Why are MLB Players Striking Out More Than Ever?

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Examining baseball's growing number of swing-and-miss hitters

<p> Examining baseball's growing number of swing-and-miss hitters.</p>

Brian Cashman called it a “perfect storm.” CC Sabathia said it was “embarrassing.” The New York tabloids weren’t as kind: "Dear Yankees, We don’t date losers! Signed New Yorkers" read the back of the New York Post.

Detroit’s sweep of the Yankees in the 2012 ALCS was a complete domination. The Tigers never trailed during the series, and their combined 19–6 run differential was an indication of New York’s incompetence. The Yankees batted a mere .157 in the series, and they struck out a whopping 36 times, or on one-third of their outs. At times, it appeared as if the New York hitters had never faced big-league pitching before.

“When you get into a short series, you say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” says Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones. “If you execute it, you win. If you don’t, and you make poor pitches, you won’t win.”

While many love to deliver swift boots to the collective posterior of the Yankees when they are laid low, their fan-tastic performance against the Tigers wasn’t so unusual in the context of the 2012 season. First off, Detroit pitchers ranked fifth among all MLB clubs in strikeouts. But more importantly, the ’12 season was historic throughout baseball for whiffing. 

Six major league clubs fanned at least 1,300 times last season. That’s three more clubs than the previous high for aggregate plate futility and one more than the total number from baseball’s beginning through the 2006 season. Another 12 teams struck out at least 1,200 times, four more than the previous record. In other words, a full 60 percent of teams whiffed 1,200 or more times last year, establishing a new high (or, if you prefer, low) for swing-and-miss futility. The Yankees’ fruitless pursuit of Tiger pitching was merely a high-profile example of the culture that has taken over major league baseball.

“There are definitely more ‘guess’ hitters in the game than there used to be,” Jones says. “You have guys looking for a certain pitch. If they don’t get it, they can look bad swinging.”

To give an idea of how profound this increase in useless at bats has become, consider that before 2001, no team had ever struck out 1,300 times in a single season. Before 1996, only one squad ever fanned 1,200 times. That distinction belongs to the 1968 Mets, who struck out 1,203 times. But they played 163 games that year, and after the season, Major League Baseball decided to lower the mound six inches. Back in 1978, the leader in strikeouts, Cincinnati, had only 899. Many of today’s teams have that many well before August is over. Contrast that with 1928, when the Yankees whiffed only 553 times in 154 games. 

There are plenty of reasons why K is becoming baseball’s favorite letter. Jones’ theory on hitters’ guessing makes perfect sense. So does the fact that pitchers’ velocities are increasing, as is the menagerie of “out” pitches they are learning at earlier levels of baseball. The growing specialization of staffs allows managers to create matchups that are to their teams’ advantages. And the amount of information available to teams about hitters’ tendencies allows them to create scouting reports and battle plans that are more effective. Just ask the Yankees about that. 

There’s one other, more philosophical cause at work, at least according to Padres’ hitting coach Phil Plantier. He cites what he refers to as “the live ball era” as having an impact on hitters as they grow into big-league players. That’s his euphemism for the steroid era, when homers rained down upon bleacher bums all over the game. As youngsters watched their pumped-up heroes cranking out 50 homers — and more — each season, they developed habits that might produce long balls but could also lead to high strikeout totals. For instance, in 1996, just two years after the MLB strike and the first season during which Mark McGwire hit more than 50 home runs (52), eight teams whiffed 1,100 times or more — an all-time high. From there, the strikeout totals have climbed steadily to 2012’s peak.

“The past generation of players just went through an unrealistic baseline expectation of hitters,” Plantier says. “If you look at trends of hitters prior to the ‘live ball’ era, it’s probably more indicative of where the game will go back. But it’s taking some time.”

Back in 1987, when Plantier reported to Elmira, N.Y., for his first minor league stint, he didn’t find an army of coaches ready to mold him on his first step to the majors. The club didn’t even have a weight room. 

“We had a manager, and he did everything,” Plantier says.

Today, teams have too much money invested in players to leave it all to one person. There are hitting coaches, strength coaches and pitching coaches at every stop along the developmental chain. Not everyone is going to make it to the big time, but teams aren’t taking any chances on missing a potential major leaguer. 

They also aren’t going about accumulating prospects the same way, especially on the mound. The process by which teams scout and ultimately select young pitchers has been altered since the days when Plantier was making his baseball journey.

“It all starts at the beginning,” he says. “Scouts are identifying athletes now as pitchers and have been for the last generation. Before, the majority of pitchers were non-athletes with good arms. Now, they’re getting better quality athletes on the mound.”

According to Plantier, the more athletic a pitcher is, the higher his ceiling might be. Now, no one can be certain whether Walter Johnson or Sandy Koufax would have fared well in the decathlon, but many of today’s pitchers are more accomplished athletically. They are also bigger and stronger. It’s become rare when a team spends a high draft choice — or in some cases any draft choices — on pitchers who aren’t at least 6'0". It’s hard to imagine someone like 5'11" Ron Guidry or 5'6" Bobby Shantz, who was once blown off the mound during a game, getting a second look today. When exposed to the intense training and instruction teams provide from rookie ball on up, they can develop into better pitchers — even if they don’t have the liveliest arms. 

