The New York Times newsletter had an interesting article Parade of Strikeouts recently. The article talks about the positive of the recent rule changes and concludes that more changes are needed. So lets discuss.
The great golfer Bobby Jones stood watch over his creation Augusta National until his passing. In 1965 Jack Nicklaus was in the process of carding a record low score at the course. Golf had changed dramatically since Jones’ playing days. The balls were firmer. Hickory shafts had gone the way of the Dodo replaced by stepped steel. Nicklaus was hitting the ball into places the designer Alister MacKenzie could not have dreamed. When asked about Nicklaus’ dissection of the course Jones replied in his egalitarian southern drawl; “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”
Earl Weaver, the proponent of the Three-Run Home Run would not be familiar with today’s game. His American League pennant team in 1971 team hit 158 homers while striking out 844 times in the Neandertal years of Pitchers batting. The Phillies this year hit 220 homers, an increase of 39%. But, the strikeouts increased by a full 75% to 1481. Where this really manifests itself if in the pitching side of the house. In 1971 Weaver’s team used 13 pitchers all season. This year the Phils doubled that using some 26 different hurlers. Starting pitchers for the Phillies accounted for only 54% of all the innings pitched. Back in 1971 the Orioles’ starters accounted for 76% of all innings. The step changes involved are dramatic.
Nellie Foxx struck out 216 times over a 19-year career. That was one strikeout every 48 times at bat. Kyle Schwarber struck out 215 times THIS YEAR. Every 3.3 at bats Scwarbs would whiff. These are two different universes.
A supposedly timeless game is now one with which few are familiar.
Ray, for those of us who enjoyed baseball 30-60 years ago (some longer), it is shocking at how the strikeout/contact game has changed so much. I loved watching Rod Carew back in the day.
There really is a value of BABIP and strikeouts are just a waste of an at-bat. Some credit to the pitchers that they added more to their repertoires making it harder to know what was coming. I think Roy Halladay had seven different pitches. If you use the same release point and can tunnel pitches, I get that the game is tougher today for batters — but seeing Ks at a higher rate than BA is a stain on this great game.
Great points by both of you. The game has certainly changed over time. One of the reasons I like the new rules and the pitch clock is because it is returning the game to the way it used to be played. But as the NYT article suggested, MLB still needs to do something to increase the action.
Cutting down on Ks would be a good thing. Part, but not all IMO, of the increase in Ks is due to more pitchers per game and more pitchers who throw mid/high 90s (and faster). Frank Howard commented that when he struck out in the 69-71 seasons he would make sure to avoid making eye contact or getting close to Ted Williams – because Williams hated Ks and thought it was a wasted PA/AB.
The BABIP point is also spot-on IMO. I don’t subscribe to the theory that BABIP is mostly about luck. Some players simply know how to hit-em-where-they-ain’t. We need more of that IMO.
I decide to do a different display of data. I used MLB Batting Year-by-Year Averages from Baseball Reference. I then converted the data to be per PA and then calculated the percent change since 1961 and generated two graphs: one of just HRs and Ks, and one that contained all the hits, along with Walks and Ks.
I look at that strikeout graph starting in 2005 and have to wonder what caused it to start climbing like that. A direct cause-and-effect may be difficult to find. Circumstantial or not the Trackman system for evaluating spin and movement was introduced in the 2003-2005 time frame for golf. Ex-Nats pitcher Zach Day had a hand in adapting the technology to baseball. Suddenly spin rates were a topic of discussion beyond the qualitative. Add a little sticky stuff, a visit to some pitching development center, and the increase in effectiveness followed. It’s one thing if one team or a handful of pitchers do it. But, things change systemically when everyone in the system does it.
Add in the analytics folks saying strikeouts aren’t really bad. (They’re full of it, BTW.) Bunts are bad. Moving the runner over doesn’t matter. Just whack that ball at a good launch angle as Home Runs beat everything. Suddenly both sides of the hitting equation have gravitated towards strikeouts.
What’s not on the chart is a measure of average velocity. Modern pitchers hurl each pitch as if it were a Labour of Hercules. Contact is to be avoided. The days of the old sinker-ballers serving up ground balls by design are so last century. The scapula loading and inverted “L” approach combined with consistent maximum effort have left a trail of injured arms in its wake. The Ulnar Collateral Ligament surgery that rescued Tommy John‘s career was radical and extreme when first performed in 1974. Today it almost a rite of passage for young pitchers. It would be interesting to see if there’s a correlation between the K curve, velo, and the incidence of TJ surgeries.
That graph proves out how the home run game (post-PEDs) is still up in the launch angle, and “swing for the fences” era. I don’t see the game changing much back to more triples than home runs but with speed game coming back — I do think we will see more singles stretched to doubles and doubles into triples.
Great points. Let me take a couple in turn. On your question Ray about TJ surgeries, I first have to say correlation does not mean causation; but it quite often means an underlying factor driving both. I found some data on TJ counts (which may or may not be accurate or reliable – if a commenter has a better data source, I can update the graph). A plot of HRs vs TJ count (or vice versa is too random) so I did plots with two y-axes vs year. Clearly they go up in synch. And the spike down in 2020 is clearly due to the shorter season.
More interested to me would be plotting the share of total runs due to HRs as well as average pitch speed (recognizing that the change in technology will have an impact). I am still searching for such data.
