When Rafael Soriano took the mound to begin the ninth inning of the Washington Nationals’ game on May 8, in stepped Austin Jackson of the Detroit Tigers. At that point, the Nationals clung to a two-run lead. The Tigers needed base runners, and Jackson, over his career, reaches base better than one in three times he comes to the plate — a reasonable chance to start a rally.
But in some ways, what happened next has become among the most predictable developments in any baseball game. Soriano, for his career, averages more than a strikeout per inning. Jackson, for his career, strikes out nearly once every four times he bats. And after falling behind in the count 3-1, Soriano roared back, firing five straight strikes to Jackson, inducing three consecutive foul balls before Jackson finally, helplessly, looked at a 91-mph fastball for strike three.
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.”
A lot to digest, but start with that fastball. The evidence is both anecdotal and quantifiable: Pitchers throw harder now than they ever have before. FanGraphs.com began charting velocities of pitches in 2002. That season, an average fastball clocked in at 89.9 mph. Last season, it was 91.6 mph.
Increases in velocity correspond to increases in strikeouts, according to Dave Cameron of FanGraphs. That, too, has led to an almost across-the-board search for power arms. “Everyone has someone who throws 100,” Cameron said. With good reason: Most organizations now believe pitchers who can make batters miss have the ability to wiggle out of jams that might cost others runs.
“I think it’s very difficult to go into any series with all pitch-to-contact guys relying on their defense, because when you say ‘relying on defense, pitch to contact,’ you’re also relying on a little bit of luck,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It really enhances your chances of not having a big, big inning when you go out there and strike a guy out in a situation where a groundball to shortstop scores a run or a sac fly scores a run and starts a big inning.”
This, too, extends throughout a game. Increasingly, hard-throwing relievers are appearing earlier in games, and managers are willing to play matchups — a lefty on a left-handed hitter, say — in the sixth or seventh inning, rather than just in the eighth or ninth.
Take last year’s National League Division Series between the Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals. In the seventh inning of Game 4, a game Washington had to win to extend its season, Johnson inserted Jordan Zimmermann, who started the second game. This, Rizzo said, is “a prime example of what pitchers can be.” Zimmermann’s fastball normally sits around 93-94 mph, but he can ramp it up.
He got three straight hitters behind 0-2, wasted a ball on each of them, then struck them out on the fourth pitch. He hit 97 mph five times, 96 twice more, and threw three 91-mph sliders.
“I think that’s been the philosophies of a lot of teams,” Rizzo said, “building bullpens from the ninth backwards and getting power guys that can strike you out and they can use two or three games in a row.”
There are, too, under-reported factors that effectively make pitching easier. In 2007, MLB commissioned a company called Sportvision to install cameras that track the velocity and movement of pitches for use on the league’s Web site — a system known as Pitch f/x. That system also maintains knowledge of the strike zone, one on which umpires are evaluated.
“From that, it looks like the strike zone has gotten significantly larger,” said Fangraph’s Cameron. “There’s more called strikes now.”
And pitchers now have access to all that Pitch f/x information, including which hitters tend to swing at particular pitches in particular counts. So they use it.
“When I can get 70-80 percent odds in my favor that on a 2-2 count he’ll chase the breaking ball off the outside corner, or he’ll chase the change-up down, I’ll take those odds every time,” said former Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, an analyst on ESPN whose career spanned from the late 1970s to 1992. “There’s some amazing tendencies that the majority of hitters have that pitchers have knowledge of now, and you incorporate that with better stuff, and I mean, it’s pretty obvious why the strikeout total has gone up, and may continue to go up.”
Through Wednesday’s games, Houston led the majors by striking out 410 times — 38 more than Atlanta, the next-most, and on pace for 1,620, which would blow away the old record of 1,529 set by the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks. The Astros are, admittedly, in the midst of a complete rebuilding project, but they are also an organization that is willing, even long-term, to trade strikeouts for power. And in that, they are not alone.
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.’ ”
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.”