Last week Shane Bieber became only the second pitcher ever to record 48 strikeouts over the first four starts to a season, tying Nolan Ryan. Yesterday Jacob deGrom became the first to record 50 strikeouts over his first 4 starts. He fanned 15, the third straight game in which he struck out at least 14. That’s only happened 2 other times…Pedro Martinez did it in 1999, and Gerrit Cole did it just two years ago.
That’s all cool. Bieber, deGrom, and Cole are great pitchers. It’s always fun to see someone achieve something that etches their names in baseball annals alongside all-time greats like Ryan and Martinez.
However, these are records that are also symptoms of something wrong in the game we love. Until last year’s pandemic shortened season, MLB had gone 12 straight years with record numbers of total strikeouts. This year, through 762 games played, there have been an average of 9.17 K’s per game. Let that sink in. It’s the first time the average has ever been over 9.
When I was a kid, I read articles about how amazing it was that Tom Seaver could K 10 in a game with regularity. The average in a game for everyone is now only one off what I grew up thinking was a sign of greatness for a pitcher.
If you look at average strikeouts per game over time, you’ll note the numbers have been on an inexorable climb ever since the end Dead Ball Era. Introducing the live ball dropped the K/9 average from just under 4 to just under 3. The first time MLB ever averaged 4.00 strikeouts per game was 1952 (4.19). The average reached 5.09 in 1959, 5.75 in 1970. It dipped for a few years, even going back under 5 for a while, but then started climbing again, reaching 5.87 in 1986. 1994 was the first season over 6 at 6.18. It hit 7.06 in 2010 and 8.03 in 2016, and all 5 seasons since have been even higher.
It seems like fewer balls are being put in play…because fewer balls are being put in play.
Essentially all 30 teams look at each at bat and see only “three true outcomes”—the batter can strike out, hit a home run, or walk. The three true outcomes philosophy that every team follows to a greater or lesser degree is actually anti-balls in play. This is a problem. Frankly, for me, it’s the single biggest problem baseball faces.
People have called baseball boring not really because games often last over three hours. That’s a TV schedule issue. Fans see baseball as a pastime, and if it’s a good game, it taking longer is just fine. No, people sometimes call baseball boring because it sometimes seems like nothing is happening. Amazing dominance by a great pitcher is awesome. Pitchers dominating constantly is not awesome. Averaging 9 K’s per game across all of MLB is not great.
MLB targeted home runs this year by deadening the ball a little, Hitters wanting the “true outcome” of a homer, have to swing harder to get it. That means more swings and misses, more strikeouts. Decreased homers by itself isn’t going to get the job of getting more balls in play done.
After yesterday’s game, deGrom talked of taking games one pitch at a time. Executing pitches is of course the right thing for a pitcher to do, but many also try to give themselves a bit of a rest to be able to max effort/max velocity each pitch. There is a rule about how long a pitcher has to deliver the next pitch after getting the ball. Pitchers all ignore it, and no ump ever enforces it. If pitchers are forced to speed up their pace, they won’t be able to throw quite as hard…and more balls will be put in play. How can we do that? Well, the minor leagues utilize a pitch clock. The MLBPA doesn’t like it. Tough. It works, and it’s needed.
I recently put up a post about experimenting with new rules in the Atlantic League. I thought they were interesting and will be interested to see if they do help put more balls in play. The comments I received were only negative, but I’m going to address them again now anyway.
The first idea was to move the pitching rubber back a foot, to 61.5 feet from the current 60.5 feet. I get that some see the current distance as tradition and immediately hate any change to it. However, mound heights have changed over the years, and distance to home plate has changed before too. The current distance was set in 1893. Before that, it was 55.5 feet (imagine a 100 mph heater coming at you from only 55 feet). Would moving the mound work? Maybe. In 1893, when the mound was last moved, NL batting averages increased about .040 (from the .240’s to the .280’s). 1 extra foot would require adjustments in pitching mechanics. It would also mean the ball would take a fraction of a second longer for the ball to get to the plate. That fraction of a second could be the difference between a foul ball or strike and a ball in play. More balls in play = more action = a better game to watch. Coaches and managers can adjust mechanics to avoid over throwing the ball.
The second idea was to tie the DH to the starting pitcher…when the starting pitcher comes out, the DH goes away. Owners actually want the universal DH because top starting pitchers are very expensive, and they hate the idea of one risking injury running or hitting even though the risk actually isn’t large. Tying the DH to the starter would increase strategy considerations. Managers would need to try to keep starters in longer because losing the starting pitcher would cost the team one of its best bats for the rest of the game too. (Relief pitchers often don’t come to bat anyway. Managers will do double switches in the NL to make it less likely for the pitcher to be at bat the next inning. When they do, they’re as likely to be replaced with a pinch hitter.) Needing starting pitchers to go deeper into games would mean fewer max effort fastballs…and more balls in play. It would also likely all but eliminate the Rays’ “opener” strategy.
Lastly, I’d like to see a cap on how large a pitching staff teams can have. Again using the Rays as an example—they have 13 on their active roster. Limiting the staff to, say, 11 would again require managers to stretch pitchers out more, decrease max effort pitches, and result in more balls in play. More roster spots for position players might also allow flexibility to have dedicated pinch runners or dedicated DH’s. The stolen base might be more of a weapon again.
The most fun game I’ve seen this year so far is one the Rays lost. Their opponent, the Royals, came from behind in the 9th on two bunts…a successful sacrifice and then a safety squeeze. It’s sad that said game was so unusual, even for a reputed small ball team like the Royals.