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Strikeouts in MLB on Pace for All-time High

In public health, an “epidemic” occurs when a community records a greater number of specific outcomes than what is expected in a given amount of time. If baseball is the community, and our time period is the last few seasons, then we may have ourselves a strikeout epidemic on our hands.

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Strikeouts in MLB on Pace for All-time High

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In public health, an “epidemic” occurs when a community records a greater number of specific outcomes than what is expected in a given amount of time. If baseball is the community, and our time period is the last few seasons, then we may have ourselves an epidemic of strikeouts on our hands.

The 2018 MLB season has had us see roughly 29,900 K’s so far, and is on pace to total a new record of roughly 40,800 by season’s end (if my math is correct). To give you some context, there were a total of 40,104 strikeouts in 2017 and 38,982 strikeouts in 2016. If you take it back ten years to 2008, there were only 32,884 strikeouts. And in 1998? 31,893. That’s a 3% increase in strikeouts from 1998 to 2008, but a 22% increase from 2008 to 2017.

And that’s not all. For the first time in history, baseball may see more strikeouts than hits over the course of a season (there are just about 29,900 hits so far as it stands, so it’s going to be a photo finish). But the fact that it’s even going to be close is alarming on its own. And we may see one or two players make a run at the current single-season record for strikeouts, at 223.

So what’s with all the strikeouts? Advanced statisticians feed launch-angle numbers to teams, resulting in some players adjusting their swings to drive the ball in the air on contact- but this type of approach often leads to more swings-and-misses. Perhaps some GMs and managers just aren’t concerned with high strikeout totals, and treat the K just like any other type of out. It could be why players like Joey Gallo and Justin Upton can carve out consistent playing time. Both are in the top ten in baseball in strikeouts, both don’t exactly hit for average (BAAs of .204 and .261, respectively), but both will crack 30 HRs this season (Gallo might even reach 40). It’s not about small ball anymore. It’s not about advancing guys with singles and extending at bats. It’s about swinging for the fences when you can, especially when there are men on base.

It’s hard to say quite yet whether this strategy will pay off for teams in the long run as an offensive approach. My gut tells me no- I mean, strikeouts are bad, right? But as I dig into the numbers a bit, I find myself having to reserve judgment for now. As of Monday, there were 14 teams in the MLB with more strikeouts than hits (nearly half the league, seriously guys). But this group is not wrought with the bottom-feeders of the league.

Among the 13 teams are Arizona, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the New York Yankees– all clubs that are battling for division leads or Wild Card berths. So perhaps letting your guys hack away ain’t so bad. Perhaps there’s barely any difference between going 0 for 4 with 3 K’s, and 0 for 4 with 3 ground-outs. It’s not hampering a few teams that most fans would consider to be the cream of the crop in 2018. 

There is a more immediate impact the plague of strikeouts is having on baseball, something that should concern the league mightily. And it has nothing to do with offensive stats or scores. An increase in strikeouts means fewer balls in play. Fewer balls in play mean more shots of guys in the field just standing around, creating what is frankly a more boring product to watch. As it stands, just over a THIRD of all plate appearances result in a strikeout, a walk, or a home run. Meaning a third of the time, fielders are not involved with the game action. Viewers instead see only 1 of 10 guys on the field actually move. What else do more strikeouts mean? The average time between balls in play in a game of baseball has reached a staggering 3 minutes and 45 seconds.

Imagine you’re watching a football game, and Drew Brees hands it off to Alvin Kamara who rushes for two yards up the middle. The offense and defense each retreat to their respective huddles, and proceed to stand there for THREE MINUTES before the ball is snapped again. How many people would tune in for that product each week?

So this increase in strikeouts the MLB is experiencing makes for some sexier pitching lines. And all the free-swinging certainly leads to more home runs being hit. Left in the wake are fruitless at-bats in which player after player hacks away, making solid contact sporadically between copious swings and misses. My point is this: the last thing the MLB needs is one more thing to make the game more boring to watch. And while teams continue to try to launch more home runs into the seats in the game’s most exciting play, they will leave behind a wake of at-bats that leave position players (and viewers) standing still. All of them waiting for the in-game action that is slowly becoming harder to find. In the end, I think all of these strikeouts are going to hurt the game of baseball faster than they can help it.

*The majority of the stats in this piece were taken from Baseball Reference.

Ryan Kelly lives in Cambridge, MA, a stone's throw away from his beloved Boston teams. When he is not working as an editorial assistant, he is providing commentary on the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins for The Turf.

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