Get a Whiff of This: Strikeouts at an All-Time High
When one takes a look and the landscape of Major League Baseball over the last decade, one can’t help but notice an alarming trend: hitters striking out at an increasingly prolific rate. Strikeouts are among the most inefficient ways to make outs, as putting the ball in play will at least advance runners and/or challenge the defense. How did the trend of turning back to the dugout begin and how bad is it?
FINDING THE ROOT OF THE CAUSE
Between the 90+ mph fastballs, ungodly breaking stuff, and variety of arm angles and pitch types, hitting a baseball is basically a losing endeavor to begin with. The most successful hitters in the world collect hits at a 3 out of 10 rate, which will likely get you fired in most occupations. With that being said, hitters in recent years have seen themselves swinging and missing at an astronomical rate. There’s a variety of factors that have led to the uptick in strikeouts.
First of all, pitchers are flat out throwing harder and harder. According to Fangraphs’ PitchFX data, the average fastball velocity in the MLB has increased from 90.9 in 2008 (the beginning of their data), to 92.4 in 2015 and 2016, which is the fastest they have recorded for the league. Also, hitters have become more and more aggressive and less disciplined. In 2002, batters swung at 18.1% of pitches outside of the strike zone, but in 2014 and 2015, batters swung at more than 30% outside of the strike zone. This has led to an increase in K/9 in every season since 2008, as batters have struck out at a mind-numbing rate of 8.07 K/9 thus far in 2016.
Strikeouts in the MLB are certainly nothing new, as sluggers like Adam Dunn, Mark Reynolds, and Ryan Howard collectively raised the bar on contact futility. In terms of players with 175+ strikeouts in one season, Dunn (7 times), Howard (5 times), and Reynolds (4 times) have done it more times than any other player in MLB history. After the previous decade saw a boom in strikeout numbers, the last few years have seen a league-wide explosion in strikeouts. Batters struck out 37,446 times in 2015, which is the most ever in a season in the MLB. For comparison’s sake, batters in 1981 struck out 13,227 times, which is just 35% of the strikeouts accumulated in 2015.
The strikeout epidemic hasn’t just been limited to a select group of sluggers over recent seasons. In 2015, a total of 54 players had a strikeout rate of 25% or higher (min. 400 PA), the most of all time. Once again, for comparison’s sake, only 15 players had a strikeout rate of 25% or higher in 2003. The number of players with a strikeout rate of 25% or higher has increased each of the last four seasons, as the new wave of power hitters have brought prodigious strikeout rates with them.
ARE STRIKEOUTS ELIMINATING RUNS?
At the end of the day, when the batter strikes out, he is simply just making an out. While the strikeout is inefficient because it doesn’t test the defense, it ends up being just as valuable as a groundout or flyout. While strikeouts are frustrating and somewhat embarrassing, it makes one wonder, do strikeouts directly impact run scoring more than a ball put in play leading to an out? Let’s crunch some numbers below:
STRIKEOUTS (league average per season)
- 2006–2010: 32,925
- 2011–2015: 36,502
RUNS SCORED (league average per season)
- 2006–2010: 22,647
- 2011–2015: 20,498
ON BASE PERCENTAGE
- 2006–2010: .333
- 2011–2015: .318
Do these numbers draw a direct correlation between strikeouts and a lack of run scoring? Not necessarily, but the “big ball” theory that has seemed to take baseball over recently has not been working as well. Whether it’s because of the implementation of a more specialized bullpen, the evolution of power pitching, or just a collective lack of plate discipline, run scoring has progressively dropped over the course of the last five years. Are strikeouts going to happen? Yes. Does that mean a player should make like a windmill at the plate? Absolutely not.