By Dave Cameron
(Editor's note: Dave Cameron of USS Mariner writes a weekly column for the Brock and Salk blog focusing on baseball from a statistical perspective. Mike Salk writes occasionally for USS Mariner as well).
In the first game of the Rainiers' playoff series against Sacramento, Greg Halman launched a three-run homer that got Tacoma back in a game that they eventually won 10-8. It was the 34th home run he has hit this year, as he's frequently shown the kind of long ball power that the big club just doesn't have. Because of his physical abilities, and the need for the Mariners to get better offensively, Halman is an intriguing player. Well, there's actually one other reason he's so interesting - he swings and misses more than anyone else alive.
In addition to his home run last night, Halman also struck out three times, giving him 172 whiffs on the year. That's a lot, even before you consider that he spent a month on the disabled list. He has struck out in 37 percent of his trips to the plate this year, up from the 32 percent of his career average.
Strikeouts, by themselves, aren't the end of the world. A lot of good hitters strike out a lot. Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, and Mark Reynolds are all among the game's best sluggers, even though they annually are among the league-leaders in whiffs. However, none of those three struck out in the minor leagues nearly as frequently as Halman has. Here are their career minor league numbers, along with several other players that Halman has been compared to over the years.
Ryan Howard: 2,154 plate appearances, 585 strikeouts, 27.2% K%
Mark Reynolds: 1,393 PA, 322 K, 23.1% strikeout rate
Adam Dunn: 1,483 PA, 270 K, 18.2%
Carlos Gonzalez: 2,722 PA, 522 K, 19.1%
Matt Kemp: 1,722 PA, 319 K, 18.5%
Alfonso Soriano: 1,014 PA, 175 K, 17.3%
Greg Halman: 2,229 PA, 716 K, 32.1%
Halman stands out even among this group of prolific strikeout machines. Only Howard was even without shouting distance of Halman's career whiff rate. Trying to find a guy who struck out this often in the minors and had a real big league career is actually very hard. In fact, I can only find one guy in recent history who made it work: Russell Branyan.
In 3,200 minor league plate appearances, Branyan struck out 1,030 times, or 32 percent of the time, just like Halman. Because he couldn't make contact with minor league pitching, teams assumed he'd never be able to make it work at the big-league level, and he played reserve roles his entire career until the Mariners gave him a chance last year at age 33. He's had some success as an everyday player the last two years, but to say that it took a while is a huge understatement.
And Branyan is a better hitter than Halman. Part of why Branyan strikes out so often, besides the big uppercut in his swing, is that he's willing to take pitches and get deep in counts. Guys who walk a lot also strike out a lot, because they find themselves in two strike counts more frequently, where one swing and a miss can result in a K. Halman is not that kind of hitter. He set a career high this year with 38 walks, and has only drawn the free pass in 6.4 percent of his trips to the plate. He's striking out because he frequently chases pitches out of the zone, not because he's working counts and getting in a lot of strikeout situations through his patience.
I know it's tempting to look at Halman's power numbers and hope that he can help the Mariners next year, but unlike Dustin Ackley or Justin Smoak, he's got some pretty serious problems he has to overcome first. He needs at least another year in Triple-A, and he'll have to make some big strides if he's ever going to have a career like Branyan's.