There was an article in the New York Times today about the “mysterious” increase in strikeout rates in recent seasons. It doesn’t seem like a very big mystery to me.
The rise of sabermetrics since the late 1990’s has established the idea throughout MLB that strikeouts by hitters really aren’t that big of a deal, at least if they increase because hitters are also hitting with more power and drawing more walks.
In the early days of professional baseball, when home runs were rare and errors were many, teams hated hitters that struck out a lot. Since few players hit large numbers of home runs, they were not as highly valued as they became after 1920, and even weakly hit balls had a chance of falling in for hits or being muffed by fielders, whose fielding gloves were more akin to handball gloves than the baseball mitts in use now.
As players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger and the equipment better, a much lower percentage of weakly hit balls fall in for hits or are dropped by fielders. Also, more ground balls are turned into double plays today, which has decreased the relative disadvantage of striking out as compared to making an out while putting the ball in play.
MLB should have learned a lot sooner after the advent of the so-called “lively ball” era that strikeouts are a small price to pay for more home runs and higher on-base percentages. For example, between 1918 and 1941 Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx led the American League in strikeouts a total of 12 times.
Both hitters took a lot of pitches waiting for a pitch they could drive and also drew a lot of walks because they were good at laying off pitches off the plate. As a result, their strikeout totals were also high, at least for their eras. However, teams apparently only learned that striking out a lot was O.K. only if a player hit like a Ruth or a Foxx.
MLB is an extremely conservative industry. Batting average was highly overvalued and the ability to draw walks highly undervalued at least until the 1980’s.
Sure, there were always a few major league players, like Maxie “Camera Eye” Bishop and Eddie “The Walking Man” Yost, whose ability to draw walks was so exceptional that they were able to hold down major league starting jobs for years in large part based on their ability to get on base. However, in their eras they always had a certain number of detractors in and around MLB who felt there was something not quite kosher about players who got on base regularly without hitting the ball, and they were often accused of being “lazy” or somehow dishonest.
That has obviously changed today, and players who strike out a lot and hit for relatively low batting averages are acceptable major league hitters if they also hit for power and draw a lot of walks.
The fact that strikeout rates are still going up, while home run rates have declined and walk rates of have leveled off in recent years, is probably a result of the degree to which MLB as a whole no longer much cares if young hitters strike out a lot so long as they hit for power and get on base. Home runs are obviously down because fewer hitters are using performance enhancing drugs (“PEDs”). Walk rates have probably leveled off as a result of the fact that more teams are looking for pitchers who can command the strike zone as hitters as a group take more pitches and also the fact that with fewer PED-fueled sluggers in the game, fewer batters are being pitched around.
Major league hitters are definitely taking more pitches today than they did a few years ago. During the last five seasons (2008-2012), hitters averaged 3.82 pitches per plate appearance, and the number in any of the five seasons was never lower than 3.81 or higher than 3.83 pitches per plate appearance, according to espn.com’s statistics. Meanwhile, between 2002 and 2007, the average was 3.76 pitches per plate appearance and was never lower than 3.74 or higher than 3.77 pitches per plate appearance during the six-year period.While that is not a particularly large increase (about 1.6%), it is an increase.
For the time being, I don’t see any reason to think the trend in increased strikeout rates will end unless MLB becomes concerned about the more recent drop in average OPS numbers (it’s been down the last three seasons) and does something to improve offense, like lower the pitcher’s mound or re-shrink the strike zone.