I agree with your point Steve that lots of HRs is going to continue. As the chart below shows, as HRs have increased, the combined number of other hits is in a small decline. Hopefully that changes. Other hits means more action and MLB clearly needs more action (i.e., I agree with the closing comment of the NYT article that more action is needed).
Living and dying by the long ball is the new baseball reality. This post season gives a good summary: The Phillies lived large on the dinger…until they didn’t. It’s now a mindset. Look no farther than Bryce Harper in Game 7 against the Diamondbacks in the 7th inning. His team is down two runs. There are runners on 1st and 2nd. Harper hits a high fly ball to center field. Inning over. Threat over. Season down to a few outs. Harper’s take on it post-game is very telling.
“I got the pitch I wanted. Hit it 109 (mph) at 44 (degrees)…just missed it…1/10th of a second late.” Home Run or bust. Nothing about trying to barrel a ball, make contact for a soft single to get a run home and keep the line moving. Instead he channeled his inner Maxwell Smart: “I just missed it.” So he got to watch the D-backs party on his field as a result. The same D-Backs that scored 4 runs without a dinger, did supposedly obsolete stuff like bunt, and stole bases by the carton.
It’s a stupid approach to baseball that takes away all situational awareness. All the Phillies needed was a little line drive single in that situation to cut the lead and set the stage for a tie. Nah. Gotta’ “Swing from the heels but stay in your shoes.” Enjoy the off-season, Bryce. That little-ball team is going to the Big Show. You’re not.
I had a commentor on Twitter making this point. It was a Phillies fan responding to me that the Phillies live/die on the boom/bust cycle of their hitters. When good pitching shuts down good hitting it is one thing — but there is proof that Harper just missed a dead red 95.7 fastball and represented the winning run as you pointed out. He missed the pitch with an all-or-nothing swing. A double ties that game — just saying — and moves the line to the next batter with runners on 2nd and 3rd.
This is the “hero or zero” approach that Harper takes in big games. Longer swing and more dip and dive to the ball — and of course last year he beat the Padres on that same exact pitch and was the hero.
Yea, it seems like swinging for the fences more often than necessary has become the mindset of many players. On Bryce’s comment, a hit in the gap almost certainly scores two runs and gives the the Phillies the lead. Tony Gwynn and Williams are not longer with us and can’t comment on that mindset. But I wonder what someone like Derek Jeter would say?
The chart above is pretty telling. HRs are way up and, in aggregate, Singles, Doubles and Triples are in decline. A balance is needed. If the trend continues, I think the games will not have enough action to attract the fans it needs.
What, if any, Changes are Needed Moving Forward
First things first; MLB isn’t going to do anything about this. They like the home runs. So much so that I firmly believe they juiced the ball this season. The suits in New York were having rotator cuff issues from patting themselves on the back for this years suite of changes. And, they got pretty much instantaneous validation in attendance and viewership. The odds of them doing anything else in the near or immediate term are slim and none…and Slim left town.
Don, your comment is spot-on. Less and less action will lead to lower interest in time. It compounds the situation where so much strategy has been stripped from the game by the Universal Designated Hitter. It’s turning into a much less cerebral game.
Occam’s Razor posited that the simplest fix is most likely the best. This situation is easy to correct. All they would have to do is deaden the ball by a good bit. There are too many guys hitting dingers by the bushel basket. “It’s all about the launch angle, Baby.” But, that’s not how things were. Hank Aaron hit down on the ball imparting backspin and subsequent lift like a golf ball. If the ball was significantly deadened a lot of players would abandon the mantra of home runs. That launch angle alone won’t get the ball to the fences except for Big Boppers. They are always going to get theirs. Pitchers suddenly aren’t afraid to pitch-to-contact to the back half of the lineup. More balls would be in play. More non-home run hits would ensue. And, maybe Starting Pitchers could last longer than 4.86 innings. None of that is going to happen, however.
We’re going to be stuck with this for a good long time.
Steve: The shirt said it all, “Chicks dig the longball” and plenty of dudes do also. They say home runs get you paid. I think Adam Dunn would be more appreciated today then he was 15 years ago, just saying. Ray, great point about technique and different players have to rely on backspin that the boppers don’t. That is why it isn’t a one-size fits all game. A reason I have a problem with hitting coaches that only teach one philosophy.
I wouldn’t mess with the game any more. But teams can change their field dimensions to change to their advantage. We saw it in Baltimore in left field.
Don: The NYT article concluded with suggestions like shrinking the strike zone, lowering the mound or dropping the number of pitchers to 11. I am not a fan of those approaches. But if the tendency that more and more runs are due to HRs, especially solo HRs continues, I fear that baseball will become less and less attractive to sports fans because there is going to be less action. I don’t think small ball and the power game are mutually exclusive. I fear that the game is heading toward more teams trying to create lineups where a majority of the batters are trying to hit HRs all the time. Just like what Harper did in the Phillies final loss – a single ties the game, a double in the gap gives the Phillies the lead. But his mindset was he had to hit a HR.
Launch angles are great. But with the recent passing of Frank Howard, I was reminded that a big strong guy (e.g., Stone Garrett, James Wood, etc.) can hit lots of line drive HRs.
And permit me to close that if a commenter can point to historical data of runs from HRs vsl other hits, I will be glad to add some graphs of that to the article or the comments. Likewise on pitch speed.