Revisiting MLB’s Strikeout Problem

In 2014 I made a post titled Joe Sheehan and Strikeouts in which I outlined how strikeouts were taking over the game of baseball, and I tried to envision what the sport would look like in the future if nothing changed. It was not my idea, of course. I was just piggybacking off of Sheehan’s observations, which turned out quite prescient.

While someone from the FanGraphs community threw a little shade my way for the article, saying “I’m not sold on the idea that all these strikeouts threaten Our Way of Life,” the last four years have done little to challenge the case I made. In fact, the strikeout problem since then has only gotten worse.

Here are the strikeout per nine innings (K/9) figures from 2014 to present day:

2014: 7.7
2015: 7.8
2016: 8.1
2017: 8.3
2018: 8.5

K/9 is, admittedly, kind of a junk stat, since pitchers rarely throw complete games anymore. A better representation of strikeouts can be made by K percentage — or K rate — which takes the total amount of strikeouts divided by plate appearances. This does a better job of taking into account the starting pitchers who only go 5 or 6 innings per start, and of the relief pitchers who go only an inning at a time (or less).

What strikeout percentage tells us is that, in 2018, pitchers are striking hitters out at a rate of 22.1%, which is more than one-in-five batters but not quite one-in-four. There is a good chance, for the first time in the history of baseball, that there will be more strikeouts than hits. Currently teams are averaging 8.47 hits per game and 8.5 strikeouts per game.

But Joe Sheehan called this all the way back in 2014, when I originally wrote the article. He said:

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. […]

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.”

We are now north of a 22% strikeout rate, and since still nothing has changed to baseball’s fundamental rules there is no reason to expect the trend to decrease anytime soon. After all, the average fastball velocity only continues to rise, home plate umpires continue to have human eyes that are flawed and thus can’t keep up with the increased velocity, and so you figure, again, that nothing can stop this pitching onslaught.

Major League Baseball is run by old white men, and so the rate of change within the sport — as it has been historically — always moves at a glacial pace. Remember we are talking about a game that didn’t implement expanded instant replay until 2014, a full 28 years after the NFL (1986) and 13 years after the NBA (2001). To say nothing about MLB’s labor situation, or its grotesque inability to market superstars, when it comes to actual rules that can balance the relationship between pitching and hitting, the sport is completely lost. And worse, the areas it is looking to change do nothing to solve the strikeout problem. Without fixing the rate of strikeouts, nothing else matters.

I have maintained the same argument on this, not only because it is what needs to happen but that it’s going to happen in the future, anyway… so why not sooner? That is, baseball needs to implement an automated strike zone. Home plate umpires need to be taken out of the equation, since it’s been proven that even the best are only right between 80%-85% of the time.

If MLB removes them, and goes to an objective, electronic zone, then every player will be on an even playing field. Hitters will no longer (rightly in many cases) be able to argue balls and strikes, since what the strike zone was on Saturday is the same as it will be the following Wednesday. Pitchers — particularly the ones who throw harder — will no longer have the benefit of an umpire with a wide zone, or of a catcher who can frame pitches.

This wouldn’t necessarily cause offense to return to the levels of the 1990’s, or early 2000’s, but it would put a premium on batters with good plate vision. It would force pitchers to throw more balls over the plate for strikes, which would lead to more balls being put in play and more runners on base.

Baseball’s problem is not, as many team beat writers believe, the length of games. It instead has to do with the amount of action within the time a game takes, and the number one culprit for why there is such a lack of action is because 22% of batters who step up to the plate end their at-bat via striking out. No ball gets put in play to give the defender a chance to make a great play, no runners advance, and no runs cross the plate. It is the ultimate nothing.

And when the ultimate nothing occurs better than 20% of the time, something needs to get fixed. I don’t say this because I’m a Millennial with a short attention span, I say it as a concerned fan who wonders about the existence of the sport. While MLB tries to fuck around with eliminating the shift, or trying to tell people that baseball needs umpires because fans still want the “human element” involved, the answer to its existential crises is tied directly into using technology it has yet to try, and doesn’t want to use.

If a sport like tennis can, in 2012, implement a computer system that pinpoints where a 150 mile per hour shot touched the edge of a thin line, then MLB can’t tell me an automated strike zone isn’t realistic. If it was willing to pony up the funds to do the research, and pay a company to come up with something, I don’t imagine it would take longer than 24 months before it had a system of its own. (And I might be conservative with that estimation.)

I did tell a lie in my 2014 article, though. Towards the end I slipped that, “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.”

As it turns out, the “tipping point” that Joe Sheehan mentioned — which for him was a 20% K rate — was actually 22% for me. Even though the strikeout trend has been ongoing for the last decade, it wasn’t until this year that I found Major League Baseball as a sport to be unwatchable. With unwavering love for the Texas Rangers, I have watched fewer games of theirs in 2018 than any year I can remember, and I only rarely tune in to watch other teams play.

I haven’t given up on baseball, since I view their fundamental problems to be entirely fixable. I am simply looking out for the future of the sport, since the way to attract eyeballs and inspire young kids to pick up a baseball — rather than a football, or basketball — is to deliver excitement. Apologists may cite the uptick in home runs, which has more to do with the baseballs being juiced than anything else, but home runs will never go far enough to balance the takeover of action-killing strikeouts.

Baseball has a choice in this but, based off its history of being unwilling to change, or being anti-intellectual with what it wants to change, there is nothing blocking the increase in the strikeout trend. Pitchers are only going to throw harder, and strikeouts are only going to go up.

And yes, that makes baseball boring.

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