The hardest part of trying to evaluate players statistically is to discern what is in their control, and what is beyond their control. A pitcher has essentially no control over what happens to a ball once the hitter put the ball in play. He is at the mercy of his fielders, their positioning, their throwing strength, their abilities, et cetera. A hitter is at these same mercies when the ball is hit as well. So how do you judge what a player can do independent of the situation?
The Three True Outcomes help to explain what is independent and what is not. The Three True Outcomes are a strikeout, a walk, or a homerun. But why are these considered independent?
Strikeout – For a strikeout, a pitcher is essentially reliant on himself only. He doesn’t require any fielders to make the out (other than the catcher to catch the ball), no throws are required, and are not affected by the positioning of the fielders.
Walk – For a pitcher, the same logic holds for a walk that would for a strikeout. The fielders have no affect on a walk, and only whether the pitcher can locate his pitches will cause or avoid a walk.
Homerun – This one is slightly less independent, as it is reliant upon the hitter to cause the outcome. Again, no fielders are generally able to make plays on homeruns (most of them anyway), and as a result, the outcome is viewed as a direct result of the pitcher’s ability to locate his pitches properly.
Strikeout – For hitters, the logic is essentially the same. A hitter has the option of whether or not to swing the bat, and as such is in direct control of his ability to avoid a strikeout.
Walk – For hitters, their ability to discern balls and strikes is directly related to his own skills. If he can effectively judge the strike zone so that he can swing at good pitches and take poor ones, it also stands to reason that he is in direct control of his ability to draw a walk.
Homerun – This rule applies for homeruns which clear the fence (as opposed to inside-the-park homeruns). Because any ball hit over the fence cannot be affected by any of the fielders, the home run is also considered to be a direct result of the hitter.
What do the Three True Outcomes Tell Us?
Generally, most players do not fall directly into the Three True Outcomes. Players tend to hit a lot of balls into the field, whether they be ground balls, fly balls, or line drives. That said, you can discern a lot about a player based on their results within those three categories. The players who are generally considered to be the most valuable can (for hitters) compile walks and homeruns, while avoid strikeouts. For pitchers, they generally can compile strikeouts and avoid walks and homeruns.
What can we use to look at players regarding the Three True Outcomes?
The most common statistics to help measure the Three True Outcomes are:
- Strikeouts-to-Walks (ratio, pitchers)
- Walks-to-Strikeouts (ratio, hitters)
- Strikeouts per 9 innings pitched (ratio, pitchers only)
- Walks per 9 innings pitched (ratio, pitchers only)
- Home Runs Allowed per 9 innings pitched (ratio, pitchers only)
There are some other statistics that can be used to help discern other information regarding this specific stats, which we will go into another time.
Strikeouts-to-Walks: This is simply comparing the strikeouts a player has versus the amount of walks they have. Having a high strikeout-to-walk ratio can illustrate one of three things: Either the pitcher strikeouts a lot of batters, he doesn’t walk very many batters, or both. Ideally, this is a number that pitchers want to be higher.
2009’s League Leaders in Strikeout to Walk Ratio, along with their Cy Young voting finish:
- National League: Dan Haren (5.868) – 5th place
- National League Cy Young Winner: Tim Lincecum (3.838) – 7th place in NL
- American League: Roy Halladay (5.943) – 5th place
- American League Cy Young Winner: Zack Greinke (4.745) – 2nd place in AL
While not a perfect judge of pitching success, it can help to tell you a lot about the quality of a pitcher and his ability to control his pitches. The better the pitcher’s control, the more likely he is to get good outcomes when pitching.
Walks-to-Strikeouts: The reverse of strikeouts-to-walks, the more walks a hitter draws, the more chances he has to score a run. Strikeouts have the opposite effect, so they are to be avoided as much as possible. A higher walk to strikeout rate generally bodes well for a hitter. This is essentially a judgment on a hitter’s ability to judge the strike zone.
