I’ve developed a habit for trying to take a shine to unlikable players, mostly to my own detriment.
Trying to find evidence that Alex Rios wasn’t on autopilot throughout 2011 was mostly fruitless (he did randomly decide to run through a wall in the 159th game of the season). Shouting down Sox fans who were pre-bemoaning Adam Dunn’s strikeouts before the 2011 season started wound up looking really stupid, and then went bizarro when his 2012 was celebrated as a complete return to form rather than a partial one. And I’m pretty sure taking up the fight for this Tyler Flowers fella isn’t going to end in happiness either.
More than that, I could simply never love any of these misfit toys as sincerely as those who were legitimately exhausted with the White Sox strikeout problems will, and already do love Jeff Keppinger.
Last season, the White Sox finished with the sixth-highest strikeout rate in the American League. Part of that was Brent Morel swinging a bat for a month when he should have been walking with a cane, but the rate they got from the catcher position is probably going to double in the new year thanks to Flowers.
Pure production always is more important than the “type” of production. A lineup full of in-his-prime Adam Dunn’s would kill the league, but it’s hard to shame the White Sox for looking for more contact
Enter Jeff Keppinger, who makes a ton of contact. His 7.4% strikeout rate in 2012 was the third-lowest in baseball among hitters with over 400 plate appearances. He’s struck out less in the 2,459 plate appearances that comprise his career than Adam Dunn did in last season alone, and Sox writers have noticeably picked on the topic of his contact ability after a year of watching Dunn and Dayan Viciedo flail.
Chuck Garfien quotes Keppinger, and moves on from there:
"“I talked to [Robin] about trying to hit him when he was throwing batting practice trying to hit the ball right back at him.”Last year, this kind of mentality was missing from the White Sox offense. Many times instead of shooting the ball up the middle, hitters tried pulling the ball to left or right field, hoping to get runs back with one swing of the bat.Keppinger’s approach is exactly the opposite. He’s known as one of the best contact hitters in the game, which is the main reason why general manager Rick Hahn was in such hot pursuit to sign him.”"
Keppinger opened up about the origins of his strikeout avoidance, which was picked up by all the beat writers eagerly. Partly because it’s adorable.
"“When I was a little kid I used to cry when I struck out,” Keppinger said. “I hated walking back to the dugout knowing I couldn’t run to first base. I felt like everyone was looking at me and upset with me that I didn’t hit the ball. So it’s something that has carried with me throughout my life and career.”"
The appeal is understandable. Batting average is often still the first hitting statistic that draws our attention, even after we come to understand its limitations, and Keppinger is sure to provide a decent one. Also, a strikeout in a game is an explicitly useless result, and while Keppinger still provides plenty of outs, his contact offers the hope that some of them might be useful.
Well, how useful? How useful is this approach beyond the actual batting line?
It certainly doesn’t help work counts. Making contact early and often results in those balls going in play often and early. Keppinger averaged 3.45 pitchers per plate appearance in 2012, and 3.41 the previous year, both well below the approximately 3.80 league average. The White Sox are going to notice the difference in replacing Kevin Youkilis with Keppinger in this way, and it will not be good.
It does help for more productive outs. In opportunities to advance a runner at any point, or drive in a runner with the second out of the inning, Keppinger succeeded in 41% of his opportunities, and has steadily succeeded in 40% of his opportunities for his career. However, a league-average player succeeds 32% of the time.
The most productive out opportunities Keppinger has ever had in a single-season is 64, which came when he had 575 plate appearances in 2010. The difference between Keppinger’s success and an average player is five more runners advanced over a season. That’s not irrelevant, but it’s not a huge impact.
It’s unlikely that Keppinger can provide any extra value simply because of the way he goes through his at-bats, so appreciating his contact ability is limited to marveling at how it composes the totality of his offensive output.
Here is a player with unremarkable power and discipline, who makes a living by putting the ball in play over and over again. It’s not the talisman for proper and traditional offense that haters of strikeouts will look for it to be, but the marvel of it deserves recognition removed of any philosophical leanings.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan