Josh Willingham and Pedro Alvarez own two of the top three strikeout rates in the major leagues so far in 2011.
There is a bit of a paradox when it comes to high strikeout rates. For pitchers, they are a sign that the player is a quality hurler. Yet batters with high strikeout rates are often among the best in the game. Sluggers from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson to Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard came under criticism for their propensity to K. All of these player share the traits, however, of sending the ball out of the park and drawing a good number of walks.
Willingham is better at both of those than Alvarez. Josh draws walks in 7.8% of his plate appearances, versus 6.3% for Pedro. That might not seem like much, but Willingham is 50th percentile in walks, while Alvarez comes in at about the 38th percentile. Among the top ten in strikeout percentage, Pedro owns the third lowest walk rate.
The big difference can be seen in how they light up the strike zone with power:
The difference in walks and power means that Josh sports a .316 wOBA, poor but not terrible, while Alarvez comes in with a .216 mark. This is the key to the paradox. Hitters who strike out a great deal can be successful if they contribute in other ways. Batters like Alvarez, without power or the ability to get on base, do not last in the majors. Over time, we only see the successful strike out kings. The ones who can't do anything else go back to the minors.