Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls - it’s more democratic.
-Crash Davis, Bull Durham
Last September, the Royals faced the Twins in a routine divisional matchup, a 4-2 loss for the boys in blue, that was remarkable for only one reason - no Royals hitters struck out. Twins starter Kyle Gibson has never been known to be a high whiff pitcher, and Royals hitters were known for their contact, so perhaps it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise. But no strikeout games like this have become a complete oddity. Consider that in the 1988 season alone, there were 16 games in baseball of at least nine innings where a team did not strikeout. There have been just 13 in the last seven seasons combined, and none this year.
Strikeouts are up. Walks are up. Home runs are up. These are the “three true outcomes”, a term coined by then-Baseball Prospectus writer and Royals fan Rany Jazayerli back in 2000, as the outcomes a pitcher can truly control. Sabermetricians like Jazayerli illustrated that hitters could demonstrate a consistent ability to draw walks, which allowed them to get on base, which avoided outs and created runs. Strikeouts were not to be villified, but were rather a side-effect of going for strikeouts and home runs, which could yield more runs than putting the ball in play and wasting outs (or worse, hitting into a double play).
Nearly two decades later, these views have become mainstream, with championship clubs like the Astros and Cubs relying heavily on a high-walk, high home-run combination for hitters, and high-strikeout performances from pitchers. Last year, one-third of all plate appearances resulted in a strikeout, walk, or home run. Higher reliance on high-strikeout relievers has contributed, as well as defensive shifts that can convert more balls put in play into outs. While there seems little doubt at this point that this style of play can be a very successful formula for winning games, some are questioning whether it has led to a less aesthetically-pleasing style of baseball to watch.
“There’s a real collective, conservative style of play that doesn’t lend well to the aesthetics of the game.”
Whether or not this has led to tangible decline in popularity in baseball is debatable, I think. Lower attendance this year could just an aberration, or tanking by several teams and a lack of many interesting divisional races could be bigger culprits. And it is quite possible there are millions of fans who find this to be a much more enjoyable game to watch with more exciting home runs and strikeouts and fewer weak routine ground balls.
What I think most who opine on the aesthetics of baseball have to admit is that there is a strong bias to prefer baseball to be played the same way it was when you were around 10-13 years old. If you grew up in the 60s, the Golden Age was when Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays roamed outfielders. If you grew up in the 70s, it was the dynasties of the Big Red Machine and the Earl Weaver Orioles that made baseball great. If you were a child of the 80s, Whiteyball and stolen bases as the ball bounced around on Astroturf was the way the game should be played. And if you were a child in the 90s you probably prefered the big boppers like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire.
So it is understandable many that lament the style of play today were products of the high-contact approach of the 70s and 80s, when the home run rate and strikeout rate was 20-30% lower than it is now. I grew up in the 80s, and while I would like to see more contact, more triples, and more stolen bases, I don’t want to go back to home run rates that low, such as 1989, when Kevin Mitchell was the only player to hit as many as 40 home runs. Could a better balance be struck?
There seems to be some enthusiasm for banning radical defensive shifts, but this seems like an ineffective way to go about it. Prohibiting defenders from positioning players where they think hitters are likely to hit it seems silly. And while shifts have probably had an effect on the spike in home runs, the fact is the incentive of home runs are still much greater than the incentive of rolling a single the opposite way.
Limiting reliever usage has also been proposed, more of a way to reduce the time spent standing around in games, but it would also bring strikeout rates down. But without any kind of commensurate counter-measure to address home run rates, those rates will only continue to skyrocket as hitters feast on tired starting pitchers no longer capable of getting whiffs.
Due to the success of the Astros and Cubs, analytics isn’t going anywhere soon. But the good thing about analytics is that it is agnostic about style. Analytics doesn’t necessarily care how runs are scored, it only seeks to find the most effective way to score runs. If that is through home runs, fine. If that is through stolen bases, fine.
So we can incentivize those plays that we find more aesthetically pleasing, de-incentivize those plays we wish to reduce, and analytics will follow. If fans want more contact, more stolen bases, more balls in play, it all revolves around the incentive to hit home runs. Right now there is too much incentive to hit home runs, and not enough de-incentive to strikeout. One way to de-incentivize home runs would be moving fences back, reducing the chances that a big swing will lead to runs. However that would require getting all teams to agree on new dimensions, and teams are unlikely to want to see fewer home runs, and more importantly it would remove valuable seats that provide revenues.
Another way to de-incentivize home runs would be by deadening the ball. Baseball has denied accusations the ball is more lively. Even if that is the case, baseball could certainly deaden the ball if they wanted to. Perhaps more teams could use humidors, a tactic adopted in the thin air in Colorado and Arizona. Studies show that humidors could depress home run rates 25-50%, although in more humid areas like Kansas City it could actually increase rates.
But is this the game fans truly want? Or is it just the opinion of sportswriters who are accustomed to watching the game be played a certain way? Will there be side effects we aren’t anticipating? Will the game evolve on its own? What do you think, has analytics shaped baseball to become more boring? If so, what would you do to fix the game?