Strikeout numbers still high in MLB despite rules changes
Published 9:38 pm Sunday, July 9, 2023
Now, if it could only do something about those stubborn strikeouts.
“Just move the mound back to about — oh, I don’t know — second base? Maybe fastballs only?” Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Jake McCarthy said, laughing. “I just think these pitchers are really good.
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“No one likes to strike out, but that’s how it goes.”
There’s little doubt that MLB’s expansive new rules package this season has been a success, particularly when it comes to speeding up the action. But the sport is also hunting for a little more offense these days and, to be honest, the league-wide offensive output of 2023 still looks pretty similar to 2022 in several areas.
Batting average is up modestly to .248 through Friday’s games, rising from .243 last season. So is OPS, rising to .730 from .706. Stolen bases also have jumped substantially, thanks in part to a new rule that puts limits on pitcher disengagements from the rubber.
But punch outs are again near an all-time high, with each team averaging about 8.7 strikeouts per game. The high came in 2019, when the average was 8.81, but that was before the National League joined the American League by adopting the designated hitter rule for good in 2022.
Even without pitchers at the plate, the whiffs are still coming in bunches.
“We all understand that this game is very difficult,” Giants slugger J.D. Davis said recently. “Pitchers these days are even better than they were five, 10 years ago.”
The good news is that hitting for average is starting to become slightly more in vogue. The poster child is Miami Marlins All-Star second baseman Luis Arraez, who’s been flirting with a .400 batting average for a big chunk of the season. No MLB player has topped .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 for the Boston Red Sox more than 80 years ago.
So how is Arraez putting up those gaudy numbers? Well, one reason is he’s simply making contact with the ball.
He struck out just 19 times in his first 357 plate appearances this season — numbers more reminiscent of 1923 than 2023.
“I think guys are starting to be better at manipulating the barrel and getting to certain pitches and just not one groove swing,” Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said. “I think there’s a lot of teachers now that are teaching the game the right way and not just one way to hit.”
The evolution of high strikeout numbers has been a decadeslong process but has really sped up over the past 15 years. In 2018, strikeouts became more common than hits for the first time and that trend has held firm the past six seasons.
If there’s going to be a drop in the strikeout rate in baseball, it appears it will have to happen organically.
The notoriously staid sport has made a huge effort to modernize over the past few seasons — particularly with the pitch clock — and doesn’t have much of an appetite for more seismic shifts on the field in the near future.
“I think there’s some sentiment among the group that we made a lot of changes here,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in June. “We ought to let the dust settle.”
The minor leagues have experimented with things like an Automatic Ball-Strike system, moving the practice up to Triple-A this season. A few years ago, the independent Atlantic League even pushed back the mound to 61 feet, 6 inches from its usual spot one foot closer to home plate, but it reversed that change after it found that there wasn’t much of offensive change.
The real problem seems to be that pitchers are simply throwing harder and harder. Seeing a 100 mph fastball used to be like finding a unicorn. Now, it’s an everyday occurence. There were 3,356 pitches of 100 mph of more in 2022, according to MLB Statcast. That was up from 1,829 in 2021 and 1,056 in 2019.
Schumaker — the Marlins manager — gets to see those blazing fastballs nearly every night. Miami’s reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcantara was facing Atlanta ace Spencer Strider on July 2 in a game that featured 91 fastballs that were at least 97 mph.
Good luck making contact with those pitches.
“Every time I look up, the velo, it’s just increasing,” Schumaker said. “So I don’t know what the answer is, to be honest with you, because the rules are better for the game. There’s no doubt about it.
“I just don’t know how to combat the strikeouts just yet.”