Gone are the days when there was shame in striking out. Today's big league hitters are whiffing at an unprecedented pace—and all those swings and misses are changing the game
This is an article from the April 1, 2013 issue
BASEBALL NEVER HAS been so fascist as it is today. Pitchers are exerting their ruthless totalitarianism with no sign of abatement. Strikeouts have increased in the major leagues for seven consecutive seasons, including what amounts to a giant statistical leap last year: a 5.6% increase to 36,426 strikeouts, a record total for a fifth consecutive year.
Strikeouts have become so common that they've lost their stigma. In 1970, for instance, Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who had started 81 consecutive games, asked not to play in the final game of the season for the Cardinals because he was sitting on 99 strikeouts. Manager Red Schoendienst used Brock as a pinch hitter in the meaningless game. Brock singled. With that, and with great relief, Brock ended his streak of five straight 100-strikeout seasons.
Today, though, there is no shame in striking out 100 times. White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn reached that mark last season by June 15. Dunn finished with 222 whiffs, one short of the record set by Mark Reynolds, then of the Diamondbacks, in 2009. More players struck out 100 times last year (111) than did from 1901 through 1967 combined (110). Every one of the alltime top 10 strikeout seasons by hitters has occurred since 2007.
"Philosophically, from the offensive side, we're generally okay with it," says Texas general manager Jon Daniels, "especially when you have guys who are going to hit for power. Strikeouts were more taboo 15 to 20 years ago, but now nobody complains about strikeouts when a guy is doing damage."
Says Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (who struck out a career-high 140 times in 2009, when he also hit 33 homers), "I don't have a two-strike approach. I mean, I could decide to shorten up [my swing] and roll over and hit a ground ball. But on this level, if you roll over something because you were just trying to put the ball in play, you're going to be out more than 95 percent of the time. It's more about, what can I do to help the team? For me, it's getting three healthy hacks and using them."
As hitters accept strikeouts as a necessary cost of their search for power, pitchers are better equipped than ever to exploit that concession. They throw harder and with more late movement. They have access to more precise analytics and video to attack hitters' weaknesses. And they flourish under the specialized bullpen, which places premiums on fresh power arms and platoon advantages. The past few seasons have launched a cycle, if not another era, of pitching dominance.
In the 25 years since Crash Davis made his observation about K's, they've increased 35%, to nearly 15 per game. And if you were to go back to 1908, when Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer wrote the game's unofficial anthem, you'd see just 7.8 per game.
So what in the name of Franco are we to make of all this fascism? (And not Julio Franco, he of the 23 major league seasons, only one with 100 strikeouts.) Well, it doesn't appear to be good for the commerce of baseball. In this age of technology, as people expect entertainment everywhere and quickly, strikeouts, especially when viewed with their fraternal twins, walks, are sucking the action out of baseball games. Last season, for instance, 27.8% of plate appearances ended without the ball being put in play, an alltime high. Thirty years ago that percentage was 21.5. By the nature of those outcomes, and by today's style of passive-aggressive hitting that encourages hitters to try to work counts deeper, more and more at bats are requiring more and more pitches. The effect is a dramatic increase in downtime, especially in late innings. The game often resembles a still life: In the eighth and ninth innings last year 31% of plate appearances ended with a strikeout or a walk.
Think about that again: In the last two innings of a baseball game nearly one of every three batters fails to put the ball in play.
"Why don't we have more fans?" asks one team executive. "Maybe because the most exciting part of the game is when balls are in play. And we don't have enough balls in play. It is ridiculous."
It started with Greg Maddux in the 1990s. The righthander never won a strikeout title and had 200 strikeouts in a season only once, but he did strike out more batters than any righty in National League history, and he did it with a pitching style that changed the game. Maddux could make his fastball move either into a hitter or away from a hitter on both sides of the plate, known as the scissor effect. A lefthanded hitter, for instance, would see a pitch near the inside corner and be unsure whether it was going to continue to veer at him (a cutter) or away from him and catch a piece of the plate (a two-seamer). "It wasn't real popular then because you weren't supposed to throw lefties down and in," Maddux says. "It's hard to read the spin on those two pitches, one going in and one going away from you."
Maddux broke other long-held taboos: He threw changeups and breaking balls on the inside part of the plate to righthanders (so-called front-door breaking balls). Soon his scissor effect became the gold standard in pitching. The next pitcher to popularize the style was Roy Halladay, who arrived in the big leagues as a traditional power pitcher (an overhand four-seam fastball and curveball) before reinventing himself in 2001 as a turbo-powered version of Maddux. He adopted a low three-quarters release point to sink and cut the ball on both sides of the plate. He became the best pitcher in the game, with a kind of mastery that people wanted to copy.