“At the lower levels, organizations are developing pitchers better, and they are teaching them how to become strikeout pitchers,” Plantier says.

A lot of those strikeout pitchers are succeeding with fastballs that get into the 90s consistently. Brewers’ hitting coach Jerry Narron was once a special assignment scout for Texas, and he was with Josh Hamilton in 2009 when Hamilton did a rehab stint in the minors after surgery to repair an abdominal tear. He noticed right away the vast differences between the caliber of pitching at the Triple-A level and the majors, a big reason why many younger players struggle to make contact.

“It’s not only the starters but the relievers who throw hard,” Narron says. “Everybody out of the pen seems to throw in the mid-90s, and at the back end of the pen, they’re throwing in the upper 90s. The velocity across the board jumps off the page.”

Jones agrees. “It seems like every guy is throwing 95 now,” he says.

Narron says teams’ obsessions with pitch counts have contributed to rising strikeout totals as well — and not just because those hard-throwing relievers are ready to throw smoke and overpower pitchers in favorable lefty-lefty or righty-righty matchups.

“Starters can afford to be more assertive,” Narron says. “They’re only going to pitch five, six or seven innings.”

The amount of information available gives pitchers advantages, too. Most MLB clubs, including the Tigers, look at what hitters’ tendencies are in every possible count. They feed pitchers information that allows them to know who is looking for fastballs early, who is less likely to be more careful with two strikes, and of course, who struggles with breaking balls.

“When guys are aggressive early in the count, they are people you can exploit by going out of the strike zone,” Jones says. “We know how aggressive guys are late in the count and how aggressive they are with men on base.”

It’s not guaranteed that a pitcher armed with that information is going to be successful, but if he makes pitches according to the plan, it’s more likely he will have an advantage. Detroit pitcher Doug Fister is known for throwing strikes early and often — he walked only 37 batters in 161.2 innings last year. So, hitters will often go up in the first few innings of a game hoping to get something to hit right away. If they are aggressive and making outs, Fister stays with his original program. But if they are hitting him, he has to change.

“They’ve made their adjustments, so we have to adjust,” Jones says.

It’s just not fair, really. Those mean pitchers are bigger and throw faster than ever. They have all sorts of fancy information and knowledge about tendencies and hitters’ weaknesses. Lower the mound! Make it four strikes per out. 

The pitchers are better, but the hitters have a huge responsibility for the rising numbers. One All-Star starter who requested anonymity explains why it’s sometimes easy to pile up the strikeouts. “A lot of guys go up there looking for a certain pitch, and if they don’t get it, they pretty much give up the at-bat,” he says. 

According to Narron, some hitters consider a strikeout “just another out.” Of course, nobody scores from third with fewer than two outs on a K — barring a wild pitch, of course. You can’t move the runner from first to second when you fan. And hitting the ball, even if it’s right at a defender, forces him to make a play and could lead to an error. Narron sure doesn’t think that all outs are the same.

“I don’t believe that,” he says. “There’s a lot you can accomplish with two strikes on you. You want to get something out of an at-bat that’s more than just a zero. The only thing you might get out of a strikeout is pushing the pitcher to eight pitches. That’s okay.”

Hitting coaches speak constantly of having a “plan” or “approach” at the plate. That can apply to a team’s macro philosophy of being aggressive against certain pitchers and careful versus others, and it has micro applications based on various hitters’ strengths and weaknesses. It’s okay to swing at strikes early in the count, provided that’s the way to get after a pitcher. Hitters who just rip away at anything may get on base, but their ultimate success depends on being more opportunistic, especially when the count isn’t in their favor.

“The one thing I stress to hitters is that every at-bat is important,” Narron says. “You just can’t give anything away.” 

That philosophy doesn’t appeal to all hitters, especially power hitters. They believe the home run is the preferred outcome, even if dinger numbers are dropping all over baseball. Slapping a ball to the opposite field with two strikes isn’t as appealing as jacking one into the fourth deck, even if the risk associated with that approach is high. 

Plantier’s Padres were members of the 1,200-strikeout club last year, but he was much happier with his players’ performance at the plate during the season’s second half, once they approached at-bats differently and tried to be more productive each time up.

“We were as big a culprit as there was in the league,” he says of the Padres’ propensity to strike out. “But we started to have better at-bats and improved our contact rate. We made mechanical adjustments and also had better plans at the plate, according to what we needed at that moment in time.”

As 2013 dawns, pitchers have the advantage. They are throwing high-octane fuel at hitters who don’t necessarily care whether they strike out or not, so long as the possibility exists of the magic long ball that made their baseball ancestors stars. 

“You’ve got a lot of power guys who aren’t going to change their swings with two strikes,” Jones says. “They’re still trying to drive the ball to the gaps and over the fence.”

If they strike out, they strike out. For many, it’s not a problem. 

Until the League Championship Series. Then, it’s a problem.

—By Michael Bradley


 

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