But as sabermetricians have analyzed the impact of such thinking, they have long made it clear that power hitters who strike out a lot must also have another skill if they’re to be considered truly valuable.
“The tradeoff the guys who strike out a lot make is you have to hit for power, and you have to draw walks,” FanGraphs’ Cameron said.
The quest to draw walks goes back to the “Moneyball”-era Oakland Athletics and other like-minded, sabermetric clubs around the turn of the century. Though lots of the teams that used to try to wear out pitchers by taking pitches and driving up pitch counts — which led to deeper counts, which in turn led to more strikeouts — have now changed course,
“Certainly, there’s not the premium on putting the ball in play like there was 30 or 40 years ago,” said Aaron Boone, an infielder on six teams from 1997 to 2009 and now an ESPN analyst. “And I think, in 2013 as opposed to the ’70s or ’80s, there’s more guys where power is part of their game. Nowadays, there’s a lot of teams where six, seven hitters into the lineup, they’re not up there to put the ball in play. They’re up there to do some damage.”
The traditional thinking, too, is that players should take a different approach with two strikes — choke up on the bat, spread out the stance, put the ball in play. Lots of hitters, though, aren’t willing to do that, in part because they’re not worried about striking out, and they also don’t want to give up on power.
“I’m definitely not swinging with two strikes like I do 2-0, but I wouldn’t say I’m giving up my at-bat and just trying to punch something past the second baseman,” Zimmerman said. “If everybody did that, now it’s, ‘Nobody hits home runs anymore.’ ”
Does it matter?
So as we enter the heart of a season in which more than 36,000 hitters will strike out, there is a fundamental question: Do strikeouts matter?
“I don’t see why people say that it doesn’t matter,” Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. “Nobody can tell me there’s not a difference when you have the infield back in the first inning with one out, and instead of hitting the groundball to second base and having a run trot home, you strike out. There’s a difference.”
That, of course, applies to a specific situation. But over the course of a game or a series or a season, sabermatricians can show that pitchers with high strikeout rates are more valuable than those who rarely strike out hitters. However, hitters “who strike out,” writes James, “tend to be not only as effective as hitters who don’t strike out but, in general, a little more effective, since they draw more walks and hit more homers.
“These two facts create an asymmetrical pressure in the game. Teams are always looking for strikeouts, and strikeout pitchers have ‘survival advantages’ in the game. But teams are not looking, particularly, for guys who don’t strike out, and low-strikeout hitters have no survival advantage, on the average.”
So that “sense of pride” hitters once had about not striking out? It’s largely gone, and strikeouts have become a sexy part of the game. The top 10 strikeout pitchers in the early part of this season is littered with some of the game’s biggest draws: Texas’s Yu Darvish, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez and the Mets’ Matt Harvey, etc.
“Some of those guys,” Boone said, “it’s appointment TV for me.”
It is, too, unlikely to reverse course. How long, though, can the strikeout rate continue to rise?
“There probably is a tipping point, and maybe baseball is better off with more contact,” FanGraph’s Cameron said. “But I don’t think we see a lot of evidence that it’s bad for the game. It hasn’t hurt attendance or television ratings. . . . There’s some number where it’s too high. But at 20 percent, I think we’re okay. There’s still enough action, especially if a guy who strikes out hits a home run in his next at-bat.”