past but is swinging-and-missing more often. He is fouling off more pitches but is otherwise making less contact. He's also putting fewer balls in play, a corollary to all of the swinging-and-missing, but he's taking more pitches (relative to 2008, not really so for the rest of his career), a corollary to the strikeouts looking. Phew.

So after all of this, what have we learned about Wright and his strikeouts? He's definitely swinging and missing more often; all of the strikeouts looking seem to be a bit of noise. Even if he continues missing balls at the same rate has has so far in 2009, I would expect his backwards kays to decrease naturally because the underlying pitch results -- specifically the frequency with which he has been taking pitches overall -- hasn't increased at nearly the rate of his strikeouts looking. The bottom line is that Wright will probably still set a personal high for strikeouts in a season, but I think his overall strikeout rate will drop a bit over the remainder of the season commensurate with his strikeout looking rate.

UPDATE: gabefarkas requested in the comments a pitch-wise breakdown of Wright's results. The table above breaks down total pitches by swings and takes, and by contact and misses and balls and strikes, etc. within those other categories, but it doesn't show overall rates for foul balls, in-play, etc. relative to total pitches, so that table follows.

Year SwMis% SwFl% SwInP% TkBall% TkStr%
2004 6.48% 21.24% 20.98% 33.65% 17.65%
2005 5.95% 18.19% 17.76% 39.67% 18.33%
2006 6.60% 18.44% 18.36% 38.99% 17.52%
2007 6.98% 17.31% 17.51% 41.26% 16.94%
2008 7.20% 19.31% 17.68% 41.24% 14.56%
2009 7.99% 18.55% 15.06% 42.05% 16.35%

(SwMis% = swing-and-miss percentage, SwFl% = swing-and-foul percentage, SwInP% = swing-and-in-play percentage, TkBall% = balls taken percentage, TkStr% = strikes taken percentage).

SwMis% has clearly gone up, with SwInP% going down accordingly. Both marks for 2009 are career worsts for Wright. He is also taking more balls than ever before.