With the call-up of Domingo Santana to the Astros' Major League club this week, the everyday lineup now features five batters who figure to strike out at a rate of around 30%, the most of any club in the majors. That's not an offensive death sentence by any stretch of the imagination, as there are outcomes that are far worse than a strikeout. Don't believe it? Eno Sarris recently published a hardly-new but updated look at the value of a strikeout based on Tom Tango's original work in his blog years ago.
So for an individual batter, a strikeout isn't significantly more damaging than a typical ground out or a fly out. Events that are more damaging? Triple Plays, Infield Flies, Force outs, and Grounding into double plays. But that's only relevant when looking at an individual batter in an individual situation.
Math Stuff (Skip if Easily Bored)
The problem, when it applies to roster construction, is the frequency of these events. This season, Major Leaguers have grounded into 1,868 double plays, which if Tango's math may be applied, accounts for a net "loss" of 1,587 runs that would have hypothetically scored if they had never occurred, and 2,465 runs fewer than if all of those GDPs were singles instead. Using the same math, there were 19,364 strikeouts in the majors in 2014 so far, for a net loss of 5,809 runs in a vacuum, and 14,910 runs fewer than if those strikeouts were all singles.
So while an individual GDP is more damaging to a team than an individual strikeout, the strikeouts can add up.
End of Math Stuff
This is an issue when stacking one's lineup with high-strikeout players. So back to the Astros, who have done just that (thanks, Ed Wade!). One would think that this is not ideal lineup construction, and it seems on the surface that GM Jeff Luhnow agrees. From an article penned by the Houston Chronicle's Evan Drellich last week:
"Domingo still has some developing in Triple A from our perspective," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "The profile doesn’t really fit what we need right now. We’re really excited about what he’s done, and I think the higher average at a higher level has been clearly a sign of better development and of him becoming a more complete player. But, the profile of the feast or famine is not something that we want to continue to have."
Many fans giggled when Santana was recalled to the bigs not two days after the quote above was published. But tossing the side the 'Domingo still has some developing in Triple A" part of the quote, it's the stuff at the end that is interesting and applicable.
Luhnow seems to be saying that he recognizes that the strikeout-heavy approach is not the way he would like to build his ideal lineup, and most fans would agree that in a vacuum, that would be preferable. So why call up Santana? The simple answer is because of Fowler's injury, Santana's presence on the 40-man roster, and because Santana is legitimately the most overall-talented player of the available options to Luhnow at this time.
So here's the speculation...
There's another possible reason for recalling Santana at this point, despite the addition of another high-strikeout player. Since Luhnow does not relish a "feast or famine" lineup going forward, a reasonable assumption is that he will try to correct that flaw. The best way to do that, rather than hoping like mad that established players will change their whiffing ways, is to change the players.
George Springer ain't going anywhere - he's the only current Astro with I-kid-you-not superstar potential. Castro's a catcher and his value lies far more with his defense - the strikeouts are something to live with. Carter is not in the long-term plans. Singleton is signed to a long-term contract, and alternative first-basemen aren't exactly growing on trees. That leaves Santana.
Santana looks like he could be a star-level player in his prime, and would be a welcome addition in left or right field on many-a-club. But the Astros have other outfielders who will be MLB-ready in 2015 down on the farm: Preston Tucker, Robbie Grossman (yes, I know...), L.J. Hoes, Austin Wates, Andrew Aplin, Leo Heras, Delino Deshields. All of these guys figure to have a strikeout rate well below 25%, save for maybe DeShields (again, thanks, Ed Wade). Santana may ultimately be a better individual hitter than all of them, but from a lineup construction standpoint, he may not be the best long-term fit for the Astros.
Because of this, Santana's greatest value draws from his individual performance, age, and ceiling -- both to the Astros and to, ahem, potential trading partners. Working under the assumption that Luhnow wants to decrease the Astros' collective strikeout rate, could he leverage Santana in a trade to receive a package that includes an established starter that more fits the Astros' needs, similar to how he acquired Dexter Fowler? A.J. Pollock? Allen Craig? Ben Zobrist? Domonic Brown? Jon Jay? Or does Luhnow shoot for the stars? Hey Marlins, we won't give you Springer and Carlos Correa for Giancarlo Stanton, but what about Santana, Mark Appel, and Delino Deshields? No? Hey, Cardinals, what's your price for Matt Adams? How about blocked prospects? Stephen Piscotty? Joc Pederson?
Picking individual players at this point isn't relevant other than to illustrate what a deal involving Santana might be able to return, depending on who he's packaged with. But it's possible that Santana's presence in the major leagues right now is a legitimate attempt to showcase him to potential buyers who might be willing to give Luhnow what he wants (a less strikeout-prone lineup) in return for a high-ceiling but 'feast or famine' 21-year-old outfielder. The Astros have the depth to make such a trade without lasting hardship, and Santana seems like the type of guy who might make a trade work out very well for both parties.