The game of baseball is played by a wide variety of players. Teams use power hitters, great relievers, fantastic outfielders and everything in between. Sean O’Neill takes a look at the rare athletic true outcome players to let us know why they are special.
Here’s a piece of baseball trivia that only the most devoted Cincinnati Reds fans would know: what was Adam Dunn’s career high in stolen bases? Most fans will remember Dunn, the aptly nicknamed “Big Donkey”, as the lumbering giant who made a mockery of such simplistic notions as “range” and “defense” in the outfield, but who also routinely planted 40+ balls (and with strange frequency, exactly 40 balls) over those same fences every year. However in his first full season in the MLB a 22-year-old Dunn, even then listed at 285 lbs, stole 19 bases. Dunn would do so while also putting up a Three True Outcomes score (strikeouts plus walks plus home runs divided by plate appearances) of 47.8%.
Dunn retired after 2014, and Jay Jaffe at Sports Illustrated named him the “King of the Three True Outcomes”. It was a fitting title, as Dunn was the embodiment of what most baseball fans think of when they think of a three true outcome (TTO) player. Is a TTO player supposed to be fast? No, he’s probably slow as molasses. Is he a good defender? No, he’s probably somewhere between “bad” and “dear God, how is this man a professional baseball player, I have seen Little Leaguers look more competent than that”. Players like Rob Deer, Jim Thome, Mark Reynolds or flashes in the pan like Jack Cust, come to mind. The Three True Outcome archetype is pretty easy to envision. But to iron down the specifics, let’s lay down some ground rules for what really constitutes a TTO player:
- Their TTO score is at least 40%.
- Their walk rate is at least 10%
- Their HRs per 150 games is at least 20
You may have noticed that the rules we set up above don’t include anything about baserunning or defense. Well, that’s because they have nothing to do with it. TTO is all about offensive production. However, the fact that most TTO players are lumbering oafs doesn’t mean they are in fact required to be lumbering oafs. But are there any TTO players out there who also impact the game with speed and athleticism? There was Bo Jackson in the 1980s, although his walk rate never did meet Rule 2 above; the closest he came was a walk rate of 9.6% in 1990. Jose Canseco was a butcher in the field, but he did steal at least 15 bases in 1990, 1991, and 1994, all of which were also TTO seasons. Mike Schmidt also pulled off at least 10+ steals in a TTO season each year from 1974 to 1976, as well as from 1981 to 1982, and he won a gold glove in three of those seasons!
These types of seasons are fairly rare, with maybe one or two players coming close each year. What is rarer is a player with more than one such season. In recent years, the only two players to pull off more than one TTO season with at least 10 steals (lets call it an Athletic Three True Outcome season, or ATTO) are Mark Reynolds and Melvin Upton. For Reynolds, his two seasons came in 2008 and 2009, for Upton they came in 2007 and 2011 (39.9%…we’ll just set aside the fact we’re rounding up there as our little secret). Before them, the last guy to do it multiple times was Canseco.
Yet as rare as this skill set may be, there are three rookies who could all pull off such a season in 2015, and another player in his sophomore season will likely join them. Barring something dramatic, both Steven Souza and George Springer have already locked up their first career ATTO seasons, while Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson are both projected to reach that level as well, although Pederson at least will need to dramatically pick up the stolen base pace (seriously, 30 and 31 SB the past two years in AAA and this year…2?! Fine, let’s add in a little corollary to our ATTO rule and say that anyone playing centerfield or shortstop is automatically eligible, regardless of stolen base totals). All four players are fairly extreme TTO players, with Steven Souza first at (50.5), Pederson fourth in the MLB at (48.3), Bryant sixth at (47.3), and Springer tenth at (43.9). They are also all extremely productive for TTO players, with Bryant and Pederson both on pace for over 6 fWAR this season, Springer on pace for over 5 (prior to his injury), and Souza bringing up the rear at around 2.5.
To say this is an unprecedented crop of young players would be an understatement. This group in 2015 is like having a young Mike Schmidt, Jose Canseco and both the poor man’s and the rich man’s version of Melvin Upton all playing in their first or second season, all at once. Every one of these players stands a good chance of putting up another ATTO season next year. For most of them, it’s conceivable to see them doing it for quite a few seasons. Sure, Bryant will probably slow down as he gets older, but he’s only 23 so he should keep some speed for the next few years. Souza could go belly-up if his power slips or his strikeout rate climbs any further, but he could also improve. His contact rate was never this big of an issue in the minors. Springer could keep cutting his K-rate down and slip below the 40% threshold, but you can’t count on that kind of progress. And Pederson? Well, so long as he stays in centerfield, he’s got a chance to keep putting up ATTO seasons for a while.
Baseball is an ever-evolving sport. The TTO prototype has become more common over the past decade as strikeout rates have steadily risen, and as the walk has become increasingly valued. In 2015, that evolution has brought us a crop of young players all at once, each of whom would have been a generational freak in the past. Whether this group is an anomaly of history or a sign of things to come remains to be seen, but this much is clear: We haven’t seen a group like this before, so we should enjoy them while they’re here.