- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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As you probably know, strikeouts continue to climb higher and higher.
In the chart at the right, are strikeouts per game:
As Dave Cameron wrote last week on FanGraphs,
Over the past 30 years, the strikeout rate in MLB has gone from 14.0 percent to the 20.0 percent it stands at today. It took 24 years to move from 14 percent to 17 percent, but it’s only taken six years to move from 17 percent to 20 percent. Those six years correspond perfectly to the PITCHF/x era.
Dave cites a piece from James Gentile that shows called strikes are rising much faster than swinging strikes, the suggestion that perhaps there is a relationship between the installation of the PITCHf/x cameras, their affect on umpires and thus the rapid growth in strikeouts in recent seasons.
Bill James also tossed out a theory that it's natural that strikeouts increase throughout history -- for pitchers, strikeouts are good, so it's a process of natural selection; but for hitters, strikeouts (to a point) aren't necessarily bad. You can strike out and still be a good hitter; but few pitchers succeed long term without striking out a certain percentage of hitters.
All this is very interesting and no doubt holds some truth. But maybe there is a simpler explanation: There are a lot of unbelievably talented young pitchers right now.
Look at the next generation of starters on the way, guys who have made fewer than 15 career starts: Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Hyun-jin Ryu, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Wily Peralta, Dan Straily. That's on top of last year's rookie group that included Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, Wade Miley, Yu Darvish and Wei-Yin Chen.
Look at some other pitchers who debuted since 2008: Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer, Jeff Samardzija, Mat Latos, Doug Fister, Madison Bumgarner, Jordan Zimmermann, Kris Medlen, Brett Anderson, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Alexi Ogando, Jeremy Hellickson, Brandon Beachy and Lance Lynn. Not to mention a plethora of relievers -- led by Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman -- throwing 95-plus mph.
Think of all the advancements that have helped pitchers over the past 20 years -- meaning tools or approaches this generation of young starters has benefited from:
Arms are better protected, not just in the minors and early in major league careers, but on the high school and college levels.
Better coaching, teaching proper mechanics, from the youth levels on up, including private pitching coaches.
Advancements in medicine and injury rehab -- the success rate for Tommy John surgery, for example, has improved.
Video technology. Once used mostly by hitters, now another weapon for pitchers to take advantage of.
Beyond that, these pitchers are bigger, stronger and throw harder than ever before. Consider Harvey, the Mets phenom who has a 2.21 ERA through his first 13 major league starts, with 95 strikeouts in 81.1 innings. He's 6-foot-4, 225 pounds or so. Maybe 25 years ago he's playing basketball or packs on 50 pounds and becomes an offensive lineman in football. Now more guys like him are playing baseball.
Some of these up-and-coming stars take the hill tonight. The guy to watch is Fernandez, the 20-year-old rookie for the Marlins who was in high school two years ago. He's been terrific in his first two starts, throwing mid-90s fastballs and showing a good feel for pitching. (He opposes Reds rookie Tony Cingrani, just called up to replace the injured Cueto; in three Triple-A starts, he didn't allow a run and struck out 26 in 14.1 innings.) Teheran faces the Pirates. And then Friday we have must-watch TV: Harvey against Strasburg at Citi Field.
Eric Karabell and I discuss five of these guys in the video above. Here's how I would rank them:
1. Matt Harvey, Mets. After 10 successful starts last year, Harvey's first three outings have been pure domination. Right now, he doesn't look like a future ace, but is already an ace. His fastball averages 94 and hits 97. Now, he has faced the Padres (without their two best hitters), the Phillies and the Twins so far, so we should restrain our enthusiasm a little bit until he faces better lineups, but if his changeup continues to improve -- and batters are 0-for-14 against it so far -- watch out.
2. Jose Fernandez, Marlins. Despite the lack of experience, he pitches with the confidence of a veteran. He matches Harvey with his mid-90s velocity and relies on a curveball as his primary off-speed pitch. He's thrown his changeup only 16 times in two starts, but if he masters that pitch, well ... watch out.
3. Shelby Miller, Cardinals. He pitched Wednesday night, retiring 15 Pirates in a row at one point. He's another fastball/curveball guy, although his fastball is a tick below what we've seen from Harvey and Fernandez. After a rough first half at Triple-A in 2012, Miller seemed to put everything together down the stretch. His strong start -- .169 average allowed, 18 K's and 5 walks in three starts -- bodes well that his command continues to improve.
4. Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers. The rookie from Korea doesn't throw as hard as these guys, but has shown to be as advertised: A polished left-hander in the David Wells mode (which includes physique as well as stuff).
5. Julio Teheran, Braves. The one guy of these five who has struggled so far. He had a monster spring training (26 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 9 BB, 35 SO) but it hasn't translated to a successful start, as he still has issues commanding his off-speed stuff.
If you haven't seen any of these guys pitch, check them out. And you'll understand one reason why strikeouts are still on the rise.