Special Ks

Teams are striking out more than ever, and that's not a bad thing

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OK, the strikeouts thing in baseball has gotten a bit out of control. It has only been three weeks, but so far hitters are striking out 22.8 percent of the time,  by far the highest percentage in baseball history. That’s a crazy percentage, by the way. We are getting to the point where one out of every four batters is striking out.

True, you can call it small sample size, but this is a continuing trend. Last year hitters struck out 20.4 percent percent of the time, the highest percentage in baseball history. Two years earlier it was 19.9 percent (highest percentage up to that point). Two years before that it was 18.8 percent (highest up to that point). And so on and so on. From 2008 on, hitters have struck out more every single year.

Then, you probably know, strikeouts have been on the rise for much longer than that. In fact, they have been rising pretty much since the end of the Deadball Era.

Strikeouts per nine innings:

1926: 2.75

1936: 3.33

1946: 3.90

1956: 4.64

1966: 5.82

1976: 4.83

1986: 5.87

1996: 6.46

2006: 6.52

2016: 8.21

The only reversal in the trend happened between 1966-76 and there is a reason for that: During those 10 years, baseball lowered the mound, adjusted the strike zone and the American League added the designated hitter. And even after doing all that,  strikeouts were back up a decade later.

Bill James has a fascinating explanation for why strikeouts have skyrocketed and will continue to skyrocket for the forseeable future. It really comes down to a two-step cause:

1. Good pitchers get more strikeouts than weaker pitchers, but

2. Good hitters (historically) ALSO strike out more than weaker hitters.

See, it’s a one-way street. There are specific factors for why strikeouts are way up. For one thing, hitters try to bunt for hits much less than they did 50 and 60 years ago. Bunts are mocked these days, but bunts are not strikeouts. Hitters use thinner bats that whip through the strike zone much more quickly, creating more power but limiting contact. The check swing strike is called more often than it was in the days before video (since video proved conclusively that that batter ALWAYS swings).

And in recent years, of course, we’ve seen a lot more relief pitchers — the analyst Tom Tango says a pitcher will have a 17 percent higher strikeout rate as a reliever than he would have a starter.

Take a look at the Yankees this year: Andrew Miller has struck out 12 of the 17 batters he has faced, and Dellin Betances has struck out 15 of the 24 batters he has faced. When Aroldis Chapman is eligible to play, the Yankees finally might go with that slogan I’ve been pushing: “The New York Yankees: The Only team in baseball with more than one K in their name.”

Then again, they might not.

These are just factors though. The overriding cause, as Bill James says, is that the incentives of the game point to more strikeouts. From the pitching side, well, it’s obvious that to win you want pitchers who strike people out. The best pitchers are, with very few exceptions, strikeout pitchers. You look at the best pitchers in the game now — Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, David Price — all finished in the Top 10 in strikeouts last year. Zack Greinke finished just out of the Top 10. It’s POSSIBLE to be an effective pitcher without a lot of strikeouts, but you wouldn’t want to try it.

So, that’s easy: To prevent runs, you want more strikeouts.

But the opposite is not true. The best hitters often strike out a lot. Mike Trout led the league in strikeouts in 2014. Both of last year’s MVPs, Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson, struck out 130-plus times. Early season sensation Trevor Story leads the league in strikeouts. And this is true historically. Mike Schmidt struck out a lot. Mickey Mantle struck out a lot. Babe Ruth struck out a lot.

So while teams try to find pitchers who strike people out, teams do NOT try to find hitters who avoid the strikeout. There’s your one-way street. Strikeouts keep climbing.

Will the rise ever end? Right now, an average game will see 16 or 17 strikeouts. That’s a lot of strikeouts. Can that number possibly go up? Will we soon see 20 strikeouts per game? Then 22? More?

The answer: Yes. Strikeouts will keep rising, at least for a while, because baseball teams are mostly uninterested reversing the trend.

The Kansas City Royals are a great test study. Four years ago, the Royals decided to go against the current baseball mindset and build a team that does not strike out. That has been their singular offensive philosophy. The Royals have sacrificed power — they don’t hit home runs. They have sacrificed walks — they don’t work the count. The Royals just put the ball in play. They had the fewest strikeouts in baseball every year from 2012-15, and you can see that they’ve gotten better and better at not striking out.

2012: 1,032 Ks (37 fewer than 2nd place Minnesota)

2013: 1,048 Ks (19 fewer than Texas)

2014: 985 Ks (119 fewer than Oakland)

2015: 973 (134 fewer than Atlanta)

The Royals have, of course, been extremely successful over those years, going from 72 to 86 to 89 to 95 victories, winning two American League pennants and a World Series. So why haven’t they started a trend? The answer is: Nobody around baseball really believes that their ability to put the ball in play has been all that important in their success. They have won, baseball people say, because of their great defense and great bullpen.The Royals don’t score that many runs — they did not finish Top 5 in the American League in runs scored at any point during their winning stretch.

Meanwhile, the trendiest young teams in the game — the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros — strike out more than anybody else. They, not the Royals, are setting the standard for how to play offensive baseball in this new era. Hit the long ball. Steal bases at a high percentage. Draw walks. That’s still the winning formula.

And strikeouts keep rising.

You do wonder if it will turn at some point. We are in the lowest scoring five-year span since the late 1960s. Will teams eventually seek out hitters who handle the bat, strike out less, hit the ball the other way (which would have the added benefit of beating defensive shifts). In the 1970s, players like Rod Carew and Pete Rose and George Brett were some of the game’s biggest stars. In the 1980s, it was Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs and Rickey Henderson. Will we get back to that?

Probably not. For now, though, it seems to be going the other way. Even the Royals are not immune. They are on pace to strike out 300 more times than they did last year.