Saturday, August 21, 2004

I Walk the Line

Thus, to coincide with his triumphant return, a little bit on our most underappreciated player.

Truth be told, Mark Bellhorn was the offseason pickup I was least excited about. We had just lost Todd Walker to the Cubs, and it seemed that they felt kinda bad about that, and so sent us his clone. Bellhorn's lone selling point was a monstrous 2002 season, where he hit 27 home runs in his first semi-full season. That was followed by an abysmal 2003, where he hit just about his weight. I couldn't see where he belonged, especially now that we had Pokey.

Jump to a few weeks into the season. The Bellhorn/Pokey debate becomes moot, as both are playing with regularity after Nomar goes down. Pokey is startlingly good in the field, and anemic at the plate. Really, that's not surprising, but what is surprising is that Mark Bellhorn is suddenly tied for the league lead in walks with...Barry Bonds. He's also leading the league in strikeouts, but we'll get back to that later. Besides, he's knocking in runs, scoring them in bunches, and always seems to get on base, whether by a walk or a hit, at least once a game.

What just happened there? How does Todd Walker Lite become such an offensive force?

Simple. Mark Christian Bellhorn has one of the smartest approaches to hitting in the game of baseball.

Bear with me, because I'm dead serious about this.

First off, Bellhorn's high number of strikeouts. There's a gigantic misconception about strikeouts in general; they're seen as the ultimate domination of pitcher over batter, and as such, are to be avoided like Albert Belle's front bumper on Halloween. Bellhorn strikes out a lot, ergo, he must be an awful hitter. Right?

Not so much, no. I'll let Eric Van from The Sons of Sam Horn
explain, because quite frankly, he knows a wee bit more about stats than I do:
As has been explained elsewhere countless times, Bellhorn's K's are completely meaningless. Stating with the obvious point, that the better a hitter you are when not striking out, the more you do strike out. Which is something most of us learn in second grade (that you can avoid striking out by swinging less hard). Second, "productive outs" are incrediblty overrated (you can hit .160 without any productive outs and do more good that someone who always makes the productive out). And finally and most egregiously, in the one situtation where K's actually matter, runner on 3rd with less than 2 out, the guy has one K all year.

Not only that, but a quick look at his stats show that he's batting .474 in that situation. Overall, with runners in scoring position, he's got an OBP of .421. He makes very few outs in situations that would net him an RBI, and it shows. Despite missing the past 16 games, he's still fifth on the team in RBI's, with 56.

The fundamental misconception about strikeouts is that they're somehow "worse" than balls put in play, which is only true, really, in one situation (that which Van outlines). Put it this way: would you rather have a guy who makes so-called "productive" outs, or one that doesn't make outs in general, like Bellhorn? I guarantee the second guy is more valuable.

What his strikeouts do mean, in fact, is something very encouraging. Bellhorn doesn't swing at pitches he can't hit. When he does put the ball in play (and if anyone can help me find this stat, I'd be grateful), he's hitting about .400.

What this means is that Bellhorn squeezes every last bit of performance out of his talent by playing the game in a rational, intelligent way. That his contributions are obscured by noise over his strikeouts is a travesty. Red Sox Nation should be glad that Theo & Co. snatched him from obscurity in the dregs of the National League.