Two interesting columns from ESPN today on the dramatic increase in the frequency of batters striking out - and the lack of increased production accompanying it - over the past three decades or so. First, from David Schoenfield:
Strikeouts taking over baseball
Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some groundballs -- it's more democratic. --Crash Davis to Nuke LaLoosh in "Bull Durham"
Baseball as we would recognize it today began in 1893, the year the pitching box was replaced by the pitching rubber, at 60 feet and 6 inches from home plate. This effectively changed the release point of a pitcher’s delivery by about 5½ feet. Legend has it this was done because Amos Rusie -- nicknamed "The Hoosier Thunderbolt" -- threw so hard he was terrifying batters with his fastball, which he didn’t exactly locate with precision.
The effects, of course, were dramatic: Scoring in the National League increased from 5.1 runs per game to 6.6; strikeouts per nine innings decreased from 3.3 to 2.2. As for Rusie, his strikeout rate declined from 5.1 in 1892 to 3.9 in 1893. He was suddenly a bit less terrifying, although still one of the best pitchers in the league. And as for the hitters, they owned the pitchers. They walked nearly twice as often as they struck out that year and the hitting style of the day was to put the ball in play -- a switch-hitting infielder for the Brooklyn Grooms named Tom Daly led the NL in strikeouts with just 65.
The pitchers have caught up a bit since 1893. So far this season, 50 players have already struck out 65 times. Last season, 88 players struck out at least 100 times, including the following: Brett Gardner (101 strikeouts, five home runs), Dexter Fowler (104 strikeouts, six home runs), Ronny Cedeno (106 strikeouts, eight home runs), Michael Bourn (109 strikeouts, two home runs), Chone Figgins (114 strikeouts, one home run) and Austin Jackson (170 strikeouts, four home runs).
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Strikeouts in and of themselves, of course, aren’t necessarily a bad thing for a hitter. Babe Ruth led the AL five times in strikeouts. So did Mickey Mantle. Jimmie Foxx led the AL seven times. In the late '60s and '70s, a group of power hitters took strikeouts to a new level, however. Reggie Jackson struck out 171 times in 1968. Bobby Bonds set records of 187 in 1969 and 189 the following season. Mike Schmidt challenged that mark with 180 in 1975. The catch is this: All those guys were great hitters. Bonds even led the league in runs scored in 1969 and scored 134 runs the next season. The strikeouts were a tradeoff to their production.
Unfortunately, that group spawned another type of power hitter, guys like Rob Deer and Jim Presley and Bo Jackson and Cory Snyder and Pete Incaviglia who weren’t in the same class as hitters. These guys may have popped 20 to 30 home runs, but often did it with subpar on-base percentages or meager batter averages. The strikeouts were a means to more home runs, but not necessarily better production.
As home runs started increasing in the '90s during the so-called Steroid Era, so did strikeouts: In 1992, teams averaged 4.12 runs per game, about the same as 2011. They struck out 5.6 times per game in 1992; now they strike out 7.0 times per game. Yes, more home runs are hit than in 1992, but run scoring isn’t up from 1992 levels and neither are walks rates (in fact, they’re slightly less, 3.3 in 1992 to 3.2 in 2011).
So this gets to the crux of my issue: Strikeouts are boring, at least when at levels we’re seeing in 2011. There are three more strikeouts per game than 20 years ago, which may not seem like a big difference, but it is. It’s fewer balls in play, it’s more pitches, it’s more replays of guys trudging back to the dugout instead of diving catches in the outfield or middle infielders ranging deep in the hole to make a play. All the extra strikeouts aren’t adding more excitement and intrigue to watching baseball; more balls in play mean a larger variety of events, which makes for a better sport to watch. It’s no different than the deluge of home runs that turned baseball into slow-pitch softball. Too much of anything makes for a less interesting sport. (This isn’t to say that it’s not exciting watching Justin Verlander blow hitters away or Cliff Lee confound hitters with his control or Clayton Kershaw on a roll.)
To add some perspective to the overall rise of the strikeout, let's make a quick switch to the conversation and move from K/9 to the total percentage of plays that end with a strikeout.