"I actually call it the Halladification of pitching," says Tampa Bay pitching coach Jim Hickey. "This guy takes the 18-inch plate and does the far-side two-seamer and the front-side cutter and turns it into something about 24 inches wide. I know a lot of our guys imitated a lot of what he did."
David Price is one such pitcher. He arrived in the majors full time in 2009 as a lefthanded version of the young Halladay. He threw a four-seam fastball about three quarters of the time and mixed in a decent slider. Then he began his transformation into the typical postmodern pitcher: He added a changeup, learned the two-seam fastball from Chad Qualls, then a Rays reliever, in the middle of the '10 season ("The day before a start," Price says, "and I haven't stopped throwing it since") and learned the cutter last year from teammate James Shields, who is now with the Royals. Price's strikeout percentage has increased every year since '09, and he won the AL Cy Young Award last year.
"Now maybe somebody is imitating David Price," Hickey said. "He throws backdoor cutters and front-door two-seamers. He doesn't just sit there and shove 95 miles an hour, which he could. He could win games throwing 95 percent four-seam fastballs. And he has.
"But the single most important thing is the cutter. Even 10 years ago hardly anybody threw it. It was almost a gimmick pitch. And now it's a staple. Most guys have one, and they throw it to both sides of the plate."
The cutter became popular because it is easy to learn and to throw, is easier to command than a curveball or a slider and has just enough movement to move away from the barrel of a bat. "I hold it the same way I threw the slider before and then I just throw it like a fastball," Price said. "If it doesn't cut, it's going to be a fastball. Hopefully it's 92 or 93 and goes down or something like that. My hand is exactly the same as when I throw both pitches. I just have a little more pressure on my middle finger [on the cutter]."
The cutter is not a swing-and-miss pitch like a high-velocity four-seam fastball, a roundhouse curve or a sharp-breaking slider. But its popularity has contributed to the increase in strikeouts because it complicates the areas and movement a hitter has to cover when behind in the count. A study by baseballanalytics.org found that while cutters accounted for only 5.1% of third strikes last season, that number represented a 342% increase since 2008. The study found that pitchers are throwing more two-strike cutters over the plate, but batters are swinging at them less often, an indication of the camouflage effect of the pitch.
"The backdoor cutter with two strikes is basically a strikeout-looking pitch," Hickey says. "The hitter sees ball, ball, ball, ball, ball—and then at the last instant it becomes a strike and it's too late. When that happens once or twice, now you're swinging at fastballs that are six inches off the plate because you're not sure if they're going to come back or not."
Fifteen years after Maddux won the last of his four ERA titles and had his only 200-strikeout season, carving up both sides of the plate with late movement unlike anybody in baseball, the generation that grew up watching his mastery is filling out pitching staffs all over baseball to make the scissor effect standard operating procedure.
"Pitchers today throw harder with better breaking balls and changeups," said Maddux, now a special instructor with Texas. "Why? It's evolution. We get better in all sports. Football is probably faster now than it was 10 years ago. It's no different with pitching."
The best hitting prospect in baseball, Wil Myers of the Rays, struck out 140 times in 134 minor league games last year. Josh Hamilton struck out 162 times last year and signed a $125 million, five-year deal with the Angels. Michael Bourn signed a four-year, $48 million deal with Cleveland after he struck out 155 times. B.J. Upton signed a five-year, $75.25 million deal with Atlanta after a career-worst 169 strikeouts. The Braves will start a lineup with six hitters who struck out more than 120 times last year.
"Hey, go ask Davey Johnson about strikeouts," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez says, referring to the Washington manager. "[The Nationals] strike out more than we do. It's like the stat people say, 'An out is an out.' You don't want to be grounding into double plays. It's not a big deal."
The acceptance of strikeouts isn't always balanced by power. Last year a record 14 players whiffed 100 times without hitting 10 home runs—four more than did so from 1900 to '62 combined. The old-school two-strike approach, which places a premium on contact, is dying, even though the free-swinging new-school approach isn't working.
Two-strike hitting has declined six straight years, down from .194 in 2006 to .178, the lowest average in 25 years of available data. One might expect the decrease in batting average to be offset by an increase in slugging, given all the hitters such as Longoria who don't compromise their power stroke with two strikes. But slugging percentage with two strikes is worsening—from .300 in '06 to .273 last year.
"I guess you could say the game changed during the steroid era," says Tigers ace Justin Verlander, the major league leader in strikeouts three of the past four years. "It was about home runs, home runs, home runs. Now that most of the game is clean, it's still that same mind-set, but without the same, I guess, ability."
