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The strikeout rate is soaring, and baseball is still good

The game is changing on paper, but I’m not sure if it’s radically different on the field.

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New York Yankees v Washington Nationals - Game Two Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

From 1980 through 1985, Nolan Ryan pitched his home games in the Astrodome and thrived. He was in his 30s, but we all know he had another decade left in his arm, and other than the occasional injury, this was one of the better stretches in a Hall of Fame career. During these years, the all-time strikeout king struck out 8.5 batters for every nine innings he pitched.

In 2018, every team in Major League Baseball is striking out 8.6 batters per nine innings.

This is where we’re at in the modern game. There are more strikeouts than hits for the first time in history, and it’s hard to ignore the fundamental changes in the game. Every pitcher in baseball is roughly John Smoltz in 1997 or Max Scherzer in 2010. In 2006, Aaron Harang led the NL in strikeouts, with 216. He struck out fewer batters per nine innings than the average pitcher in 2018.

The sport is vastly different than it was even eight years ago, and out of the soils of change, we can expect hot-take seedlings to sprout. My old colleague Rob Neyer was one of the first on the beat, coining the term “strikeout scourge,” and there are all sorts of ways to be afraid of it, right down to more injuries on HBPs. The numbers are unmistakeable, and it’s hard not to be concerned.

Graphs are the best way to illustrate this creeping dread. Look at this monorail to the stars:

Up and up and up and up the strikeout rate goes, where it will stop, nobody knows. The latest writer to lodge a complaint was Bob Nightengale, who wrote ...

The game is simply devoid of action, with players striking out, walking or hitting home runs in 34 percent of their plate appearances. So, for more than a third of every game, there’s not a fielder involved in the action.

This sounds bad! And then you look at the graph, and, man oh man, it’s not slowing down. You see the numbers, the strikeouts-per-nine, the dropping batting average, the increasing home runs, and you’re scared. You’re scared about the future of this game that you love so much.

And I’m listening because I love double plays and triples into the gap. I love it when infielders lose a pop up in the lights, stagger around, and then catch the ball at the last second. I love diving plays and sacrifice flies. When the ball is put in play, fun things happen. More balls in play. More balls in play! MORE BALLS IN PLAY!

SECRETARY: [pounding her clipboard] MORE BALLS IN PLAY!

You have a sympathetic ear. Please point me in the direction of your nearest militia.

Except there’s a problem with this narrative: I watch a lot of baseball, and it’s fine. It’s enjoyable! And it really doesn’t seem that different. Sure, there are more 97-MPH monsters after the fifth inning, and there are more dingers, and sometimes both of those can make me roll my eyes, but for the most part, baseball seems mostly the same.

And I think I figured out why. In 2000, the K/9 rate for all of MLB was 6.5. As you can see by the graph up there, the rate has climbed and climbed and climbed in every season since, and now we’re watching an era where a new league-wide record is being set every year. The average number of strikeouts per nine innings is 8.6 now, which is more than two full strikeouts higher. Do you understand what that means?

That every game now has four more strikeouts, on average.

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Oh.

That’s it. That’s the difference.

When you put it into the context of a three-hour game and not the graphs that spiral upward toward infinity, it’s not a big deal. Each team will strike out an additional two times over three hours. And while I’m very much into balls in play and the what-ifs that come with them, it’s important to remember that a whole lot of them are boring as hell. Fly balls to right. Routine grounders to second. Check swings back to the pitcher.

The concern about the rising strikeout rate also misses an important point: Some strikeouts are rad. There’s a two-seamer that front doors a surprised left-hander, a slider that dives out of the zone, and a high fastball that absolutely wrecks the batter. Here’s a Twitter account with more than 70,000 followers that’s based on this idea. Sometimes it’s fun to watch balls in play, yes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t artistry to be found with a pitcher succeeding in the exact way he was intending.

Think of it as a math equation: Take the number of balls in play lost to the strikeout scourge, subtract all of the boring balls in play. Take all of the strikeouts, then subtract the completely badass strikeouts that make you pump your fist or appreciate the talent of the pitcher. Then divide them or something to get a ratio, I don’t know, I’m an English major. But I’m pretty sure you can get a number that proves two things.

The first would be that, yes, something is lost when fewer balls are put in play.

The second would be that it’s like the difference between an 84-degree day and an 85-degree day. Maybe noticeable? Kind of? For some people? For the most part, though, it’s all the same to the rest of us.

That’s where I’m at with the strikeout scourge. If I could flip a lever, I would, but I’m also not thinking about it constantly while watching baseball games. It’s mostly the same game I’m used to. There’s a bat and a ball, and when the bat hits the ball sometimes fun things happen, but they can also happen when the bat doesn’t hit the ball.

It’s possible that we’ll reach a tipping point with strikeouts, and the game won’t be nearly as fun to watch anymore. I don’t discount that doomsday scenario, so we might as well have conversations now about what should be done.

We haven’t reached that tipping point yet, and I’m not sure we’re even close.