That done, this year pitchers are striking out batters 18.4 percent of the time, slightly lower than last year's 18.6 percent, but in the same vicinity, and that's consistent with the steady increase in strikeouts we've seen over the past 30 years. For the sake of comparison, in 1980 batters were being struck out 12.7 percent of the time, which represents an inflation rate for strikeouts of a little more than 46 percent over three decades.
Just in case you've got the Year of the Pitcher, 1968, up on a pedestal (or a higher mound), for the sake of comparison you'll find that was when batters were striking out 16 percent of the time. Not shabby, but that's a clip major league hitters shot past in the early '90s without looking back. Of course, not even lowering the mound had a critical impact on MLB's overall strikeout rates -- it took adopting the DH in 1973 to really bring it down to where it was in 1980.
Heck, thanks to the power of Baseball-Reference.com, let's run this as a little quick and dirty table, moving through five-year increments starting in 1980 on up to last year, with 1968 and 2011 tacked on for good measure. K% is self-explanatory, while BIP% is the rate of balls in play; Mr. Average is an example of an ERA title qualifier whose K% was around MLB-average that year.
The result: Strikeouts? Up, up, up. Balls in play? Not too coincidentally, down, down, down.
I won’t pretend to claim exactitude in my selections of “Mr. Average,” since I went for people with name recognition close to the MLB-average strikeout rate. That said, I don’t think I’d be hazarding all that shocking a guess if I suggested that the guys at the end of this table throw harder than the guys at the beginning.
Having thrown all this out there, there are three additional areas worth touching on: The changes in how often you'll see pitcher's counts and how often then wind up a strikeout, the changing use of bullpens and relievers, and the impact of what all these strikeouts mean in terms of balls in play and particularly in terms of defense.
Both links feature more of the columns than I've quoted here. So what do people think of this? I'm inclined to agree with Schoenfield: I think it's making baseball rather boring. I appreciate good pitching as well as the next guy, but I don't think that's the whole explanation here. And I also appreciate good defense and good hitting, and an increase in strikeouts implies a decline in both of those. So what can or should be done about it?
I don't think any rule adjustments concerning how the game is played are necessary like after 1968, when pitching was so dominant the height of the mound was altered, because like I said, I don't think dominant pitching is the issue here. Like Schoenfield argues, run production isn't down since the early 1990s, even though strikeouts are way up, and that tells me it's more on the hitters than it is the pitchers. Obviously we could just say managers should place more emphasis on guys who can make contact consistently, but why aren't they?
I think you can partially blame (if you want to call it that) the increased emphasis on maximizing on base average. The easiest way to guarantee a trip to 1B is to get a walk from the pitcher. However, in order to do so, you need to watch at least 4 pitches go past you. If you get too selective with the pitches, it's easier for a pitcher to strike you out. Compare Vlad Guerrero, who has swung at 60% of all pitches thrown to him (that includes a swing rate of 45% on pitches outside of the zone) and has a strikeout rate of 11.6%, and Bobby Abreu, who has swung at only 33% of the pitches thrown to him (and only swings at 50% of the pitches that are in the strike zone), and has a strikeout rate of 22.6%.
Better athletes today but worse "players" in baseball. I don't mind strikeouts when they result from a great battle between pitcher and hitter. When it's from a batter just hacking away, I am bored to tears. Maybe the post-steroids era will result in more small ball and less swinging for the fences but I doubt it.
Baseball is MY sport but I find today's game less compelling than when I was growing up.
When the player in question is producing well, but making a lot of his outs by K's, it really doesn't matter. Adam Dunn before 2011 was a great example. Huge power numbers, lots of walks, so who cares if he K's or grounds out weakly or pops up to RF?
What's insane this year is how many terrible players are K'ing like crazy. The K's really don't change anything, but it certainly looks awful and is likely a sign that these previously good players (Figgins comes to mind) are having some sort of issue with recognition and reaction.
Originally posted by spfWhen the player in question is producing well, but making a lot of his outs by K's, it really doesn't matter. Adam Dunn before 2011 was a great example. Huge power numbers, lots of walks, so who cares if he K's or grounds out weakly or pops up to RF?
