White Sox ace Chris Sale knows he's in control with two strikes. "You can throw it over the batter's head, below his feet, behind him," says the South Side southpaw. "You can do anything you want." Why so cocky? Since 2006 -- and especially last year -- there's been a shift in the balance of power with two strikes, leading not only to more K's but also to worse at-bats, period. What's up with hitters today?
They're psyched out
Eight-time NL batting champ Tony Gwynn notwithstanding, most of the best hitters of the past quarter-century have been just average when facing a two-strike count -- we're talking even Derek Jeter (.230) and Albert Pujols (.258). And 2012 marked the sixth consecutive season that the two-strike BA dropped, all the way to .178. In MLB's mental game, bad endings have a way of leading to more bad endings. "It's two strikes -- you've only got one to go" is how Brewers 2B Rickie Weeks, a .172 guy with that pressure on, describes the thinking.
They face flames early, middle and late
Average fastball velocity increased in each of the past four seasons, to 91.8 mph in 2012, according to FanGraphs. And the heat isn't relieved once you drive the starter out of the game. "When I was coming up, you had the closer and a setup man throwing 95," Weeks says. "Now you've got five guys in the bullpen throwing 95-plus." Relievers have also grown more efficient -- last year's BBs/9 innings (3.46) was their lowest in three decades, while K's/9 innings has risen every year since 2005 -- letting them challenge, and beat, hitters in any inning.
They swing and they ...
... miss. Last season only 18.7 percent of pitches were put into play, a 25-year low, and the percent of swings and misses has increased every year since 2005. Need more proof that pitchers are getting ahead and batters can't catch up? The trend of more 0-2 counts (15,751, most in 25 years) comes with the trend of fewer walks (14,709, least in 26 years), there has been a strikeout record set every year since 2008 and OBP has dropped every year since 2006. The Diamondbacks' Martin Prado says it best: "Baseball is getting harder and harder."
They're swingin' for nothin'
"When I came up, a strikeout was a failure. In today's culture, a strikeout is okay," Gwynn says. Credit a hangover from a long steroids era that instilled an appetite for swinging for the fences. "Teams are more tolerant of strikeouts if you're hitting homers and driving in runs," Angels catcher Chris Iannetta says. But if RBIs once made up for K's, free swinging isn't productive anymore. To be exact, since 2006 two-strike OPS has dropped each year, to .517, the lowest in 23 years. Take it from Chris Sale: Today it's the pitchers who have all the power.