Cashman’s Main Problem:The Fallacy of Three Outcome Baseball
by Cary Greene
August 24, 2022
Let’s start by defining what “Three-Outcome Baseball” really is. There’s been a quiet shift in baseball player development as teams now literally preach, coach, and develop players entering their Minor League Systems to swing on an upward arc to focus on hitting home runs.
This mantra has gained a lot of traction over the last 20 years but as far as I can detect, I think the whole concept was first spawned after the 1983 Orioles won the World Series by drubbing the Phillies 4 games to 1, as the ‘Birds clubbed 6 home runs, drew 10 walks and recorded 17 RBI’s in the series.
Major League GM’s noticed the stark contrast between the ‘83 Orioles and the ‘82 World Series Champion Cardinals. The Cardinals finished dead last in the league in Home Runs in 1982, yet they managed to win-it-all despite having a below League Average offense, thanks mostly to their stellar pitching, evidenced by team ERA+ of 109 that season. Major League teams were growing increasingly aware of analytics during the early 80’s and as is even the case today, with each season that passes, the World Series winning team was (and always is) a focus of study for aspiring GM’s who endeavor to build a championship roster.
The ‘83 Orioles were radically different than the Cardinals and they steamrolled their easy to World Series title on the strength of their 168 Home Runs, which was #1 in the League that season -and- their tremendous ability to get on base via the walk - they were #4 in the League in that department in 1983 (with 569 walks). Simultaneously, the Orioles offense avoided striking out - they only had the 20th highest strikeout total that season (800), which was well below League Average of 816.
MLB GM’s took note. It was important to hit lots of home runs and to also walk. It stood to reason, a walk followed by a home run was kind of a two-for-one blue-light special - ala Philadelphia Sales (a department store back in the day). Perhaps, just maybe, a roster of power hitters who also had excellent strike zone awareness could be assembled. The ‘83 Orioles, with Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., and Ken Singleton paving the way, certainly served as a blueprint for any GM who chose to take note.
It was then that the seeds for Three-Outcome baseball were planted. The following season, the Tigers were #1 in the league in Home Runs, clubbing 187 total dingers and they were also #2 in the league in walks, accumulating 602 free-passes. The Tigers also struck out a lot (941) and their total was the sixth highest in the league. But they didn’t seem to care! They were onto something. Swinging for the fences and deliberately trying to hit more home runs, while also maintaining strike-zone awareness seemed to be a very powerful approach. Indeed, it yielded a resounding World Series victory. MLB executives had little choice but to note how the Tigers won in similar fashion to the Orioles the previous season - even though they struck out way more.
Three Outcome Baseball would soon become more than just a fad or a “thing.” It was “The Thing” and franchises began implementing training & development tactics that wouldn’t truly change the game for many years - 24 in fact. The shift was gradual but the league was moving towards the True-Three-Outcomes.
In 2009, the Yankees focused on OBP and power-hitting, they were #1 in home runs (244), #1 at drawing free-passes (663) but, contrary to Three-Outcome ideology, they were #3 at AVOIDING STRIKEOUTS (1.014 against a League Average of 1,120). MLB was taken by storm by what was a Yankees team that was able to gind out at-bats while being able to get on base consistently, ahead of power hitters like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Hideki Matsui and of course, the Yankees beat a really good Phillies team that year in the fall classic.
Many Yankees fans reveled in the way the 2009 Yankees played the game and it's probably a big reason why so many Yankees fans today aren’t sold on true Three Outcome Baseball. Yankees fans know that it’s possible to hit for power, walk a lot and not strike out. I also would hedge a bet that most know why this is important. More on that in a moment…
Has Three-Outcome Strategy Worked?
Looking back to 1998, when the league expanded from 28 to 30 teams, a fair question to ask is, if Three Outcome Baseball really works, how many teams have adhered to it’s tenants and won the World Series? Believe it or not, 19 of the past 24 World Series teams can’t be characterized as Three-Outcome teams. They certainly defeated numerous Three Outcome teams, but these champions actually valued at-bats and they were dead set on not giving them away in the name of a few extra home runs.
The 2021 Braves certainly are an example of a Three Outcome team - they were third in the League in home runs, twelfth in walks, and they struck out a lot. But 19 of the 24 championship teams since Three Outcome thinking took hold in MLB were anything but Three-Outcome teams.
In fact, all 19 of these teams were extremely good at avoiding strikeouts. Only six World Series winners since 1998 were among the top 3 teams in the league at drawing walks and eight of those championship teams were downright bad at the art of walking. Another eight of these teams weren’t good at all at hitting home runs, with one winner - the 2014 Giants, ranking dead last in the league in home runs.
