Baseball is in the Strikeout Era, for better or worse

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

For the 11th consecutive season, Major League Baseball is going to set a record for strikeouts. The new marks are not simply incremental, either. In 2008, hitters struck out 32,884 times. At the current pace in 2018, they will strike out 43,163 times, which would obliterate the record of 40,104 set last year. This is a game careening toward a reckoning borne of inaction, and when nearly 23 percent of plate appearances end with a third strike, the culprit is clear.

It is no surprise, with MLB’s laissez-faire approach to strikeouts, that the sport-wide batting average has cratered to .241. The only two worse seasons in the game’s history were 1908, in the heart of the Dead Ball Era, and 1968, a year so disquieting it prompted the league to lower the mound from 15 inches to 10. Certainly this could be mildly anomalous, a function of the horrid weather, but over the last decade, the most a batting average has risen from April over the rest of the year was 8 points and the most a strikeout rate has dipped was .40 percent. April is no perfect indicator, but it does forecast trends quite well.

Individually, the samples remain too small to extrapolate – a point the great Russell Carleton made in a Twitter thread this week. There are, he said, some performances that are real, and some that are pure noise, and differentiating between the two is not altogether realistic. So as we bop around from name to name this week, consider this 10 Degrees’ pre-emptive caveat emptor.

Still, when Ian Happ and Miguel Sano are striking out in 44.6 percent of their plate appearances, as they were entering Sunday, that is cause for Cubs and Twins games to be rated TV-MA. Chris Davis set the record at 37.2 percent last year. In history, only 45 players have finished the season with a strikeout rate of 30 percent or higher. In 2018, the list is 21 players long.

It’s gotten to the point that 200 no longer is an ignominious number for strikeouts. It’s only happened 10 times. That number could double this year. And if he keeps playing as miserably as he has …

1. Yoenis Cespedes could become baseball’s first 300-strikeout man. In 89 plate appearances this season, he has punched out 37 times. Take that number over his 20 games, multiple it by 162 and the result: 299.7 strikeouts. Round up, for the sake of making this ridiculous exercise just a little more ridiculous, and voila: 300.

OK. Yoenis Cespedes is not going to strike out 300 times this year. (He already has missed a game, so 162 was an incorrect multiplier.) He may not even strike out 200. It’s harrowing still to see a player who never carried the reputation as one of the sport’s strikeout kings turn into the most whifftastic player of 2018. Cespedes’ career strikeout rate coming into the season was 20.5 percent. This year it’s 41.6 %.

A quarter of Cespedes’ strikes are coming on swings and misses. He is swinging at nearly 30 percent of first pitches. The livelihood of a free swinger exists on the expectation of contact. When contact vanishes, so does production. Cespedes is hitting .195/.258/.354. That the New York Mets have been what they’ve been with Cespedes a black hole batting in the No. 2 or 3 spot speaks even more to their impressiveness. Across town …

2. Giancarlo Stanton has been the Cespedes of the Bronx, with a strikingly similar line: .185/.283/.395. He went 0 for 4 Sunday with just one strikeout, which is something of an improvement, seeing as he entered the day punching out more than 35 percent of the time.

As vociferous as the Yankee Stadium crowd has been with its boos, this is one of those cases where patience is warranted. This is not the first month Stanton has struck out 35 percent of the time. There was May 2016 and September 2012. Fifteen times in his career he has finished a month in excess of 30 percent. And, yes, part of what catapulted him to the National League MVP award last season was cutting down on strikeouts. So it is troublesome. It’s also not mutually exclusive with him producing.

There is a reality about Giancarlo Stanton: He is always going to strike out a lot. It’s the price a team is willing to pay for the 500-foot home runs he hits when he’s not walking back to the dugout. The fear, of course, is that the Yankees tethered themselves to more than a quarter billion dollars of contract with a strikeout machine. To which the only answer is: Wait more than a month. Or two. Or even a year. Albatrosses manifest themselves over time, and Giancarlo Stanton isn’t anywhere close to one yet. And anyway, so long as …

3. Didi Gregorius is in the lineup, he’s going to balance out whatever Stanton and Judge do in terms of swinging and missing. He is proof that not only can players evolve but can take evolutionary leaps well into their career.

