These are strange days we live in. The whole world is strange and in the past few years that strangeness has seeped between the white lines on the baseball field, as well.
When I first started to follow baseball as a 9-year old in 1985, batting average was good and strikeouts were bad. Homers were good and will be always be good, of course. But now in 2019, there’s no real stigma associated with strikeouts. They’re like tattoos — what used to be ogled at and whispered about have been en vogue in the past few years. Like tattoos, for some players strikeouts are a lifestyle choice.
The term Three True Outcomes, or TTO for short, was coined by Rany Jazayerli back in 2000. It references the three outcomes of an at-bat that take the fielders out of the equation (ruling out the statistically insignificant inside-the-park homers): strikeouts, walks, and homers. No one exemplifies that Three True Outcome life more than Joey Gallo of the Texas Rangers.
Joey Gallo was drafted in the compensation round of the 2012 MLB Draft. Coming up through the minors, the only thing more majestic than his home run totals were the eye-watering strikeout rates he was putting up in conjunction. Let’s look at Gallo’s 2013 season spent in Low-A Hickory in the South Atlantic League that put him on the map of prospect mavens:
- Gallo (2013, age-19 season): .245/.334/.610, 38 HR, 10.8% BB, 37.0% K, 163 wRC+
That’s a lot of homers, a lot of strikeouts, and a lot of offensive value produced relative to the average minor leaguer.
By all accounts, the Pirates are trying to grow their own iteration of Gallo down on the farm in the form of Mason Martin. Martin was a 17th round pick out of high school back in 2017. The Pirates lured him away from a Gonzaga scholarship with 350,000 American dollars. His debut after signing was a stunner in the Gulf Coast League: .307/.457/.630 with 11 HR in 166 PA’s. Because it’s the GCL and pitchers typically have little idea where the ball is going, he accrued a BB% of 19.3% and a very acceptable K% of 24.7%.
But after the GCL Jarek Cunningham Fever passed, Martin’s introduction to full-season ball did not go very well in 2018. The 19-year old started off the year in Low-A, but struggled mightily with a line of .200/.302/.333, 4 HR, 10.4% BB, 35.8% K, 88 wRC+. After chilling in Extended Spring Training following a demotion, he was assigned to short-season Bristol (a waypoint for high schoolers/internationals not ready for full season and low-end college draftees) and did OK (.233/.357/.422, 15.6% BB, 32.3% K, 107 wRC+).
Mason Martin’s return to Low-A this season has been fantastic, especially when graded through the lens of this Three True Outcome world we live in. In baseball ages, you are determined by your age on July 1, so this is considered his age-20 season, still very good to be considered a true prospect in Low-A South Atlantic League.
- Martin (2019, age-20 season): .262/.355/.590, 15 HR, 11.7% BB, 33.2% K, 165 wRC+
Notice any similarities between Martin’s line and Gallo’s 2013 line ? If you create a HR% from Martin’s 15 dingers in 214 PA’s, you get 7.0%. So Martin’s TTO score would be 51.9% between homers, walks, and strikeouts.
Joey Gallo has had a monster start to 2019 for the Rangers after two largely uninspiring seasons punctuated by the towering dingers. His 2017 and 2018 seasons had 41 and 40 homers, coupled with 121 and 110 wRC+’s. Those wRC+’s are pretty good and good, respectively, and resulted in dual 2.8 fWAR seasons. But this year, by bringing his average up from the low, low 200’s to .278, plus a crazy 19.6% BB rate, Gallo’s line of .278/.422/.636 has already translated to 2.7 fWAR in 1/3 of the season. Gallo’s TTO score would be 62.3% (19.6% BB, 35.3% K, 7.4% HR), which is amazingly humorous.
By using Baseball Reference, I went back to 1998 when MLB expanded to the current 30 teams and created a table showing the growing Three True Outcomes trend in baseball:
The HR, BB, SO numbers you see in the chart are occurrences per game, so to create that TTO% column at the end, I simply added those three columns together and divided by the plate appearances per game column (PA). Take note, dear reader, that 2019 is showing the highest run environment since 2007, the tail end of PED-fueled baseball. Also note that the average batter is 28.3 years old, the second-youngest of this sample of years behind only 2018’s 28.1. And of course homers are the highest of any year in this sample by far.
At this point, I’m going to invoke Maximus from Gladiator and ask:
Is a Three True Outcomes world what we really want as baseball fans ? I know that everyone likes a long ball, but is the natural evolution of the sport leading us to a place where a pitcher throws 98-101 mph fastballs on the reg and then a batter will either connect with said fastball for 450 feet of pure joy, strike out badly, or wait out a pitcher’s poor command of the zone?
Will there be a place for a good contact hitter with moderate power ? Should there be ? I’m sure the Pirates will try and corner the market on those type of players when everyone else is hitting dingers.
The oddity of a stat line like Joey Gallo’s is fun for being somewhat of an outlier. Hopefully Mason Martin can make it to the team and produce as a late round draft pick, bringing his own TTO sensibilities to Pittsburgh. But I’m not sure if seeing a whole lineup of Three True Outcomes is what baseball wants or needs.