Every baseball fan has been indoctrinated since the first day of Little League: Strikeouts are bad. A strikeout does not put the ball in play, which eliminates the chance for it to squeak by a fielder or advance a runner. Theoretically, a team that strikes out a ton should not be very good. The 2013 Atlanta Braves do strike out a lot. But they hold a lead in the NL East, and they are pretty good.
Here’s a scary stat: the Braves strike out 24.5 percent of their time, which would be the third-highest rate of all time. (That stat is per Fangraphs, which only has complete K% data going back to 1913.) The Braves strike out in a quarter of their plate appearances, which is a near-historic rate.
However, that stat needs to be put in context. Strikeout rates are higher than ever before. Basically every year, MLB sets a new high for K%. The two teams with higher K rates than the Braves: this year’s Astros and the 2010 Diamondbacks. Of the 10 teams that whiffed the most all-time, six are current 2013 clubs (Astros, Braves, White Sox, Nationals, Padres and Mets) and two are 2012 teams (Astros and Pirates). In fact, of the top 20 all-time teams, 18 are from the last three seasons. (The exceptions? 2001 Brewers and 2008 Marlins.)
Clearly the Braves’ K rate is not as dramatic as it might seem on the surface. Although it is a historical anomaly, in context the Braves are only slightly above league average.
This is not to say that all good teams strike out a lot. See the 2013 Astros. But the Braves overcome all the Ks with their team power. Their 52 home runs are tied for the major league lead. Their ISO, which eliminates singles to measure power, is .175, fifth in the majors and second in the NL. Their slugging and wOBA are both third in the NL. And the team is making up for some of those strikeouts by walking at a high rate: their 9.4 percent walk rate is second in the NL, trailing only the Reds who are propped up by Joey Votto’s absurdly high rate.
The Braves’ K rate may actually increase once Jason Heyward and his career 21.4 percent rate returns to the lineup. But in this case, strikeouts may not be the worst thing in the world. This is a deep, powerful lineup that hits for enough power to overcome an incredibly high strikeout rate.