Surprisingly, there were only 5 examples of Three-Outcome teams - out of 24 in the sample size that makes up the Three Outcome era, that won by adhering to the principles of Three Outcome baseball - the 2021 Braves, the 2016 Cubs (not Top 10 in the league in home runs, but still a home run and walk centered offense); 2013 Red Sox; the 2008 Phillies; the 2004 Red Sox. Three-Outcomes only worked for 21% of the past quarter century worth of champions. That means 79% of the winners in the era of Three-Outcome baseball didn’t get the memo.
Why is Three Outcome Baseball a Fallacy?
Yet, the game is no longer about putting the ball in play and in fact, many teams aren’t even organizationally teaching their talent to do that any more. Three-Outcomes thinking suggests that strikeouts are an acceptable price to pay in the name of scoring runs. Teams today want their players swinging for the fences, even in two-strike counts.
The problem is: Three True Outcomes is ultimately a broken philosophy that doesn’t work. Not only is the approach failing much more than it’s succeeding, but the relationship between the Three-True-Outcomes and actually winning baseball games is extraordinarily weak.
Looking at the last quarter of a century of teams as my sample size, I used Regression Analysis as a means of comparing the relationship between the “Three-True-Outcomes” and “Victories.” On a scale where 1.0 equals a crystal-clear and definitive relationship and 0.0 indicates no relationship whatsoever, I came up with a .016 - which is to say, the relationship is very close to meaningless. Three Outcomes don’t equate to winning.
The Sabermetrics crowd founded Three-True-Outcomes on a simple premise. They dismiss Bat-On-Ball contact, mistakenly thinking that it leads to basically “Random Results.” This thinking, very wrong in its inherent belief, then goes on to view a strike out as no big deal - in fact, it views a strikeout as an acceptable price to pay for more home runs.
Sure enough, batters today are bopping home runs at a historically high rate, hitting home runs in about 2.9 percent of their plate appearances dating back a quarter of a century and that number is even on the uptick, in recent seasons it’s been as high as 4 percent, in 2019 when MLB went to the juiced ball. (What a season THAT was!)
True Three-Outcome baseball gives an opponent extra outs and when a team concedes this to an adversary, the adversary is being “gifted” extra outs - thus shortening the game for them. Meanwhile, if an opponent isn’t a Three-Outcome based team, they are making the most of every plate appearance they get - which is an approach that pressures the defense, advances runners and claws out runs. They of course also hit occasional home runs, but they’re unlikely to swing for the fences with two outs. Many of the game's greatest managers of the past expressed great disdain for giving away an at-bat, but today’s three-outcome players do it all the time, while hunting for that one extra home run for the month.
Strikeouts represent about 66% of the Three True Outcomes, while Home runs represent about 9% and Walks represent 24%.
Today’s fans often lament that it’s difficult to win games when their team is perpetually stranding runners and this feeling is often exemplified by box scores where teams perform very poorly with runners in scoring position. Most fans look at one stat before all other stats: RISP! We read the box score over a morning cup of Joe and we look to see how our favorite team did with runners in scoring position.
Usually, the team that wins the game takes advantage of runners who advance to scoring position, which is defined as second or third base. A batter who walks only reaches first base. If he never gets to second base, he isn’t even considered as having been in scoring position. Essentially, a Three-Outcome team views that runner who walked and is now on first base as a “duck on the pond.” With a quick home run, two runs are now scored instead of one! –But (and there always seems to be a but, doesn’t there?) if a Three-Outcome team is going to strike out 66% of the time and only hit a home run 9% of the time, how many runners who walked, will simply be left on base, to “die on the vine” so to speak?
True Three-Outcome teams don’t run much. They don’t try to hit a single with a man on first base. They don’t hit and run. They don’t sacrifice. They’re basically just swinging for the fences at all times, or walking, or of course….striking out at a record-clip – which they falsely believe is acceptable.
Are the 2022 Yankees a Three Outcome Team?
Which brings us back full circle, to this season. Can the Yankees be characterized as a Three-Outcome offense? Well, only 40% of the teams in MLB strike out more. Meanwhile, the Yankees #1 in walks and #1 in home runs. It certainly appears that the Yankees do lean towards being a Three-Outcome oriented attack.
This year’s team isn’t like Yankees championship teams of the last quarter of a century, they are selling out at the plate more than they should be. Remember, the 2009 Yankees were also #1 in walks and #1 in home runs, but they were among the best teams in the league at not striking out. They weren’t willing to give away at bats.
The Yankees Dynasty teams of 2000, 1999, 1998 and even 1996 were built on the concept of grinding out at bats. This led to steady walk rates, hitting for average, low strikeout rates and a solid (but far from dominating) home run dynamic.
