Applying “Three True Outcomes” to a Team

Back in August 2000, Baseball Prospectus’ Rany Jazayerli wrote an article on introduced the sabermetric world to the concept of the “Three True Outcomes” (TTO)*.  TTO was the premise that there are three events in a plate appearance that cannot be impacted by the fielders, namely the strikeout, walk and homerun.

(* – After I initially published this, it was brought to my attention (and confirmed by my own Googling) that the concept had actually been bandied about on the usenet bulletin boards as early as the mid-1990s.)

Jazayerli colorfully writes of TTO:

Together, the Three True Outcomes distill the game to its essence, the battle of pitcher against hitter, free from the distractions of the defense, the distortion of foot speed or the corruption of managerial tactics like the bunt and his wicked brother, the hit-and-run.

He then went on to list some of the great TTO player seasons in history.  Players like Rob Deer, Russell Branyan and Gorman Thomas are feted for their unique abilities to either strike out, walk or go yard, pretty much to the exclusion of anything else.

I wondered what teams might best emulate a TTO attitude.  So I culled batting stats for each club from 1973-2011 (the DH era), and charted them against the league average TTO rate in each season.  (For reference sake, we are using the formula: TTO% = TTO/PA = (HR+BB+SO)/PA).

Let’s start by getting some overall context for TTO rates across the Majors.  The graph below clearly shows a rising TTO rate (check the trendline), with some blips along the way.  From its nadir at around 22% in the early 1980s, we finished 2011 around 29%.

With that as our foundation, let’s check which teams perfected their TTO skills.  In our first chart, we’re listing those teams that had at least one-third of their total plate appearances end as a TTO:

Highest Team TTO Rate (Min. 33.3%): 1973-2011
2010 ARI 6183 180 589 1529 37.2%
1994 DET 4574 161 520 897 34.5%
2008 FLA 6206 208 543 1371 34.2%
2001 MIL 6148 209 488 1399 34.1%
2009 COL 6241 190 660 1277 34.1%
2000 STL 6369 235 675 1253 34.0%
2010 TBR 6264 160 672 1292 33.9%
2004 CIN 6278 194 599 1335 33.9%
2005 CIN 6320 222 611 1303 33.8%
2001 SDP 6278 161 678 1273 33.6%
2000 OAK 6432 239 750 1159 33.4%
2009 TBR 6223 199 642 1229 33.3%

The 2010 Diamondbacks totally lapped the field in this regard, thanks in large part to a Major League record for strikeouts.  Nearly one out of every four plate appearances (24.7%) ended with the batter walking back to the dugout (the next highest mark was 22.8% by the 2001 Brewers.) Mark Reynolds eclipsed 200 Ks for the third straight year (211), and four teammates amassed 145 or more whiffs.  The D’backs finished with a .401 winning percentage, barely higher than their TTO percentage.

The only pre-2000 team on that list was the ’94 Tigers, who despite playing only 115 games in that abbreviated campaign had three guys hurdle the century mark in Ks, while hitting 161 homers (1.4 per game, 3.5% of all plate appearances).  They ended the season with a .461 winning percentage.

Now let’s flip the chart, and look at the lowest team TTO rates in the DH era:

Lowest Team TTO Rate (max. 20.0%): 1973-2011
1981 TEX 3972 49 295 396 18.6%
1980 TEX 6319 124 480 589 18.9%
1975 STL 6207 81 444 649 18.9%
1978 CHW 5955 106 409 625 19.1%
1981 CLE 3952 39 343 379 19.3%
1980 CHW 6000 91 399 670 19.3%
1976 KCR 6197 65 484 650 19.3%
1979 TEX 6193 140 461 607 19.5%
1976 NYY 6156 120 470 616 19.6%
1978 TOR 6015 98 448 645 19.8%
1981 KCR 3941 61 301 419 19.8%
1976 CLE 6029 85 479 631 19.8%
1984 MIL 6057 96 432 673 19.8%

The 1981 Texas Rangers were 12th in the AL in homers, 12th in walks and 13th in strikeouts.  Even accounting for the abbreviated season, its amazing that Buddy Bell led the squad in homers with all of 10.  The team only went yard 49 times in 105 games.  So they seemingly didn’t swing for the fences, which means they were less likely to get punched out, as they only K’ed in 10.0% of their PAs that season, the sixth-lowest figure since 1973.  Despite all of this, they ended the year with a .543 winning percentage.

Speaking of low K rates, the 1980 version of the Rangers have the lowest mark of all in the DH era (9.3% of all PAs).  That group had decent power throughout their lineup though, with six different players with at least ten homers.  Unlike their ’81 version, these guys finished under .500, at .472.

