Baseball's Great Debate - HowTheyPlay - Sports
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Baseball's Great Debate

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Archer has been an online baseball writer for over seven years. His articles often focus on baseball strategy and team management.

Is he the problem? Or who he's pitching to?

Is he the problem? Or who he's pitching to?

The Great Debate: Is the strikeout killing baseball?

I read an article on FiveThirtyEight authored by Nate Silver wherein he states that relievers have broken baseball. His reasoning seems sound, from a certain perspective. He believes that the rise in relievers, as he terms them "OMG's" (One inning Max effort Guys; cute) is threatening baseball with more strikeouts than at any other time in baseball history. And, that is a fact: There are more strikeouts than ever before. But is this truly the reason, the sole reason? Or is there another factor at play here?

In truth, I had noticed additional relievers of late but I noticed something more before that. Something that I am far more concerned with than a reliever striking out a batter.

The number of strikeouts themselves.

Confused?

Let Me Explain

Ok, let me explain. I do believe that strikeouts are increasing but not necessarily just for the reason Silver describes. I do believe that is a part of the problem but not the full problem. Rather, the problem I see is the quest for home runs. The search for more offense in baseball has led to a larger part of the baseball population attempting to manifest itself into what they are not, or at least have never been: power hitters.

Historically, sluggers have been seen as a feast or famine type of hitter. It has been presented or at least thought that few true power hitters were of the type that rarely struck out. In swinging for the fence they missed often enough, but today's high strikeout rates have something hitters of the past never had.

Acceptance.

In today's world of baseball, the strikeout isn't what it was in times past, and it doesn't carry the negative connotations it did before. Slowly but surely it has become accepted as a part of the game, not something to be avoided.

Once something looked down upon and reviled, it has become an acceptable outcome for some players. But is that the pitcher's fault, or the hitter and his manager/general manager/owner/fan who seeks the singular thrill of watching a little white ball fly through the air and disappear from view?

If that is what they want, maybe they should play golf.

Let's compare, shall we?

A comparison of past All Star, Hall of Fame caliber power hitters, an infielder with high K rate and two current power hitters.

HitterAt BatsHome RunsMost 1 yearStrikeoutsCareer BAMost K's 1 year/AB

Babe Ruth (OF)

8,399

714

60

1,330

.342

93/522

Ted Williams (OF)

7,706

521

43

709

.344

64/565

Hank Aaron (OF)

12,364

755

47

1,383

.305

97/600

Dave Kingman(OF)

6,677

442

48

1,816

.236

156/535

Reggie Jackson (OF)

9,864

563

47

2,597

.262

171/553

Barry Bonds (OF)

9,847

762

73

1,539

.298

102/413

Royce Clayton (SS)

7,309

110

14

1,415

.258

125/574

Bryce Harper (OF)

3,306

184

42

834

.279

169/550

Javier Baez (IF)

1,785

81

34

538

.267

167/606

What the Table Shows

In researching the numbers and players for the table above, I simply thought about great power hitters I remembered, a shortstop I recalled that had a frightfully high K rate for his lack of power (yet played for a long time) and a pair of current All-Stars the media drools over. I looked them up on Baseball Reference and detailed the numbers herein.

Let's begin with Babe Ruth. Over his career, he was THE home run threat yet he never struck out more than 93 times in a single season for a K rate of 17.8% that year, his worst K rate of a storied career. Moving on to Ted Williams we see a single-season K rate high of 11.3%. Hank Aaron's worst K rate was 16.2%; and then we come to who I earmark as the beginning of the swing for the fences mentality player, Dave Kingman. Dave was one who never got cheated in his hacks and had a single-season high K rate of 29.2%. Next up the K King of all time Mr. October Reggie Jackson at 30.9%. Looking at another power guy in Barry Bonds we see a high rate of 25.5%. Last I included Royce Clayton, an infielder. Royce has made a name for himself striking out on the field and in films (not really, but a stand-in actor struck outplaying him in The Rookie). His highest K rate was a year which saw him strikeout 125 times in 574 official at-bats for a 21.8% K rate.