As pitchers throw more strikes and hitters continue their passive-aggressive approach, traditional hitters' counts have become less common. For instance, the number of 2-and-0 counts has declined for three straight seasons, and there were about two fewer per game in 2012 than in '00.
And hitters are doing less and less when they get ahead 2 and 0, often choosing to take a pitch and prolong their at bat. The number of plate appearances decided on a 2-and-0 count has gone down six straight years, and the number of 2-and-0 home runs has decreased 33% since 2000, from 384 to 259.
The finesse pitcher with the 88-mph sinker is being driven out of the game, especially out of bullpens, where managers don't want to see the ball put into play. "It used to be that every team had one or two guys they'd bring in and you'd go, All right, I'm going to get my hits," says veteran outfielder Vernon Wells. "Now? I swear you can't even be a reliever on some teams unless you throw 95. It's just one hard thrower after another."
Velocity is the single greatest factor in a pitcher's getting noticed, especially in the amateur ranks, which assures the trend will continue. Scouts talk about 90 being the magic number in Latin America; young teenagers train specifically to be able to hit 90 mph in a tryout—the baseball equivalent to prepping for the SATs. High school players know velocity alone will get them noticed by college coaches and scouts. Youth league parents carry pocket radar devices the size of a smartphone to know how hard little Jimmy is throwing. In every step of the pipeline, velocity is rewarded.
"It's an easy measurable," Cubs president Theo Epstein says. "In the information age things that are precisely measured are rewarded disproportionately.
"Also, this is speculation, but maybe more pitchers are throwing harder because they're pitching every fifth day now instead of every fourth day, they're throwing 180 innings a year instead of 300, and instead of throwing 160 pitches a game, they're throwing 100. Maybe that's what allows velocity to pick up."
The evolution is undeniable. According to fangraphs.com, in just the past six years the number of pitchers who average at least 93 mph with their fastball has jumped by 88% (from 100 to 188). The ones who average 95 mph and better have increased 133% (from 21 to 49).
Managers use one elite power arm after another to match up late in a game. The Royals, a team that lost 90 games last year, used seven relievers who averaged 93 or above with their fastball. (Kansas City's bullpen ERA was 3.17, fourth in the American League.) "Thirty or 40 years ago you're facing the same guy all the time," Hickey said. "It's a different game now. There's no way you can tell me if Stan Musial plays today he wouldn't strike out 50 times. [Musial averaged 33.1 strikeouts per season.] There's so much going on with pitchers."
When Musial won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1948, he faced 52 pitchers. When Miguel Cabrera of Detroit won the MVP Award last year, he faced 225 pitchers. And each of those pitchers comes armed with more information to exploit hitters' weaknesses. Says Red Sox manager John Farrell, "If a hitter has a high swing rate on 1-and-0 pitches, we'll know it. So we will pitch to him 1 and 0 like it's a pitcher's count, not a hitter's count. Whatever weakness is there, the numbers expose it."
And it's not as if hitters can negate that information edge with analytics of their own. "The information hinders a hitter," says Hickey. "First of all, if you're up there thinking, you're done. Secondly, hitting is so reactionary. Pitching, nothing happens until you're ready. You size up the situation, you line it up and decide what you want to do. As a hitter all you can do is react. If you start getting bogged down with the fact this guy throws 36% backdoor cutters on strike two and that's in your mind, that's where the hindrance comes in. So I hope hitters get all the information they can—that they're overloaded with info."
In 1968 pitchers so dominated the game that owners lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 to give hitters a better chance. Pitchers struck out 15.8% of batters in '68. That percentage immediately began declining, especially after the designated hitter was introduced in the AL in '73. Through the '80s the strikeout percentage began to slowly climb. It wasn't until '94 that it reached the '68 level again. A period of strikeout stability followed in an otherwise volatile era of steroids, ballpark construction and expansion. From '95 to 2007 the strikeout rate toggled up and down in the narrow range of 16.2 to 17.3%.
Since 2008, however, the game has gone strikeout crazy. The percentage has gone up in statistical leaps and bounds: 17.5, 18.0, 18.5, 18.6, 19.8. One out of every five batters who comes to the plate today will strike out. And as the strikeout rate is booming, the rate of walks actually is decreasing. Last year it fell to 8.0%, its lowest level since 1968.
More pitchers, more velocity, more movement, more information, more strikes. The environment for pitching hasn't been this robust since Norworth and Von Tilzer were alive and the ball was dead. Night after night, game after game, pitchers are asserting their power, three strikes at a time.
Check out Tom Verducci's story lines to watch for the 2013 major league season, now at SI.com/mag