The next logical step is to see which teams had the highest TTO rate, relative to the overall percentage in MLB in that same year (YRTTO):

Highest Relative Difference in Team vs. MLB TTO: 1973-2011
1991 DET 32.9% 26.0% 27%
2010 ARI 37.2% 29.5% 26%
1994 DET 34.5% 27.5% 26%
2005 CIN 33.8% 27.3% 24%
1993 DET 31.7% 26.0% 22%
1992 DET 30.3% 25.1% 21%

The 1991 Tigers featured two players with OPS+ of at least 140 (Mickey Tettleton and Lou Whitaker), and another with a mark of 133 (Cecil Fielder).  They also had one of the all-time great individual TTO seasons, Rob Deer’s .179 with 25 HRs, 175 Ks and 89 BBs in 539 plate appearances.  Fielder, Tettleton, Deer and Travis Fryman all struck out at least 131 times, and five players drew at least 79 walks.

1992’s Tiger squad was virtually the same in terms of who drove the TTO bus, while in ’93 Tony Phillips chipped in a bit more, surpassing 100 Ks and walks (as did Tettleton). 1994 saw Phillips and Tettleton nearly repeat the 100K/100BB feat, despite the shortened season.

Here is the flip side, the teams that had the lowest TTO rate, relative to the overall percentage in MLB in that same year (YRTTO):

Lowest Relative Difference in Team vs. MLB TTO: 1973-2011
2002 ANA 22.4% 28.2% -21%
1975 STL 18.9% 23.8% -21%
2007 SEA 22.6% 28.2% -20%
2008 SEA 23.2% 28.8% -20%
2000 KCR 23.5% 29.1% -19%
1984 MIL 19.8% 24.3% -19%

The 2002 World Series champion Anaheim Angels head the list.  They finished tenth in the AL in homers, 11th in walks and dead last in strikeouts.  Troy Glaus was the only batter to walk more than 80 times or strike out more than 105 times.

The 1975 St. Louis Cardinals finished 11th in the NL in homers and last in both walks and strikeouts.  No one walked more than 63 times or struck out more than 64 times. Despite leading the NL in team batting average, they finished a mere 82-80 mainly due to a middling rotation.

The 2007 Seattle Mariners finished next to last in the AL in strikeouts despite Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre and Jose Guillen all going over the 100 K mark.  They were dead last in walks with only one player drawing more than 60.  The 2008 version went 61-101 (after going 85-77 the prior year), but the TTO issues were the same.  They were 12th in the league in homers, 13th in walks and last in strikeouts.  Raul Ibanez led the team in walks (64) and strikeouts (110) and was second in homers (23).

As you can probably tell, a team’s TTO rate has very little impact on their overall record.  There have been winning and losing teams on both sides of the spectrum, as show in the graph below:

Finally, as a little bit of a side analysis, here is the correlation of each of the TTO attributes with the team’s winning percentage.  While the individual attributes are once again scattered all over the won/loss spectrum, there are definite trends apparent.  Walking more and striking out less are not surprisingly good for your chances of winning, while a team’s homer rate is of lesser importance.

11 thoughts on “Applying “Three True Outcomes” to a Team

  1. I am not sure what you are getting at when you write

    “As you can probably tell, a team’s TTO rate has very little impact on their overall record. There have been winning and losing teams on both sides of the spectrum”

    It seems like you are saying that if this rate goes up, winning does not go up much. But remember, that a strikeout is likely to lower your chance of winning since it is an out. We would like to know how much as strikeout hurts winning, holding HRs and Walks constant. Also, did you include how many of the outcomes each team’s pitchers allowed? Remember there that all the causality is reversed.

    I did a simple regression once where it sure looked like these three things mattered alot. I posted it on the SABR-list in 2003. Here is part of it:

    “Someone may have done this before. I wondered how important speed and
    defense are to winning. Could we set an upper bound on how important they were?
    What if we knew what percent of winning percentage was due to non-speed factors
    were? Then maybe we could say that the percent that was not explained by them
    is an upper bound on the share of winning attributable to speed and defense.

    So I ran a regression in which team winning percentage depended only on
    variables that had nothing to do with speed. They were frequency of walks,
    strikeouts, homeruns by the offense and walks, strkeouts, and homeruns per
    inning by the pitching staff. Here is the regression equation.

    WPCT = .553 + 4.77*HR% + 2.11*BB% – 1.17*SO% -1.17*HRA/IP – .486*BBA/IP +

    The variables were all statistically significant. The r-squared was .739.
    This means that 73.9% of the variation in winning percentage across teams is
    explained by these variables.”

    • I don’t think that is the true question I was seeking to answer, but I appreciate the depth of your analysis. I’m impressed and a bit humbled.

      The correlation of the TTO rate and the team’s won-loss percentage was really kind of a secondary matter for me. I know I can’t look at TTO rate in a vacuum and say “that’s what makes the difference between winning and losing.”

      I do agree that an offense’s increased K rate will negatively impact their overall won-loss % ….

      I *did* think of doing the same analysis on team pitching TTO rates, and will probably revisit this somewhere down the road.

      Thanks for your response.

  2. Great article. It would be interesting to see the historical trend for pitches per PA overlaid onto the first chart. Do you have access to these data? I assume that there must be a pretty high correlation between pitches/PA and TTOs.

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