And with another reminder – caveat emptor, Passan, caveat freakin’ emptor – just look at what the 28-year-old Gregorius has done. The guy whose career high in walks of 37 came in his rookie season five years ago already has drawn 15, and his strikeout Sunday gave him seven in 86 plate appearances. Gregorius’ 8.1 percent strikeout rate is among the best in the game, alongside Jose Ramirez, Andrelton Simmons, Joe Panik and Max Kepler.

It’s the Ramirezes and Keplers and Gregoriuses – Gregorii? – who are the most impressive, because their incredible bat-to-ball skills come with pop to match. Gregorius bopped his sixth home run of the season Sunday and ended the day with a .333/.442/.742 line, the sort that puts him in the company of …

4. Mookie Betts and Bryce Harper, two others with enviable walk-to-strikeout ratios. The walk, incidentally, has made quite the comeback. In 2018, 9.2 percent of plate appearances have ended in a walk. That would be the highest since 2000 and third highest since 1955, the tail end of the walkingest period in baseball history.

Part of Betts’ brilliance always has been his ability to put the ball in play, and for the first time this season, he’s among the rare players who walk more than they strike out. There is not a bad hitter on the list; either he has a high on-base percentage or punches out so little that the sheer nature of putting the ball in play makes him inherently productive.

Harper may be the most interesting name because the profundity of his rise. The closest he came was in his MVP-winning season three years ago and he walked 19 percent of the time and struck out 20. This year, his walk rate is at 28.1 percent, which would be the highest number since Barry Bonds’ historic 37.6 percent in 2004. Over a 162-game season, Harper is on pace for 199 walks.

He and Betts are the MVPs of April for good reason. Though an argument could be made that …

5. Jake Marisnick is the real MVP of the first month, because he’s done something that seems impossible: strike out 29 times without drawing a walk. That’s 29 in 54 at-bats. Take that, Ian Happ and Miguel Sano.

Sorry. This isn’t just to single out Marisnick. Avisail Garcia is 74 plate appearances into the season without a walk and with 17 strikeouts. Evan Longoria’s numbers are quite gnarly: 76 plate appearances, 23 strikeouts, two walks. There are so many more examples. It is baseball in 2018. Amid the splendor is manifold ugliness.

Or, from the perspective of …

6. Patrick Corbin and those like him, incredible amounts of beauty. Pitchers love strikeouts. The randomness of balls in play vanishes. The feeling of dominance blooms. It’s intoxication. And nobody has struck out as many hitters this season as Patrick Corbin.

Yes, that last statement is indeed true. After he punched out 11 Padres on Sunday, Corbin raised his season total to 48 in 33 1/3 innings. That is 12.96 strikeouts per nine innings, a number that deserves some context.

The first time a starting pitcher qualified for the ERA title and struck out more than 11 per nine was Doc Gooden in 1984. Nolan Ryan was the only one to reach it over the next decade. Then came a seven-year stretch in which Randy Johnson did it six times and Pedro Martinez and Kerry Wood three apiece.

Then came the strikeout boom, and with it 11 no longer was the sacred threshold of pure dominance it once was. Great pitchers reached it: Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber. So did pitchers with warts, like Yu Darvish and Robbie Ray and Chris Archer. In all, 30 times starters have finished a season with more than 11 K/9.

In 2018, 14 starters are there. And while that number will erode, the record of five last year is likely to fall. Perhaps nothing shows what has happened in baseball over the last decade better than starting pitchers’ average K/9. In 2008, it was 6.45. Today, it’s 8.47. Which means it’s no longer just …

7. Max Scherzer and those of his ilk who strike out armies’ worth. Corbin is exceeding his previous best K/9 by more than 50 percent. Ray’s 13.29 K/9 would be second all-time for a starter, behind Randy Johnson’s Cy Young-winning 2001 season.

