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Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Strikeouts taking over baseball

By David Schoenfield


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 5 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.)

Look, I understand some of this is unavoidable. The quality of pitching today is phenomenal, even compared to 20 years ago, let alone 30 or 40. More starters are throwing in the mid-90s than ever before, and every team seems to have two or three relievers who can throw 95.

Hitters, however, are to blame to a large extent. For too many hitters, their approach is all or nothing, no matter the count or situation. They’re told to be patient and work the pitcher -- which is good -- but they don’t cut down on their swings with two strikes.

Take a guy like Drew Stubbs. He’s on pace to challenge Mark Reynolds’ single-season strikeout record. He’s produced a line of .253/.325/.402, which is OK -- about league average. He plays a good center field so overall he’s still a plus player. But what if he changed his approach a little? With two strikes, he’s hit five home runs -- but at the expense of an overall two-strike line of .145/.213/.231.

At least Stubbs has 20-homer power and draws some walks. The guys who confound me are players like Ian Desmond, Peter Bourjos or Jackson or Fowler, players strike out in huge numbers and yet produce few home runs. Toronto has given over 200 at-bats this year to Rajai Davis, who has a 51/6 SO/BB ratio with just one home run. Astros third baseman Chris Johnson has 70 strikeouts, 10 walks and six home runs.

In his "Historical Baseball Abstract," published in 2001, Bill James wrote a little essay called "Baseball 2015." One of his predictions was, "That the trend toward more strikeouts and more homers from the top of the order to the bottom will also end soon."

Obviously, that hasn’t happened, although I don’t think Bill envisioned the likes of Verlander or Kershaw in 2001. But what we haven’t seen is the return of the high-average singles hitter. Nobody chokes up anymore, few guys work on just punching the ball through the infield and putting the ball play. They’d rather hit .235 with 12 home runs as opposed to .300 with five home runs and a ton fewer strikeouts.

I do think we’ll eventually get back to seeing more of those players. Managers and front offices will realize that today’s pitchers are too good for hitters who don’t have the ability to put the ball in play more consistently. Baseball evolves and players adapt. Hitters had the upper hand in the '90s and much of the '00s (and not just because of PEDs). Pitchers adapted by throwing more changeups and more cutters and organizations worked to keep young pitchers healthier. Hitters will eventually adapt as well and change their style of attacking pitchers.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I want to see too many hitters swinging like this:

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