By Joe Lemire
April 18, 2012

Half the time that Padres third baseman Chase Headley steps to the plate, the opposing fielders can take their gloves off, sit down and not have to worry about the baseball being playable.

In his first 50 plate appearances this season (through Monday), Headley walked 12 times, struck out 11 times and homered twice, meaning he exited the batter's box by jogging to first, walking to the dugout or trotting around the bases in 25 -- or half -- of his trips.

He's not alone in San Diego. Padres hitters rank first in the majors in strikeouts and walks.

Padres pitchers, meanwhile, have issued the most walks in the majors and are fifth in strikeouts. Starter Edinson Volquez has struck out 17, walked 12 and allowed one home run in 17 innings, meaning for every four innings he pitches there are seven plate appearances that end without the involvement of a fielder.

San Diego is merely the most extreme case of a league-wide trend: fewer baseballs reaching the field of play.

Walks, homers and strikeouts are baseball's three true outcomes (TTOs), the only events in which no one other than the pitcher, catcher and hitter are involved (save for the occasional home run hit inside the park or off the noggin of Jose Canseco).

While 10 to 12 games per team is an admittedly small sample, so far this young baseball season has seen as few balls in play as in any year of its history.

The 2012 season is in a dead heat with 2000 and 2009 for king of defensive inaction with each team having an average of 11.4 plate appearances per game that result in one of the TTOs.

What's remarkable about the 2012 season is the proportion of strikeouts, 7.28 per team per game, the highest the sport has ever seen. Home runs, which have declined considerably since their high-water mark in 2000, are still being hit at a rate of 0.98 per team per game, which ranks 18th in the 110 seasons of the World Series era. The walk rate (3.11) ranks 76th.

Between the two teams there is an average of 23 strikeouts, walks and homers per game, giving fans plenty of opportunities to make runs to the concession stands without missing a great defensive play (or any defensive play).

There has always been some correlation among the TTOs, starting with the reverence for the home run. Hitters who swat a lot of home runs typically strike out more than those that don't, as the forceful swing needed to propel the baseball into the bleachers will often miss a pitch altogether. Huge strikeout totals are tolerated when a player hits huge numbers of homers (see Reynolds, Mark; Dunn, Adam; Howard, Ryan; Thome, Jim and many others).

Similarly, feared home-run hitters will receive respect and be pitched to carefully and receive more walks. Also, any hitter who walks a lot necessarily goes deep into the count and will see more strikes, too.

From 1999 through 2006 the ratio of strikeouts-to-home runs was less than 6.0 in five of those seven seasons. But 2012 is the third straight season that ratio is greater than 7.4, meaning teams are getting comparatively less power.

Some thoughts on how the increased prevalence of TTOs have impacted the game:

Pace of game. This is probably the biggest change. Fans love home runs but now have to sit through a greater number of strikeouts and walks. All of those extra pitches needed to settle a plate appearance in either a walk or strikeout -- not to mention the time involved in a player's home run trot -- help explain why the pace of the game has slowed in the past two decades. When ranking years with the most TTOs, the top 19 seasons are the past 19 seasons, in some order, from 1994 through 2012.

Reducing the game to one-on-one battles. Many sabermetricians believe TTOs are the best indicators of a pitcher's performance. They stripped everything but TTOs (including hit-by-pitches) in devising Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP) as a substitute for -- and purported improvement on -- ERA. Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Kerry Wood (especially as a starter) are some classic TTO pitchers. Recent examples include Tim Lincecum and Jon Lester.

Declining demand for defense. The impact here is probably small but, with a starting pitcher who has a pronounced strikeout rate on the mound, a club could stack its lineup with offense-first players.

That could help explain -- or at least justify -- why more teams are willing to sacrifice defense for offense, such as the Tigers starting Miguel Cabrera at third base and the Angels doing the same with Mark Trumbo.

Just how many fewer balls in play are there? Since the mid-1950s the smallest rate of TTOs came in 1980 and '81 season, when there were about 17 per game, six fewer than the beginning of the 2012 season.

In June 2011 the website searched for players with TTOs comprising 45 percent or more of their career plate appearances. Of the 14 position players on the list who batted at least 1,000 times, eight remain active and five more played into at least the 1990s. Only Dave Nicholson, who played from 1960 to 1967, was not recent. The active players were the Phillies' Howard and Thome, the White Sox' Dunn, the Orioles' Reynolds, the Rays' Carlos Peña, the Red Sox' Kelly Shoppach and the Yankees' Russell Branyan and Jack Cust (both curently in the minors).

One other notable TTO stalwart -- and the man who inspired Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus to write the article coining the phrase "three true outcome" in 2000 -- was Rob Deer, who had a career TTO of 49.1 percent.

So far in 2012 among the early TTO leaders are Dunn (53 percent), the Athletics' Yoenis Cespedes (52 percent), the Indians' Carlos Santana (51 percent), Reynolds (50 percent), the Dodgers' A.J. Ellis (50 percent), the Tigers' Austin Jackson (49 percent), the Indians' Shelley Duncan (49 percent), the Rays' Ben Zobrist (48 percent), the Cardinals' Carlos Beltran (47 percent), the Yankees' Russell Martin (47 percent) and the Reds' Joey Votto (47 percent).

After an 0-for-4 night with no TTOs on Tuesday night, Headley just missed this list at 46 percent. But the Padres' hitters and pitchers both have a rate of 35 percent, five points greater than the major league average of 30 percent, an unintentional courtesy of saving fielders the hassle of tracking balls all over spacious Petco Park.

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