I also included Bryce Harper (I can't seem to not Harp about Bryce!) and his high which was set last year with 169 K's out of 550 AB, a 30.7% clip. And Javier Baez, an infielder for the Chicago Cubs who every media reporter seems to love as an All-Star; his highest K rate is 27.6%. Over the last three years, Baez has had @1,600 at-bats, hit 71 home runs and struck out almost (410) as much as he has gotten a hit (419).

There are power hitters, and then there are wannabe power hitters. Harper may be a true power hitter (he has flashes of brilliance followed by extreme darkness) while Baez is more of a trumped-up wannabe to me. Home Runs are exciting and they bring money it is thought, and along with that comes (again, it is thought by the media) viewers. To them, they are trying to explain the paucity of hitters who hit for a higher average as being the pitcher's fault, they are just too darn hard to hit in today's game. This apparent lack of scoring is the real reason for the viewers turning their backs on baseball.

(Note: if that is true then why are networks lining up to give literally billions of dollars to baseball to broadcast their games? Just a thought.)

Let's extract some additional numbers form Harper. At present, he has just over 3,300 at-bats in his career; if we triple that number to 9,900 we arrive at a close approximation of both Reggie Jackson (9,864) and Barry Bonds (9,847). But the strikeouts make the difference. Again tripling Harper's numbers we arrive at 2,500 K's for his career. Again, he is right in line with Reggie's 2,597 which is the most in MLB history. Bonds? He only had 1,539 for his career.

So, which is he? Is he Mr. October? Or is he the next Bonds? Unless he finds the means of greatly diminishing his K rate he will be the next MLB leader in strikeouts. Which, if he leads a team to the World Series Championship for a number of championships might not matter. But if not?

Ultimately, it won't matter to me, but to some, it will matter a great deal.

So What Does This Mean?

So, is it a power hunger that rages among players, players who have no business trying to alter their "launch angle" to hit more home runs yet who are either instructed to do so, for the sake of offense and the game, or to heighten their ability to earn more money as a power hitter? Or is it a group of pitchers who enter the game late, taking advantage of the poor little hitter who is tired after playing for an hour or two in the hot sun and strikes him out? Pitchers who were unable to be good enough to start games but which magically find enough talent, speed or pitches to suddenly become artists in manipulating hitters one or two at a time?

Or is it a combination of both? Actually, I believe it is this that is at the root of the current strikeout phase. Players do get a read on pitchers the more they see them, and they do tire, both pitcher and hitter. Bringing in a fresh pitcher will benefit them to be able to strike out a batter and lead to more people being struck out. So, what to do? Limit the number of pitchers a team can carry as is suggested by the author of the article? Move the mound back to 63 or even 70 feet? Lower the mound to a level playing ground across the field of play?

Make a pitcher throw softer? Don't laugh, that is what happened (in a sense) to another game athletes used to play.

What game? Fastpitch softball. Yes, this used to be something men across the country played, a game that saw men actually were paid to play in towns and cities everywhere (not unlike early baseball), a game that included dominating pitchers capable of throwing a no-hitter any time they took the field. And men thrived in this game for decades. It was a challenge many met (including this author as a 14-year-old boy) and one that saw who would take the field in the battle to determine who was the better player. We did not ask for a quarter, no change to the field or the mound to make it easier to hit home runs. But many did end up leaving because they were inferior as hitters; they could not match up to the pitchers so they walked away.

And went to slow pitch. They enjoyed hitting more home runs, beating their chest in the exultation of their achievement, screaming like maniacs as they hit yet another home run, scoring more runs and providing excitement for themselves...at a cost. As you see, there is no audience for a home run friendly league of slow pitch players, is there? No ESPN Game Of The Week, no highlights of home runs in a slow pitch game, no recap at 10:00 PM.

But there is for women's fastpitch softball, isn't there? Food for thought.

Is This What the Audience Really Wants?

