The 2013 season is not yet two months old, but it is already continuing a trend: Strikeout rates have risen, generally, for 90 years, but the past decade has been remarkable. Each of the last five seasons has set a new record for most strikeouts — ever. Though data from the first six weeks of the season won’t necessarily play out through the summer, when hitters generally heat up, the strikeout rate is up again in 2013. This spring, more than one in five plate appearances has ended in a strikeout.
“They’re not paying attention to strikeouts, but more attention to, ‘You gotta hit 20 home runs,’ ” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “It was always a kind of thing of pride to not strike out. If you’re gonna strike out, at least do it swinging; don’t be taking. But for some reason, it seems like a lot of guys — not just on my club — it’s, ‘Swing hard in case you hit it.’ ”
The rise in strikeouts has roots in myriad factors, from hitters’ approach in individual at-bats to pitchers’ physical abilities to organizational philosophy. And this is, without question, not a blip. Bill James, the groundbreaking baseball historian and statistical analyst, conducted a study last year that asked the question: Are we near the point at which these trend lines will break, and strikeouts will stop going up?
“I wish I could tell you the answer is yes, but it isn’t,” James said in an e-mail exchange. “The answer is, ‘No, we are nowhere near the point at which these trends — which have been in motion since the mid-1920s — are going to change.’ Strikeouts are probably going to continue to go up and up over the next decade.”
Baseball, it has long been noted, is the only American team sport in which the defense has the ball. The pitcher, then, figures to have the most impact on a potential strikeout. And there are a slew of advantages that pitchers now have over hitters.
“You see guys with five pitches now,” Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Lefties are facing lefties in the sixth inning. The starter doesn’t go eight innings anymore, so you don’t always see the same guy three times, and the guys that come in [in relief] throw 95 [mph] and also throw a cutter, a sinker, a curveball, a change-up. And these guys talk on TV all the time about how it’s not acceptable to strike out 100 times a year. Well, I wouldn’t strike out if the guy threw a heater and a curveball.”