Major League Baseball Opens New Chapter: The Strikeout Era

Matt Harvey
Apr 24, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey (33) throws a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the sixth inning of a MLB game at Citi Field. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I mentioned last week in an article titled MLB: Ringing in the Strikeout Era, that strikeouts are on the rise, to put it lightly. It wasn’t my intention to create alarm or hyperbole surrounding this dramatic increase in Ks over the last few decades, or maybe it was.

Let’s assume, for the sake of speculation, that I was indeed aiming for alarm. In this case, alarm is warranted. While we are by no means entering another dead-ball era, we are entering the era where the strikeout rules. Like the dinosaur in the Cretaceous, Jurassic – you get the point.

Through May 8th, there are eleven pitchers in the Majors with more than 50 strikeouts. There are 38 batters with more than 30 strikeouts, after only about thirty games. So far in 2013, teams are striking out 7.66 times per game. Compare this with total strikeouts per team in 1950 (3.86). We can even go back and compare with the 1930 numbers (3.21). You see the trend. The last time there was a decrease in Ks per game, was 2004-2005, when it dropped from 6.55 to 6.30, and for the most part, this statistic has risen steadily since the beginning of time (baseball time).

You need only look around the current MLB landscape to find more than a fair share of pitchers who can strike out multitudes of batters. Yu Darvish leads baseball with 72. Rookie Matt Harvey is second with 58. The list goes on and on with names like A.J. Burnett, Clay Buchholz, Ryan Dempster, Max ScherzerJeff Samardzija, Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez all racking up strikeouts at a pace which would make Casey Stengel roll in his grave (and likely utter something unintelligible about leaving him alone in the hotel bar).

If history tells us anything, it’s that the case has been made for the pitcher, and the strikeout. There’s something else worth pointing out, though.

If you’re worried that baseball is turning back to a low-scoring game with a lack of home runs, you’re worrying for nothing. While we have (hopefully) begun our exit from the steroids era, it doesn’t mean that home runs are going away. The dead-ball era ironically had nothing to do with strikeouts. During that period (1900-1919), batters were striking out a lot less. At the outset of the era, in 1900, teams would strike out an average of 2.36 times per game. Home runs, however, were the problem. To provide a bit of perspective, when Ty Cobb won the 1909 AL Triple Crown; he batted .377, knocked in 107 runs and hit nine, only nine home runs. And, the home runs were all inside-the-parkers. At the very end of the dead-ball era in 1919, before MLB began using the corked ball, Babe Ruth hit an amazing (amazing at the time) 29 home runs. The very next year, when the new ball came into play, he hit 54.

Adam Dunn
August 17, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Chicago White Sox first basemen Adam Dunn (32) reacts after striking out against the Kansas City Royals during the eighth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The rub is, while strikeouts are on the rise, scoring will not see any major effects. Over the past twenty years, runs scored per game have teetered around 4-5. There’s hasn’t been a significant, recognizable impact on run scoring as a result of the recent pitching success. The only real impact is: less balls in play. Professional glove re-lacers are looking in every direction for more work. They might consider getting a night job.

Some other interesting facts about the current swing-and-miss phenomena:

Mark Reynolds, who holds the record for most strikeouts in a season with 223, did it in 2009.

Of the top five strikeout batters of all time, three of them are still active (or have been active in the last year): Jim Thome (2,548), Adam Dunn (2,072) and Alex Rodriguez (2,032)

Perspective: Ty Cobb, in his 24 years in the Majors (1905-1928), struck out a total of 357 times.


2 thoughts on “Major League Baseball Opens New Chapter: The Strikeout Era”

  1. But why are pitchers striking out more batters over time? Is it because pitchers have become better, both at employing new types of pitches (i.e. – the cutter) and through conditioning, or is it because hitters are getting worse. Or a combo of both?

    1. That is indeed the question, isn't it Joe? Thanks for reading. I plan on exploring this question over the next couple of weeks/months. Something tells me I have plenty of time.

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