In recent Yankees history, the 2017 team came the closest to making it to the World Series and if not for being upended by the cheating Astros, they would have. Brian Cashman certainly spoke about this topic this offseason, echoing that statement/belief. That team struck out at a high clip, they walked a lot and they led the league in home runs. They were a classic Three Outcome team, but it didn’t work - they lost to the scandalous Astros who were second in home runs that year, they were a bit below average at walking and…they struck out less than any team in MLB that year.
Perhaps there is a lesson that Brian Cashman should be taking note of here. While he should be looking to add players with high OBP and good power numbers, he should be consciously avoiding strike out prone position players. I’m a bit shocked actually that, since 2017, he hasn’t figured this out, considering the vastness of his resources.
Joey Gallo is the latest example of why a strikeout prone player doesn’t work. Yankees fans listened to bloggers and Three-Outcome “heads” blithering about what a great fit Gallo was going to be, but Yankees fans got to see the “other side” of the coin and it wasn’t very pretty. Of course, for Gallo’s part, he wasn’t ever the player he was for the Yankees, that he was for the Rangers. But still, the decision to trade so much for Gallo gave Yankees fans a 2021 midsummer's present that was at the very least, wrapped in paper that was decorated with numerous fluorescent orange and neon-yellow holographic question marks. Cashman really should have known better than to make that move - especially considering what he’s already put Yankees fans through.
Fortunately, Cashman made a move in the right direction when he traded for Andrew Benintendi, who is the diametrical opposite of Joey Gallo. Coincidentally, for those that think he’s killing it for the Dodgers, I wouldn’t argue as Gallo is batting .267/.371/.667 with a 1.038 OPS, but - in across 30 at-bats, he’s struck out 14 times. In his last 30 at-bats with the Yankees, Gallo hit .121/.256/.354 with a .620 OPS while also striking out 14 times. He has a K-Rate of 39% this season. He’s actually exactly the type of player the Yankees don’t need.
Gallo is causing damage with his home run or bust approach, but with the Yankees, his approach just didn’t play. Not everyone can succeed in New York. A player who strikes out in almost half of his at-bats is only going to give the other team easy outs and shorten the game. A roster full of these types of similar players is ill-advised.
What a difference a player like Matt Carpenter can make for the Yankees, opposed to Joey Gallo. Carpenter hit .305/.412/.727/1.138 across 128 at-bats for the Yankees while only posting a 22.7% K-Rate, which is in-line with league average (22%). That Cashman found Matt Carpenter is a minor miracle. He doesn’t run, he’s not great defensively, but he is versatile so that counts for something. Regarding his offensive profile, he seems to really fit what the Yankees need - especially considering that he’s a left handed extreme pull-hitter (60% of his batted balls are of the pulled variety and he’s a fly-ball hitter).
Cashman also recently traded Cy Young, er, Jordan Montgomery, for injured center fielder and elite-defender Harrison Bader – who has yet to play a single game for the Yankees as he’s in a walking boot for Plantar Fasciitis. Bader’s K-Rate is well below League Average (17.8%) but his Walk-Rate is only 4.9%, which is way below the League Average of 8.4% this season. He certainly can’t be characterized as a Three-Outcome type of player.
Bader’s slash line of .256/.303/.370/.673 suggests that this season, he’s not really been a very good offensive player, though his career numbers are a bit better - but not enough to be encouraging. Considering that Aaron Hicks is slashing .215/.335/.301/.636, with a League Average K-Rate of 22.1% and a terrific Walk-Rate of 14.3% (Top 3% of the League), is Bader really that much of an upgrade?
Cashman’s Two Main Problems
It appears that Cashman is struggling with two things. The first problem is that he’s just not putting rosters together that can take advantage of the 82-games the Yankees play in Yankee Stadium each season. He doesn’t seem to be able to balance a lineup. He’s largely failed at adding enough middle of the order and top of the lineup balance. To his credit, this year now has Andrew Benintendi and, hopefully, Matt Carpenter to help with this, but he let Josh Bell and Juan Soto both slip away at the deadline. Either would have helped balance the Yankee lineup and each would have protected Judge or Stanton well. He also overpaid for Harrison Bader when he could have traded for Kansas City’s Michael A. Taylor for a fraction of the prospect cost, if he really wanted to make a change in center field.
Mainly though, Cashman’s main issue is that he’s attracted too much to Three-Outcome players, Bader excluded - to the point where he ignores higher than desirable strikeout rates and that gives other teams way too many free outs over the course of a season and the problem is magnified in the playoffs, when the Yankees face a higher level of pitching.
Until these problems are fixed, I expect the Yankees championship drought to continue, because the Yankees GM just doesn’t get it. I wish he did, but it’s very clear at this point, he simply doesn’t grasp the fallacy that Three Outcome Baseball is and always will be.