What once was a gentle breeze has turned into hurricane-force winds.
Major-league hitters are swinging and missing at a record rate, churning up the air at a rate of 15.28 strikeouts per game this season. Just two years ago, the average was 14.2 strikeouts per game — and that was a record at the time.
Or look at it this way: This season, the average pitching staff is compiling 7.68 strikeouts per 9 innings. From 1947-54, no pitcher struck out batters that frequently in a single season; and as recently as 1977, no National League hurler struck out batters that frequently.
Now, the average pitcher does that. While Joe DiMaggio famously struck out 369 times in his career (while hitting 361 homers), Adam Dunn struck out 222 times last year.
Sports Illustrated did a story about this several weeks ago in its Baseball Preview issue, and author Tom Verducci hit the nail on the head in identifying two primary factors: Hitters don’t care about strikeouts these days; and teams are predisposed to filling their staffs with hard throwers.
There is sound reasoning behind both these factors.
Hitters don’t care about strikeouts because strikeouts aren’t the shameful result they once were thought to be. Once upon a time, hitters were taught to do anything they could to put the ball in play. Get two strikes, and you choke up and get the bat on the ball.
But, as the Rays’ Evan Longoria said in the SI story, “If you roll over something because you were just trying to put the ball in play, you’re going to be out more than 95 percent of the time. It’s more about, what can I do to help the team? For me, it’s getting three healthy hacks and using them.”
Or, as somebody else once said, “If you strike out, at least you aren’t grounding into a double play.”
Modern statistical analysis suggests that avoiding strikeouts has little to do with offensive production. Despite the whiffs, OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) is higher these days than it was from the 1960s through the early 1990s — until the Steroids Era.
Hitters now are taught to work deep into the count and wait for a pitch they can drive. The by-product is more walks — in addition to Yu Darvish getting 53 percent of his outs this season by strikeout.
Combined with a change in offensive philosophy is a change in teams’ thinking about pitchers. Statistical analysis has shown that strikeout pitchers have longer, more successful careers than pitchers who don’t throw hard.
Teams draft for this, they develop pitchers in the minors for this, and they mold their major-league staffs for this. There’s little room on a major-league roster these days for the proverbial “crafty junkballer.”
With starters expected to go six innings and be followed by a series of relievers, teams have little use for the guy who can work his way through the lineup four or five times and get by on guile.
Both of these factors are a result of the new thinking that engulfed the sport over the past 30 years. Once somebody started asking questions about the damage of strikeouts and the true effectiveness of “let-’em-hit-it” pitchers, the game was destined to change.
And that’s not necessarily a good thing. Last year, 27.8 percent of plate appearances ended with either a walk or a strikeout.
As one unidentified team executive said in the SI story, “Why don’t we have more fans? Maybe because the most exciting part of the game is when balls are in play, and we don’t have enough balls in play. It is ridiculous.”