If April was any indication, there could be more than strikeouts than hits in a season for the first time in major league history. Strikeouts, once frowned upon, have become part of the game’s natural progression in 2018.
Last year, batters struck out in 21.6 percent of their plate appearances, a major league record. This season, that has risen to 22.6 percent, which, if sustained, would be the 11th straight year in which the strikeout rate has increased. Batting averages, meanwhile, have dropped from .269 in 2006, the first year Major League Baseball instituted its leaguewide drug testing policy, to .245 heading into Friday night’s games. That would be the lowest in a season since 1972.
“One month is a rather small sample and we are hoping that the phenomenon of strikeouts exceeding hits is an anomaly that will not persist over the course of the season,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an email to the Associated Press.
Sorry Mr. Commissioner, but there’s no reason to expect it will change anytime soon.
Start with the increased degree of difficulty for batters. Hitters face more-specialized relievers than ever before, with fresher arms available earlier in the game. In 2006, teams used 3.85 pitchers per game. This season, that number is 4.33, which would be the highest in major league history. The less often a hitter sees a pitcher in a particular matchup, the worse they do. For example, in 2017 pitchers allowed a .243 average with a .724 on-base-plus-slugging percentage the first time through the order but allowed a .269 average with an .801 OPS the third time through. With more pitchers in each game, hitters aren’t enjoying the benefit of progressive familiarity.
In addition, more and more batters are tailoring their swings to hit home runs by launching the ball hard in the air. As a result, pitchers are less likely to stay in the strike zone: As a group they threw 52 percent of their pitches in the zone in 2006 and were targeting the zone just 43.4 percent of the time entering Friday night’s games. Meanwhile, hitters have become less afraid of chasing those pitches. Twelve years ago, hitters swung at 23.1 percent of pitches out of the zone; that has jumped to 29.6 percent in 2018.
Plus, umpires are better at calling strikes. A decade ago, the first year data is available, less than 75 percent of pitches in the strike zone were called strikes, but that has since improved to 85 percent in 2017 and more than 86 percent this season. Plus, pitchers are inducing more swinging strikes (10.7 percent vs. 8.7 percent in 2008) than ever before.
Called strike rates in strike zone (TruMedia)Some may “dig the long ball,” and others may find strikeouts “sexy,” but the emphasis on the former has helped increase the latter. MLB is confronted with a scenario in which hitters are shuffling back to the dugout after strike three more often than they are sprinting to first base. And that doesn’t even mention an increase in walks in recent years. The problem for baseball: That makes for a pretty boring game. In fact, once you account for the three true outcomes — home runs, walks and strikeouts — as a percentage of all plate appearances, more than a third of the outcomes don’t involve the fielders. And that’s troublesome to at least one MLB executive.
“From an entertainment value, does this concern me? Yes, it does,” a head of baseball operations for a major league team told the New York Post. “We need, as an industry, to make the game more watchable and I am not sure we are trending in that way.”