Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Rising Strikeout Rate: A Rebuttal

For those of you that may have accidentally clicked on the The Blob's article, "The Rising Strikeout Rate", I sincerely apologize.  As an avid baseball fan who is currently watching a meaningless Wednesday afternoon Cubs/Yankees game, I was appalled by this analysis. (If you take nothing else away from this article, know that Eric Hinske is now the Cubs first base coach and he probably outweighs Mark Henry). The graph that was presented outlined a significant rise in the strikeout rate from 1990 to 2014, and most notably from 2008 to 2014. It is irrefutable that this trend is indeed real and appears to be continuing this year, but the reasons given for it were pure nonsense. Nowhere in Blob's incoherent rambling could there be considered anything even resembling a rational thought. I award him no points, and may God have mercy on his soul.

Blob Argument #1 - Pitchers are getting better steroids than hitters.

Really? I could just leave it at that, but let's break this down a bit further. Blob is suggesting that all MLB pitchers have joined some secret Biogenesis society where a mad scientist was able to develop steroids that only increase the speed of a players throwing motion, but not their swing. They also formed an alternative Players Union headed by an evil Mike Timlin that colluded with Bug Selig to punish hitters for steroids, but not pitchers. And apparently while the other Players Union, headed by an evil Tony Clark (that's not a joke, he's actually the MLBPA President), attempts to develop cross-fit steroids, pitchers are just filling the void with extra strikeouts.

Blob Argument #2 - The strike zone is getting bigger/something about Replay guys getting thumbs up their asses

Here is something that could at least potentially be considered a rational thought. Except that it is not really true. In fact, in 2008, when the first major spikes begin to occur, the MLB actually introduced the PITCHF/x system. This is a sophisticated tracking system that almost perfectly maps every pitch thrown to the perceived perfect strike zone, and determines how accurate umpires are. The amount of 'called strikes' per pitch attempt has risen ever so slightly since 2008, but the amount of strikes determined by the PITCHF/x system has actually stayed almost complete static.
This seems to be counter-intuitive. If an umpire knew he was being judged on the accuracy of his strike zone, wouldn't he want to make his zone even tighter? Perhaps there is something else at work. I propose that this slight uptick in called strikes is actually due to a shift in hitting approach and culture. Since the advent of Moneyball, everyone in the MLB now accurately understands the importance of walks, OBP and seeing as many pitches as possible. Seeing a strike or two is no longer just a phrase saved for lead-off hitters. Clean up hitters like Mike Napoli lead the league in pitches seen now. Rather than jumping on the first good pitch, hitters are being rewarded for getting deep into counts and staying true to their approach throughout the at-bat. How many guys do you see take vastly different '2 strike' swings anymore? Defenses are better aligned, more specialists are used, every possible situation is why would anyone bother just trying to put the ball in play anymore? Shouldn't they be trying to hit a line drive every single swing? If this is actually the case, then you would expect a slight increase in called strikes as well as overall strikeouts.

Blob Argument #3 - Pitchers are flat out cheating/we should just play wiffle ball instead

I will give Blob the benefit of the doubt and assume he was kidding, but it's tough to tell coming from a man who drafted Jackie Bradley Jr. first overall in our fantasy league...last year. Look, strikeouts are not the only thing down. Runs scored and overall batting average are at the same extreme lows. Offense is down, pitching is up. Why? Plenty of reasons - vastly improved scouting (all time high relief pitcher use, specialists), emphasis on defensive players (ridiculous amount of shifting, discovery of UZR/dWar), lack of steroids. The stigma of striking out is no longer a big deal. If you can do something that adds to your overall value as a player (WAR), strike out as much as you want. Managers do not really care anymore. Essentially, there are a number of plausible and easily explained causes for this trend that so alarmed the Blob. Secret steroids, terrible umpires and cheating however, do not qualify.

P.S. Pretty good chance Will Middlebrooks is 100% responsible for that increase in called strikes


  1. While I agree with pretty much everything you say here Mr. Royal, the blob was right that the strike zone has grown. His graph and argument aim to prove an increase in strikeouts from the 90's to present day and expansion of the strike zone does play a role (although maybe not more than what you mention above).

    Take a look at the following timeline for a brief history of the major changes in the strike zone:

  2. I see the line about the strike zone expanding in 1996, but if you look at Blob's graph, the strikeout percentage is pretty much stagnant from 1996-2006. The spikes actually occur in the years prior and after that period, suggesting something else must have been at play.