MLB: The falsity of Three True Outcomes

If you’re trying to win MLB games, Three True Outcomes doesn’t work

The foundation stone of the current MLB player development strategy can be synopsized in one phrase: Three True Outcomes.

Swing on an upward arc to maximize distance. Don’t worry about putting the ball in play. Strikeouts are an acceptable price to pay for run production.

These principles have come to govern player development so thoroughly that one entirely salient fact has been almost universally overlooked: Three True Outcomes doesn’t work.

The concept of focusing on Three True Outcomes – home runs, strikeouts, and walks – has been around for close to 20 years now, and as major league front offices have gone more and more SABRmetric, the judgment that it is important has become almost universal.

Perhaps more importantly, MLB players have adopted strategies to maximize it because they see its increased acceptance as the path to higher salaries.

There’s only one problem. The relationship between the Three True Outcomes and actually winning baseball games is extraordinarily weak.

We can measure the strength of the relationship between any two sets of numbers – for example, Three True Outcomes and victories – by using a formula called Regression Analysis. It calculates the strength of that relationship on a scale where 1.0 equals a fully determinative relationship. A score of 0.0, by contrast, indicates no relationship whatsoever.

For MLB’s last five full seasons – 2015 to 2019 – the average relationship between a team’s total of Three True Outcomes and its win total works out to just 0.21. That is, close to meaningless.

Here is the actual strength of the relationship for each of those five seasons:

2019       0.29

2018       0.16

2017       0.22

2016       0.05

2015       0.33

Why does a reliance on Three True Outcomes turn out to be such an illegitimate method of winning a baseball game? The simplest reason is also the most obvious: As a practical matter, Three True Outcomes is an overwhelmingly negative stat.

The Outcomes were founded on the premise of dismissing bat-on-ball contact as leading to more or less random results. It goes on to view the strikeout as merely an acceptable price to pay for power generation. Don’t take my word for it: look at the data.

Since 2015, hitters have homered in about 3.2 percent of their plate appearances. That’s certainly a historically high rate, and it includes a record 6,776 home runs in 2019. That’s four percent of all MLB plate appearances.

But the price those hitters have paid for that additional power can be measured in the whiff rate. Since 2014, that rate has gone from 20 percent to 23 percent. From a raw number standpoint, that’s a tradeoff of 5,382 more strikeouts for 2,590 more home runs, better than a two-to-one negative ratio.

Remember what Earl Weaver said about the preciousness of outs as you ponder that relationship.

In fact, since 2015 strikeouts have consistently represented almost exactly two-thirds of the Three True Outcomes. Home runs, by contrast, have comprised between 8 and 10 percent.

Considering winners of the game’s ultimate prize – the World Series – the falsity of Three True Outcomes as a winning strategy has been even more pronounced. The 2015 World Series winning Kansas City Royals had the fewest Three True Outcomes incidents of any team that season.

The 2017 Houston Astros had that season’s fourth fewest, while the 2018 Red Sox and 2019 Nationals both ranked solidly in the lower half. Only the 2016 Chicago Cubs ranked high in Three True Outcomes among the last five World Series winners.