By Bob Vorwald (@bobvorwald) – WGN Sports Executive Producer
Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic. (Bull Durham – 1988)
If Crash Davis were playing today, he would want to stay in the minors, because major league baseball has been racing toward a true totalitarian state as the number of strikeouts has increased by about 35% over the last 25 years.
If you are a fan of the three true outcomes (walk, home run, strikeout), this is your era. Better plate selection and the emphasis of on-base percentage hasn’t curbed the K’s. Players are seeing more pitches per at bat than a decade ago, but they are going back to the dugout empty-handed at a record pace.
Last year, there were 36,426 strikeouts and 21,017 runs scored across MLB. In 2000, it was 31,356/24,971. Touching the plate is out. Grabbing some bench is in.
Why? Feel free to pick from these: Chicks dig the long ball so hitters are swinging for the fences, which have never been closer. GMs pay for power. PED usage is down. All pitchers throw harder, especially the succession of flame-throwing relievers that didn’t exist in the past. With the realization that outs are precious, apparently more hitters are following the advice veteran Reggie Smith gave to a young Bob Brenly: “If you feel like you’re going to hit into a double play, just strike out.” The accessibility of every at-bat on video makes it easier for pitchers to identify and attack a hitter’s weakness.
Whatever the cause, a hat trick (3 Ks) barely gets noticed by Generation K these days and a golden sombrero (4 Ks) is hardly a badge of shame. It might be a good time to invest in precious metals because while the platinum sombrero (5 Ks) has only happened 61 times in MLB history, there’s certainly company on the way. No major leaguer has ever come up empty six times in a nine-inning game, but broadcasters would be smart to keep the name Sam Horn handy, The “horn” was a term coined for Big Sam after his six Ks in a 1991 extra-inning affair for Baltimore, a feat accomplished only eight times in MLB history. We’re sure to see more hitters go around that horn in the current environment.
Mark Reynolds’ season total of 223 strikeouts is the MLB season record from 2009 and it’s no coincidence the next 12 names below him were added to the list all since 2004. Willie Mays turned 82 not long ago and as his career was dissected on talk radio, it was pointed out while he had 123 strikeouts when he was 40, Say Hey never K’d more than 92 times in any other season.
Take a whiff of how often the whiffs are coming. When Sandy Koufax struck out a National League record 382 hitters in 1965, only two of them had more than 128 strikeouts for the year. Last year, when R.A. Dickey led the NL with 230 Ks, 23 hitters in the senior circuit had more than 128 K’s.
(As you mark more and more K’s on your scorecard, if you’ve ever paused to wonder why you have to use a K, it’s because Henry Chadwick, who developed the scoring system we use, had designated S for sacrifice so he used K for what we now know as K’s.)
What does it all mean? I’m not sure. It’s worth noting that the Atlanta Braves lead the National League in strikeouts while leading the National League East. The Braves have also been shut out eight times, second-most in the NL. The Boston Red Sox are second in the American League in strikeouts and lead the American League East. They lead the majors in runs scored.
Anyhow, people a whole lot smarter than me having been looking at this trend and there’s not a single whiff in this bunch.
http://www.sportingcharts.com/articles/mlb/where-are-all-of-the-strikeouts-coming-from.aspx Jeff Shand-Lubbers MLB
http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=18079 Jason Collette Baseball Prospectus
http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1559656-the-truth-behind-the-rise-of-the-strikeout-in-major-league-baseball Zachary Rymer Bleacher Report
http://sportsjerks.net/2013/04/27/mlb-strikeout-era/ Tom Laverty Sports Jerks
http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20130506&content_id=46752166&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb Anthony Castrovince mlb.com
http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-continuing-rise-in-strikeout-rate/ Dave Cameron Fangraphs