Scherzer, in the meantime, keeps humming along, punching out 12.82 per nine, not even walking two, yielding hits with the parsimony of a perfectionist. He is the embodiment of baseball today: he throws hard, he’s brilliant and he craves punchouts. Every week, it seems, he finds his way into 10 Degrees. Writing about virtuosity never gets tiresome.

He is the closest thing in baseball to a pitching metronome. For a long time, the same could be said for …

8. J.A. Happ, too. He was the archetypal average left-handed starter who was going to throw something like 160 to 180 OK innings. He was a guy you wanted on your team. He wasn’t the guy for whom anyone would trade the farm – or even a sliver of the farm.

So to see Happ – 92-mph-throwing J.A. Happ, the guy who throws fastballs more than 70 percent of the time in an era where increased breaking balls usage has helped spike the strikeout rate – suddenly striking out 12.68 per nine is … well, it’s like seeing Charlie Morton at 10.88 or Lance Lynn and Dylan Bundy and Sean Newcomb on the list of those over 11. Of the 95 most-used starting pitchers this season, 37 have a K/9 of at least 9.00. Kershaw’s is 9.55, and he’s 30th among his peers.

Happ has made a few adjustments. He’s elevating his fastball against right-handed hitters, as FanGraphs noted. And, yes, high fastballs have proven difficult to hit. Even so, seeing someone like Happ morph into a strikeout pitcher is as alarming as seeing the K/9 certain …

9. Relief pitchers are carrying these days. From Aroldis Chapman (18.00) to Josh Hader (17.80), to Sean Doolittle (17.10), to Adam Ottavino (17.05), to Carl Edwards Jr. (16.88), to Edwin Diaz (16.55), the best relief pitchers are recording two-thirds of their outs via strikeout. Of the 199 relievers qualified on FanGraphs, 116 have strikeout-per-nine rates of above nine.

The average reliever is at 9.29 K/9. Five years ago, that number was 8.29, and 10 years ago, it was 7.5, and it’s part of the anti-strikeout bloc’s deepest fears: That the lack of action is making the game boring, and nothing exemplifies that quite like the end of games, where relievers possess shutdown stuff and eviscerate hitters on the regular. It’s a reasonable argument. Especially in the era of the eight-man bullpen, where managers mix and max, using pitchers for one out to get the platoon advantage and turning the last three (or four … or five) innings into a slog of pitching changes and strikeouts.

MLB doesn’t seem altogether distressed. Certainly not enough to do anything in the near term about it. The league fears unintended consequences. At the same time, the consequence of watching baseball change over the last decade is that …

10. Yoenis Cespedes is striking out 41.6 percent of the time and the best he can offer is that … he’s not golfing enough. This is obviously very comforting to the Mets in the second season of a four-year, $110 million deal.

The truth is, Cespedes won’t be this bad, because the likelihood of someone with his talent doubling his strikeout rate over the course of an entire season would take an erosion of skill so severe it would be an outlier. Guys like Stanton, Matt Olson, Yoan Moncada – big-strikeout sorts who are simply living down to their reputations – can flirt with 40 percent and make sense.

In 89 plate appearances this season, Yoenis Cespedes has punched out 37 times. (Getty)

That doesn’t exactly help Cespedes or the Mets. The pox of baseball has infected him, and no immediate cure exists. There’s optimism that it rids itself, hope that it goes away and never comes back, but then it’s not like the Mets don’t enjoy strikeouts themselves. Their pitching staff is averaging 10.35 per nine, behind only the Astros (10.93), Nationals (10.60) and Yankees (10.59).

The game is the game, as a wise man once said, and in baseball, in 2018, the game is strikeouts. There are ebbs and flows, fits and starts, different incarnations for different time periods, but do not mistake this for anything other than what it is: a confluence of pitchers valuing something, hitters inuring themselves to it and the game changing. When baseball history is written, this will be known as the Strikeout Era, a moniker it has more than earned.

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