Joe Sheehan, and strikeouts

Recently I signed up for the Joe Sheehan Newsletter, which he conservatively describes as “Smart, Fun Baseball Writing,” and I’m very happy about it. Especially since the unfortunate conclusion to The Baseball Show With Rany & Joe last November, a podcast I was especially influenced by between the 2012 and ’13 baseball seasons.

The podcast he used to do with Rany may have been the most informative hour-and-a-half of my week, every week. A lot like the way Joe tags his site: It was smart, fun baseball [talk]. But unlike major news outlets that generally seek to entertain and be fun before being smart, for Rany and Joe the opposite was always true. That’s what kept me going back, that they were discussing my favorite sport in the world, but instead of being former big leaguers — regurgitating clichés ad nauseam — these were just a couple of wise guys searching for the objective truth between the numbers. Finally, I’d found my lane.

Really, though, that’s just the vague context. Joe wrote something the other day in his newsletter — which you could sign up for as well; it’s exceptional content — and it sort of captured my imagination:

When offense was at its peak I frequently made the point that everything in baseball is cyclical, that offense and defense wax and wane and give us these eras in which you can win 30 games or steal 100 bases or hit 70 home runs.

For the first time, I mean for the very first time, I no longer believe that. The trend of increasing strikeouts is quite literally the only constant in baseball history, and the acceleration of that trend over the last five years, coupled with greater efficiency as measured by walk rates, along with the success all that has had in keeping run scoring down, is breaking the game. People are still going to games, still watching them, still buying beer and sporting gear. Any concerns about fan interest tend to be tied to the length of games — a complaint that can be silenced by paying beat writers on an hourly basis — and pace, an amorphous idea that can be addressed by shortening the unnecessarily long breaks between innings. Eventually, though, the lack of balls in play will become a problem. For me, that’s happened at a 20% strikeout rate; maybe the tipping point for you was 18%, for your sister it will be 22%, and your husband won’t care so long as the Cubs win. Eventually, however, the lack of balls in play is going to finally lend truth to three words that have always been a lie.

“Baseball is boring.”

I still get joy watching baseball, because, even though offense is fun, I’ve been a pitching-and-defense guy from day one. So I can live with it both ways. I grew up during the greatest offensive era in major league history, which was around the time the Rangers scored a shitload of runs — but still lost well more than they won — and this new pitching era has more or less coincided with success from Texas. That payoff alone is worth trading in offense for pitching. To put it simply, I get more pleasure watching Yu Darvish pitch a mundane game against the Twins than I ever did watching Alex Rodriguez put up MVP numbers.

However, Joe has me thinking: What is baseball going to look like 5 years from now, 10 years from now?

All the strikeouts mean less balls are being put in play, depressing the need for elite defenders around the diamond. Most bullpen arms were once failed starters, and most starters don’t throw more than 6 or 7 innings a night. Almost every conceivable role has become less important due to the specialization of pitching. Here is how Sheehan explains the effect it has on offense:

We’re not trading homers for singles and doubles, which is the post-PED narrative; we’re trading all hits, in roughly equal proportions, for strikeouts. We’re trading everything for strikeouts, and not just outcomes. We’re seeing fewer balls in the gap, fewer relay throws, fewer guys going first-to-third, fewer steals, fewer exhibitions of glovework and foot speed and arm strength. 

It’s sort of crazy the effect technology has. Information, too. Baseball executives have found the recipe to the game’s secret sauce, and now we’ve got a game where pitching not only dominates, but will continue to dominate until something changes. Will baseball eventually lower the mound again? Will front offices start comprising their rosters of light-hitting contact hitters to combat the strikeout phenomena? Will that even be possible in five years if pitchers continue striking hitters out at the same progressive rate?

The only constant I have is, no matter how the game looks, I’m still going to be watching it. So does it really matter what it’s going to look like? No, not really.

Food for thought.

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