Teams full of power hitters, slugging home run after home run? Scores that more closely resemble a football score? I cannot believe that. Even in this world of instant gratification that is ruled by Millennials and those who cannot stand to be off their cell phones for a moment without panicking there has to be a place where what the game stands for remains. A place where we can go and simply enjoy the struggle to score sometimes, a place where we can set down for a few hours and watch as the greatest athletes in the game battle for supremacy on the diamond. A place where we do not control the outcome by altering the rules but a place where the players play within those constrictions equally.

The game does not need to be changed, rather the batters need to alter their approach, the managers need to allow and encourage them to do so. Let small men slap hits, bunt for hits; let speedy players steal bases and rob a batter of a hit by an amazing defensive play. And let those capable of clouting a home run do so if they can while battling against a pitcher whose hands are not tied behind his back with additional restrictions.

I do agree that the art of stealing base hits by shifting has gotten out of hand. A shortstop plays in a particular location on the field and should not be allowed to become a rover (much like slow-pitch softball), playing between first and second base; and a second baseman needs to remain between this same area. Perhaps checking this aspect of the new game will achieve the desired results of more offense without making a change to the game itself. Play the game as it was meant to be played, as it has been for over a hundred years. It doesn't need our help, it needs our respect.

And we need to stop trying to change the world when it is fine without our help.

What's next? Saying there is a problem with baseball and its lack of fly ball outs, slowing down the game? Hah!

Seriously?

Thanks James!

A big thank you to my friend here on HowTheyPlay for bringing something to my attention that I had not thought of, a possible reason for the increase in both home runs and strikeouts: the shift. Some batters do not have the ability to change their approach to hit away from the shift (personally, I think they should work harder on that facet of their game but who am I?) and instead change their hitting approach to hit more fly balls, i.e. home runs. Because the shift has taken away so many hits, the offense has to get its runs somewhere other than hitting a hole between the bags so they opt to go over them...to the fence. No shift can stop that hit! In attempting to hit the ball farther they swing harder and when you swing too hard, your eye isn't on the ball and you are more susceptible to swinging and missing. That is an interesting take on the problem and I appreciate James' insight. Thanks again James!

© 2019 Mr Archer

Comments

Mr Archer (author) from Missouri on February 28, 2019:

Hello James, good to hear from you my friend. Glad you enjoyed this little article; so many people out there wanting to "change" the game to make it "more exciting". Personally, I prefer a well pitched game and a low score to a pound it out home run fest but I am old I guess. The shift is a problem to me and needs addressed; the mound is fine where it is but if we went back to having starting pitchers pitch deeper into games (never happen I know) and reduced the amount of relief pitchers available off the bench (maybe) we might see a better game. This world of specialist pitchers drives me crazy! Can you see Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan or God forbid Bob Gibson having to pitch like the starters do today? Would you want to be the manager going out to get them and bring in another pitcher?! Not me!

Guess we'll see what comes down the pike in the near future. For now, I am ready for some baseball! Watched a couple of Cardinal spring games already. You take care James, and I hope life is treating you well.

James A Watkins from Chicago on February 28, 2019:

I enjoyed your well-written and quite thoughtful article. I think this is a result of the dramatic improvement in bullpens. But also the result of the shift. So many guys used to get base hits where the shift is now that a new strategy developed to hit the ball over the damned shift. Meaning, out of the park. They can't shift out there.

Absolutely do not "Move the mound back" and do not "Lower the mound to level playing ground" but they could lower the mound just a bit. It could be dropped from 10" to 7", for instance.

The other thing I would do is stop managers from using so many relief pitchers by making a RP get at least three outs or throw at least 20 pitches, whichever come first.

Mr Archer (author) from Missouri on February 28, 2019:

Isn't there supposed to be a couple of games in London this season? I think the Yankees and Red Sox are playing there the end of June this summer. Go catch a game Liz!

Liz Westwood from UK on February 28, 2019:

Soccer, cricket and rugby are still very popular in the UK, but American football is becoming more popular. Maybe baseball will also follow across the Atlantic.

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