2009’s League Leaders, along with the MVPs finish in the category:
- National League Leader (and MVP as well): Albert Pujols – 1.80 walks per strikeout
- American League Leader – Dustin Pedroia – 1.64 walks per strikeout
- American League MVP – Joe Mauer – 1.21 walks per strikeout – 2nd in AL.
Generally, players who draw walks and avoid strikeouts are going to show more success than the average player who does not.
Strikeouts per 9 innings and Walks per 9 innings pitched: These both help to tell the story of the strikeout-to-walk ratio. Take these two examples:
Pitcher A: Strikeout to Walk Ratio of 4.0
Pitcher B: Strikeout to Walk Ratio of 4.0
They both seem to be equal, right? What happens when we add some more information to them?
Pitcher A: Strikeout to Walk Ratio of 4.0, 9 IP, 4 K, 1 BB – Strikeouts per 9 Ratio of 4, Walks Per 9 Ratio of 1.
Pitcher B: Strikeout to Walk Ratio of 4.0, 9 IP, 12 K, 3 BB – Strikeouts per 9 Ratio of 12, Walks per 9 Ratio of 3.
These now tell us two very different stories. Pitcher A is much more reliant upon is fielders, as they were responsible for getting 8 more outs than for Pitcher B. Ideally, you want a strikeout/9 ratio that is higher, with a walk/9 ratio that is lower. They don’t tell the whole story by themselves either, but help to paint a broad picture when combined with strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Home Runs per 9 innings: This is simply a metric of how many home runs a pitcher allows. The reason it is important to look at how many innings pitched is to help judge a player against his counterparts. When taken in context with the amount of total homeruns, this can help to give an indication if a pitcher is unlucky in terms of home runs allowed, or if it is a trend to be monitored. The theory being that if the ball is kept in the park, there’s a better chance that a fielder will be able to make a play on it and potentially get an out.
2009 Leaders in HR/9:
- Chris Carpenter – 0.33 (2nd in Cy Young voting)
- Clayton Kershaw – 0.37
- Tim Lincecum – 0.40 (NL Cy Young winner)
- Zack Greinke – 0.43 (AL Cy Young winner)
Does this really tell us anything of use?
Alone, it does not necessarily help. But when looking at these statistics, they can help to give us a basic idea of whether or not a pitcher will have long term success or not. Players who are completely at the whim of the players in the field become more reliant on luck than players who are not.
So players who only do these three things should be the best automatically, right?
Unfortunately, no. There is clearly more to a baseball game than just strikeouts, walks, and home runs. What this gives us is a base to look at what skills a player has, and will help us to look at other things that the player has done to get a good idea of what they are capable of doing in the future. There are a few hitters who are known as “Three True Outcome Hitters”, as they tend to do these three things most often. Adam Dunn and Jack Cust are two players who are well known for being TTO hitters. But looking at their stats indicates that these players are clearly still different:
2009 stats for both players:
- Adam Dunn: 17% walk rate, 32% strikeout rate, 0.66 K/BB ratio, .267 batting average, .398 on base %, 38 HR
- Jack Cust: 15% walk rate, 36% strikeout rate, 0.50 K/BB ratio, .240 batting average, .356 on base %, 25 HR
Both players ended up with one of the Three True Outcomes in over half of their plate appearances in 2009, but clearly based on these numbers Adam Dunn had the better season overall. What the Three True Outcomes cannot tell us is anything involved with what happens in the field of play. All it can do is to give us a starting point for what is within that player’s control.
Three True Outcomes is just a starting point. You can discern a lot about a player from their ability to either limit or achieve these outcomes in the game, but it’s not going to tell you the whole story. What they can help to tell you is how well a player can judge the strike zone, which is still a critical skill for both hitters and pitchers. They can help us to get context on what information that some of the other statistics may not necessarily show. As a general rule, the players who can perform best in these three categories will have continued success at the Major League level.