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What I'm Watching: Strikeout Rates

Today I'm highlighting some key prospects in the ol' Detroit Tigers organization that could really improve their big league futures by improving their strikeout rates.

Guys who do this can strike out all they want.
Guys who do this can strike out all they want.

In the last, oh, 20 years or so, strikeouts have become all the rage. Defense-independent pitching statistics (DIPS) theory fostered a strong preference for pitchers who keep the ball in their catchers' gloves, a preference you might say Dombrowski embraces just a little bit. Anibal Sanchez wonderfully demonstrated the proliferation of the letter "K" for us all Friday night.

Somewhat ironically, while strikeout pitchers have seen their values rise, batters are seeing a reduced emphasis on controlling their strikeout rates. The increased attention to on-base percentage has caused high strikeout rates to be generally acceptable for a hitter, so long as the other skills show up.

Nonetheless, strikeouts still stall careers, especially in the minors. And while I'll be first to admit that minor-league stats don't tell us much, one thing that is worth watching very closely is a positional prospect's strikeout rate. Strikeouts are a pain at the Major League level, requiring some strong skills to excel in spite of them. Strikeout rates in the minor leagues can also inform us of a prospect's ability to square up pitches in the zone, identify and adapt to breaking stuff, and make the sorts of regular adjustments required for a long and successful career. I explained here last season that excessive strikeouts would doom the nascent career of Quintin Berry. Without further ado, here are some prospects whose ability to avoid the third strike is very important -- or, at least, more important than usual.

DANIEL FIELDS -- OF, Double-A Erie

Daniel Fields is getting a lot of early TPR chatter. First he's stock down, now he's stock up; he's pretty much the Most Interesting Prospect in the Organization right now. He's had a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, and the lack of improvement has been a problem: 27.2% in 2010, to 26.9% in 2011, despite repeating levels. 2012 was much better, as he dropped it to 19.5% across two levels, and that improvement was encouraging, even though other skills were stagnating. Austin Jackson proves that major leaguers can cover 20+ K% with a wide breadth of skill, but Fields' tools don't really ring with that kind of volume. Fields has a major league future, but with center field occupied long-term, he'll need another leap forward to play the part of starting corner outfielder. So far in 2013: 19.7%.

AVISAIL GARCIA -- OF, Triple-A Toledo (eventually)

Garcia has always been known for having a great hit tool, which made his early struggles with the strikeout all the more strange. At age 18, his 22.3% rate in West Michigan in 2009 wasn't a big deal. 2010's 21.6% at the same level made some grumble a little. Although he was promoted to Advanced-A for the 2011 season, his jump to 25.6% was downright alarming. Thus, 2012 was a revelation: his meteoric rise from Lakeland to Detroit occurred in no small part due to his vast improvement in K-rate, which dropped to 18.5% across Advanced-A and Double-A. Garcia does have the loud tools required to succeed in spite of high strikeouts, but with his innate ability to put the bat on the ball, high strikeouts feel like wasted talent. For him, it's all a matter of approach. He's just started his season after an early injury, and with some strong improvements, he'll go from fringe-regular to the star on which the Tigers have dreamed for years.

EUGENIO SUAREZ -- SS, Advanced-A Lakeland

His first exposure to full-season ball last year put him on the map with 65 walks, 45 extra-base hits, a .288 average, and 21 steals in 135 games. That kind of success from the beginning is impressive, but it came with a 19.2% rate which is tough for a middle infielder to carry. So far, so bad for 2013, as he's up to 23% to start the season. He's still stinging the ball and walking enough to post good batting averages and on-base numbers, but the worry here is that as he faces the significant leap from Advanced-A to Double-A, that won't happen anymore. In Erie, he'll face pitchers who can place good stuff in the zone much more consistently. If he can't rise to the challenge, he won't be Jhonny Peralta's heir-apparent. Maybe Danny Worth's heir-apparent.

HERNAN PEREZ -- SS, Double-A Erie

You can't really talk about Suarez without talking about Perez (or Machado, once he gets back). But Perez is really here for comparison's sake because, if there's one thing Perez has done exceptionally well, it's limit strikeouts. As a teenager in West Michigan, his 2010 rate was a high 19.3%. He's since reduced it drastically to 15.4%, then 14.6%, and it's currently 11.6% in Erie right now. That work is really translating into results, as Perez is off to a monster start for Erie. Batting .363 with a .500 SLG is completely unrealistic for Hernan's skill set, but those kinds of hot streaks are more frequent when the batter can force the action onto the field. The one negative is that Perez could really stand to improve his walk rate, a paltry 5% during his minor-league career. However, he's showing that he can cover that up with a strong batting average, great base running, and just enough doubles power to keep pitchers honest.