MLB’s analytics revolution led to more home runs — but it’s striking out with many who love the game
The great filmmaker Ron Shelton was trying to be funny, and succeeding, when he wrote the scene in “Bull Durham” in which veteran minor league catcher Crash Davis attempts to teach young Nuke LaLoosh about becoming a proper professional pitcher.
“Don’t try to strike everybody out,” Davis says. “Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls. It’s more democratic.”
What would he say now?
That democracy is dead?
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With the Rays and Dodgers contesting the 2020 World Series, the only part of that soliloquy that holds up 30-some years later is this: Strikeouts are boring. They really are. And there are more of them than ever. If it’s your pitcher earning the strikeout, and doing it in the right circumstance, a strikeout still can be thrilling. But there are so many of them in the game now, viewed so casually by the people in charge of each team, that it is having a toxic impact on the viewing experience.
Having retreated from watching baseball regularly in recent years, particularly since I moved away from an MLB city to one that instead has an NBA team, I watched more this year because of the shortened schedule, the joy of seeing sports return during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Reds’ involvement in the expanded postseason. I was astounded to see how much the strikeout has taken over the game.
“I’m seeing pretty much the same thing,” the great Fred Lynn told Sporting News, thanking us for writing about this subject. “So it’s nice to see that somebody else is thinking the same way.”
Lynn was a nine-time All-Star, an MVP and Rookie of the Year in his 17 seasons in Major League Baseball. He has seen the game change dramatically in recent years and told SN that he often speaks with other big leaguers of his era about frustrations of watching how baseball is played now.
“You’ve got to play little ball once in a while,” Lynn said. “One run is precious, especially when you’re facing nine different pitchers. You need to know you can’t be static. You can’t just say, OK, a guy gets on first base so you’re going to hit a double to score him. You’ve got to get him to third base somehow, or at least in scoring position. And I’m just not seeing that. It just drives me crazy.
“These pitchers — they’re strikeout pitchers. That’s what they live and die for. I don’t know if they know how to throw ground ball double-play balls. But they know how to strike guys out. So if you’re a hitter, you’re not going to get that many chances.”
When sportswriter Bob Hertzel covered the Big Red Machine for the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1975 and 1976, teams across the league averaged 4.21 runs per game and 8.75 hits but struck out only 4.98 times on average.
In 1994, when he was covering the Yankees for the Bergen Record, teams averaged 4.92 runs per game and 9.29 hits and struck out 6.18 times.
In 2019, the last full season completed in MLB, they averaged 4.83 runs and 8.67 hits but struck out 8.81 times per game. Developing hitters on their way to the bigs are taught to swing to hit the ball out of the park. Strikeouts are no longer viewed as egregious; they’re just outs. Which leads to the ball being put in play far less often and to a game that often seems to be condensed to one of three outcomes: strikeout, walk or home run.
“I have trouble watching it, to be honest. But I will say this, these playoffs have been pretty good,” said Hertzel, who also covered the Pirates and Cardinals during three decades as a baseball writer. “It’s definitively a different game, and I don’t think it’s a better one.”
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The new emphasis on the home run grounded in analytics has led to a major increase in that category — 1.39 per game compared to .70 in 1975 — but on-base percentage, also an analytic staple, has declined. They’re scoring runs this way, but not dramatically more. The 2019 season actually was an anomaly; from 2010 to 2018, teams only once reached 4.5 runs per game on average.
Why does all this matter? Because the game can be less appealing when the ball is put into play less frequently. It diminishes the opportunity for the kind of spectacular defense that carried Ozzie Smith and Brooks Robinson to the Hall of Fame. It decreases the occasion for a batter to make a useful out, such as a sacrifice fly or one that advanced a runner. It lengthens the game in ways that a pitch clock can’t subvert.
Players aren’t striking out more often because they are lesser hitters. It is because they are trained differently. They are judged by “launch angle” and “exit velocity,” both metrics geared toward home-run production. In 20 seasons with the Padres, Tony Gwynn never struck out more than 40 times. In a pandemic-shortened season that lasted only 60 games, the Rays had five players who topped that figure. The Dodgers had four.
Lynn said his time playing for the Southern California Trojans and head coach Rod Dedeaux enforced his understanding of the value of making contact at the plate and moving baserunners forward.
“We learned how to play the game what he considered the right way,” Lynn said. “We knew how to score a run without a home run. We did the little things really well. That’s where I learned, in batting practice, you didn’t get your five swings unless you got two bunts down: one down first, one down third. The hit-and-run, hit the ball through the vacant spot, bat control. And then if a guy is on third base, you’ve got to get him in. I haven’t seen a hit-and-run in a couple of years.
“These are the things that were drilled into us as kids. I don’t think the players of today even think about this. They’re so concerned about launch angle; that used to be called an uppercut, by the way. And then exit velocity — What does that really mean? Who cares? Did you get a hit when you hit it hard?”
