Why So Many Strikeouts?
I read this article from SI’s Joe Lemire today in which he attempts to identify the reason why strike outs are so dramatically up this year (the Tigers’ and Red Sox’s staffs are both over a strikeout per inning pitched, which if they continue at their current rates through the end of the season would set the first and second all-time records).
One thing I would add — one reason that batters strike out more now is that the gradual rise of sabrmetrics over the last 30 years has established that batting average is a lot less important to scoring runs than either on-base percentage or slugging percentage. In other words, hitters can help an offense more by hitting a lot of home runs and drawing a lot of walks than hitting for a high average.
Lemire notes that fewer hitters now have a two-strike approach, seeking to hit home runs with two strikes rather than simply putting the ball in play. As a result, he writes, strikeouts with two strikes are up 13% compared to 25 years ago. What he fails to expressly note, although he provides the raw data, is that two-strike home runs are up 24% over the same period.
24% more home runs at the cost of 13% more strikeouts? That sounds like a great trade-off to me, particularly when you take into account the fact that major league defense has steadily improved throughout major league history, meaning that simply putting the ball in play is less likely to result in a base runner than it did 25 or more years ago.
Also, recognition of the value of walks, and the players who draw them, has increased in the last 30 years. Strikeout rates have accordingly increased, because batters who take more close pitches, and thus draw more walks, also tend to strike out more. Anyone who has ever watched baseball on TV knows that major league pitchers throw to the corners, and umpires are anything but consistent in calling those pitches balls or strikes.
SI’s Tom Verducci wrote an article about a month ago in which he attributes the increase in strikeouts to more pitchers mastering the cutter (cut fastball) and two-seam fastball combination. Essentially, the two pitches are both fastballs which tail in opposite directions, making it extremely difficult for hitters to square up either pitch.
On the one hand, I find it hard to believe that major league pitchers haven’t been using different grips on their fastballs to get different movement for any less than the last 100 years. On the other hand, I definitely think there is a higher percentage of major league pitchers today with both the arm strength and the training to throw different fastballs with sharp movement in different directions than ever before.
For example, in Ball Four written in 1970, Jim Bouton strongly suggests that major league pitching coaches of his era were so mediocre that really helpful ones like Johnny Sain were the exception rather than the rule. I doubt that’s the case today. Not every pitching coach today may be as good as the Giants’ Dave Righetti, but most teams now have a pitching coach who can help any pitcher willing to listen.