The problem, as detailed in Scheonfield's column, is that this isn't the case:
Originally posted by David SchoenfieldIn 1992, teams averaged 4.12 runs per game, about the same as 2011. They struck out 5.6 times per game in 1992; now they strike out 7.0 times per game. Yes, more home runs are hit than in 1992, but run scoring isn’t up from 1992 levels and neither are walks rates (in fact, they’re slightly less, 3.3 in 1992 to 3.2 in 2011).
So no, production is not up, including walk rates. Maybe with individual players here and there, but this is about an overall trend that has taken over the game.
The K's really don't change anything
Except, in my opinion, they make the game about a billion times more boring to watch. Strikeouts in which a good pitcher overpowers or outsmarts a good hitter are fun to watch. Strikeouts in which a pitcher gets the K because the batters insist upon swinging at anything within a foot of the strikezone are boring.
First, including Bo Jackson among those other players doesn't seem quite right. He was a much more productive hitter than Deer, for example...
Second, there are a lot more strikeouts because there are fresher arms in the game. You have players coming in for less than an inning an appearance...unheard of in the days before the closer. Mickey Lolich completed 29 games in 1971 in 45 starts, and struck out over 300 batters. However, he did it in 376 innings. He had to conserve his arm for all those long games.
Today, a starter may only go 5 or 6 innings at best, he can throw hard the whole way. Three or four pitchers then come in to finish the game, all throwing hard because they know their time on the mound will be short.
And don't change the game, they will adapt.
Mark Grace didn't strike out very much, but I can come up with about 25-30 guys who did strike out a lot more I'd have rather had at first base.
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I'm not sure where I said production was up. My point was more to the idea that there is a stigma that should surround hitters who strike out a lot.
That said, there does seem to be a shift in terms of aiming for power rather than aiming to simply make contact.
In 1992 the overall MLB batting line was 256/322/377/700. With 23,538 K's, 13,682 BB.
In 2010 the MLB batting line was 257/325/403/728. 34,306 K's, 15,778 BB.
One effect of this shift has been that balls put into play become hits more often now than in the early 90's. The BABIP (Batting Average of Balls In Play) rates from 1990-1992 were .287, .285, .285. In the last three years (2008-2010) they have been .300, .299, .297.
Part of this is likely due not so much to guys hacking away, but guys taking more pitches. In 1992 25% of all strikes were called strikes (as opposed to swinging/foul strikes). In 2010, 28% were called. This can be seen most dramatically on first pitches. In 1992 30% of all first pitches were swung on. In 2010, that number was 26%.
So while the trend is not so much actually walking, there is certainly a trend towards trying to walk more, and to make swings more productive when taken.
Originally posted by TheBucsFan Except, in my opinion, they make the game about a billion times more boring to watch. Strikeouts in which a good pitcher overpowers or outsmarts a good hitter are fun to watch. Strikeouts in which a pitcher gets the K because the batters insist upon swinging at anything within a foot of the strikezone are boring.
I can't really think of a way to decrease the number of Ks that wouldn't also lead to an increase in R/G though.
* There are a lot more really good young arms in baseball than ever before. It seems like almost every team has at least a couple of star pitchers either already on the roster or coming up in the minors.
* Baseball has course-corrected itself from not just the steroid era, but also the era of adding four new teams from 1993-1998. That was certainly a major factor in the explosion of offense in that period, particularly since Chase Field and Coors were both such homer-happy ballparks. Before Colorado and Florida joined the league in 1993, pitching was again dominating the game.
* Pitching wins championships. In the unpredictability that is postseason baseball, the surest way to put yourself in position to win a playoff series is to have three good starters. That's what the Yankees did in 2009 by riding Sabathia, Pettitte and Burnett (and having MLB aid this by scheduling them a bunch of off-days, but then again, I hate the Yankees and love conspiracy theories). That's what the Giants did last year despite having a really lousy offensive team.
"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone." --- Bart Giamatti, on baseball
Yeah, the first thought that came to my mind was that "Do they usually do that? If so, I've got to start attending more auctions!" Somehow I doubt she'd be so flirtacious with guys that couldnt afford to drop six-figures for a baseball.