The active leader in at-bats per strikeout is Andreton Simmons of the Angels, who has whiffed 386 times in nine seasons of playing roughly 130 games per year on average. There are 632 players in the game’s history ranked ahead of him, many from the days before the slider was introduced but also such recent players as Don Mattingly, Mike Scioscia and Ozzie Guillen.
“What would happen if somebody actually came along and played baseball right: signed guys who were contact hitters, know how to play?” Hertzel said. “I know they have statistics that say that’s wrong. But hitting was an art. It’s not an art anymore. Now it’s close your eyes and swing and hope you make contact.”
When the Reds played the Braves in the opening game of the 2020 postseason, the teams combined to strike out 37 times in a 13-inning game. The Reds got 11 hits that day, but their inability to make contact with men on base led to a 1-0 shutout defeat. They struck out four times with runners in scoring position, including each of the final three innings.
It was dramatic, but was it entertaining? I asked the following question on a Twitter poll: “Has the increased number of strikeouts in Major League Baseball affected your enjoyment of the game or your eagerness to watch?” Of the 615 votes, 50.2 percent said yes; 49.8 percent said no. So lots of people are going along with baseball’s analytical revolution, but many aren’t.
Is that a problem for baseball? Well, attendance declined from a high of 79,484,718 in 2007 to 68,494,845 in 2019, a decrease of nearly 14 percent. NFL attendance was close to steady in the same period, dropping 3 percent. NBA attendance was basically unchanged. Baseball is the only major sport experiencing a double-digit decline. The seven-game Nationals-Astros World Series drew an average of nearly 14 million viewers in 2019. Prior to 2004, that number dropped below 20 million only twice dating to 1973.
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It’s obviously having an impact on people who love the game. Lance McAllister is a passionate follower of baseball who hosts a talk show on the Reds’ flagship station, WLW. In a tweet about the anniversary of the team’s 1990 World Series title, he went out of his way to point out that the Reds struck out only nine times in their four-game sweep of the As. The Dodgers struck out 11 times against the Rays in Game 1 Tuesday — and won, 8-3. The Rays made it into the Series with a postseason batting average of .209.
Andy Glockner, a former ESPN producer who wrote a book about analytics in the NBA, tweeted about his disinterest in watching the Dodgers-Rays Series, “The sport’s evolution to walk-HR-K has made it so interminably boring that I just let it go unless the Mets are involved, and even that’s marginal.”
Statistical analysis also has led teams to less frequently execute another thrilling aspect of the game: the stolen base. In 1982, Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases to lead MLB. A year ago, Mallex Smith claimed that honor with 46. There hasn’t been a player steal more than 70 bases since the Mets’ Jose Reyes in 2007. The average team stole .47 bases per game in 2019, down 36 percent in 40 years.
Adam Gold, who hosts his own radio program on Raleigh’s 99.9 The Fan, has been a passionate fan of baseball, and particularly the Mets, for decades.
“I think stolen bases are among the most exciting things in baseball,” he told SN. “But the analytics tell us differently.
“Situational hitting has died. It frustrates me when guys can’t do the things they’re supposed to do. But again, that’s the way of the game.”
Gold is accepting of the changes but hopeful that, eventually, some of these elements will return to the game.
Remember, the heart of the “Moneyball” concept was not on-base percentage itself but exploiting inefficiency. The A’s under general manager Billy Beane recognized the true value of that statistic and others when their opponents did not, and the game was overtaken by a numerical revolution.
Now that every MLB team is emphasizing the same aspects of the game, there are exactly as many teams that lose playing this way as there are teams that win. The inefficiencies that literally are large enough to accommodate a stampede of American bison — the infield shifts against so many hitters that so few attack by hitting to the opposite field or even bunting — are allowed to go unchallenged.
“That’s perfect,” Lynn said. “Why isn’t anybody doing it? It’s because of the home run ball. It’s a quick strike.
“They’ve got, obviously, stacks of info going back years, and the numbers say: Let’s get nine guys doing the same thing, we’re going to hit fly balls, yeah, we’re going to strike out, but we’ll take that for that 1-for-4 or 1-for-5 that’s a homer.”
Will there be another organization bold enough to take it in the opposite direction, exploiting the opportunity created when there are three defenders shifted to the left side of the infield and only one to the right?
“We’ll need to see a team embrace using all fields as an offense. When that happens, and it is successful, then I think we’ll see it flip the other way,” Gold said. “But again, it’s all about total runs scored. Teams will get more than half of their runs, for now, directly from home runs.”
Gold was delighted to see Dodgers catcher Will Smith single through the right side in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against a Braves defense expecting him to pull the ball to the left, a hit that drove in two runs to tie the game in the third inning. Gold called it “a breath of fresh air” and lamented, “It’s the push to hit home runs that’s kind of eliminated that art.”
Of course, Smith’s biggest moment in the NLCS came when he hit a home run off Braves pitcher Will Smith that helped the Dodgers win Game 5. It was an exciting play. Home runs are what baseball has to offer now.
And lots and lots of strikeouts.
“I love my sport,” Gold told SN. “I wish it was better. I have faith it will be better again one day.”
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