Eighty-eight plate appearances into the 2016 season, St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Randal Grichuk has struck out 24 times (27.3%). While a 27.3% strikeout rate is by no means desirable, it is, however slight it may be, an improvement from 2015's 31.4%, in a much smaller sample (88 PAs versus 350 PAs), of course. That being said, at 88 plate appearances, Grichuk has passed the stabilization point for strikeout rate in 2016, so given his performance in 2015 and what we have seen thus far this season, a strikeout rate ranging from 27-30% appears to be a pretty reliable projection for the 24-year-old outfielder, barring an unprecedented improvement in pitch recognition or a change in approach. If Grichuk can hit for power when he does make contact, this should not be much of a problem as many power hitters post strikeout rates very similar to his range. That being said, let's take a closer look at Grichuk's 24 strikeouts so far this season and see what they have to tell us.
Excluding foul balls that occurred with two strikes already in the count, a total of 24 strikeouts means that Grichuk has faced 72 strikes in at bats ending in a strikeout. Which pitch was used the most in recording these strikes? How often did Grichuk chase pitches out of the zone? Conversely, how often could Grichuk not pull the trigger on pitches actually in the strike zone? Was a particular pitch dangerous with two strikes in the count? These are all questions I plan on addressing in this post. Will conclusions be drawn? With a sample size of 24 strikeouts, absolutely not, but this is more than enough for a starting point, a base to provide us with cues to look for in Grichuk plate appearances going forward.
First and foremost, one must understand that any information presented in this post will certainly be skewed toward pitchers because by definition, a strikeout is a result in which the pitcher single-handedly outperformed the hitter (well mostly single-handedly, as the pitcher may have received some help from his catcher's framing skills and/or an umpire's expanded zone).
Strikes, In Versus Out of the Zone (Via infogr.am)
Umpires may expand the zone on both corners to righties and Grichuk may expand his own zone at times, but duh, there absolutely should be more strikes in the zone than out of the zone in a post looking at strikeouts.
Strikes, Swinging Versus Looking (Via infogr.am)
I wouldn't necessarily consider Grichuk a true "free swinger," but 554 plate appearances into his MLB career, he does swing at an above league average rate (career 50.8% versus 45.5% for the league so far in 2016 and 46.9% in 2015). Thus, it should be no surprise that the solid majority of strikes Grichuk has faced on strikeouts came as the swinging variety (reminder, "swinging" includes foul balls, so no, he is not swinging and missing as frequently as it appears).
"Bad" Strikes (Via infogr.am)
For this exercise, I am classifying a pitch as a "bad" strike if it is a pitch Grichuk chased out of the zone or is a pitch he took for a strike in the zone. Now, I am aware of the wide array of circumstances in which taking a pitch in the zone is actually a good thing (i.e. early in the count, the hitter is fooled/off balance, etc.), but in terms of gauging a hitter's pitch recognition ability, over a large enough sample, this is something that should eventually work itself out.
Admittedly, I do not yet have a comparator to better understand the table above, but initially, it does not seem promising to see 40 of the the 72 strikes (55.6%) recorded against Grichuk fall into the "bad" category, however flawed my strike classification system may be. Hitting major league pitching is already extremely difficult. Gifting the opposing pitcher strikes on pitches out of the zone while laying off potentially hittable pitches within the strike zone should not be considered a reliable plan for consistent success. The follow-up question to such an exercise is whether or not a hitter can improve on such numbers (i.e. become better at pitch recognition). And if improvement does occur, will it be to a level where it actually begins to positively affect plate appearances on a regular basis?
Strike Three Pitch Type (Via infogr.am)
If you have watched any of Grichuk's first 173 MLB games, you have likely seen him take a bad swing or two against a slider out of the zone, particularly from righties and oftentimes in the dirt. Well, just as you'd expect, 12 of Grichuk's 24 strikeouts (50%) this season have ended on a slider, and six of those strikeouts (50%) have been on sliders out of the zone. What's perplexing is the fact that nine (eight fourseamers, one sinker) of Grichuk's strike threes have been of the fastball variety, with only one of the nine being pitches that landed out of the zone. Even with two strikes, Grichuk should be experiencing a decent amount of success against opposing fastballs. One has to wonder to what effect Grichuk's relative inability to pick up the slider is having on his performance against all other pitches. If he is focusing so much on the slider, it makes sense that there may be a negative impact on his performance elsewhere.
While Grichuk's plate approach appears to be improving (10.2% walk rate), one can reasonably wonder whether or not this is a byproduct of better pitch recognition or simply swinging less frequently. Considering the vast majority of the strikes out of the zone were a result of Grichuk expanding his zone (17 of 22) and not poor umpiring (5 of 22), I'm not necessarily convinced by the possibility that his pitch recognition has improved all that much. To be fair, I'm also of the belief that it is nearly impossible to significantly increase one's ability with pitch recognition. To me, it has always been that it is skilly you either have or you don't. It will be interesting to see how Grichuk performs the rest of the way because the under .500 Cardinals expect more from his bat than they have seen thus far.