Crash Davis to “Nuke” Laloosh during a meeting on the mound: “Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re facist. Throw some groundballs. It’s more democratic.”
What would Crash say today? By his reasoning, democracy and baseball are in dire peril. Since Kevin Costner uttered those words in the movie “Bull Durham” in 1988, strikeouts in Major League Baseball are up by 44 percent − and that’s taking expansion into account.
Hitters are whiffing in historic numbers. Last season, the average MLB team struck out 8.03 times a game. That was a record. It was also the 11th consecutive season in which strikeouts had increased in the big leagues.
Meanwhile, home runs are increasing at an even dizzier pace. Last year, homers were up 14.3 percent, to 1.16 a game. That’s the second-highest homer rate of all time, behind the 2000 season. A year earlier, the longball rate jumped 17 percent.
In 2014, there were 4,186 home runs hit in the majors. Last season, the number soared to 5,610. That’s an astonishing increase of 1,424 homers in just two years, more than 40 per team. In a sport that has been around for well over a century and has been analyzed to death, how could such a radical change be possible?
There’s no single answer, but it’s clear that the two phenomena are related. Players are striking out more because there are more dominant pitchers in the game. But it’s also because more of them are looking to hit home runs and there’s no longer a stigma attached to walking back to the dugout after looking at strike three.
“These guys are getting bigger; they’re stronger,” said Rick Lancellotti, the legendary minor-league slugger who runs a baseball school in the Eastern Hills Mall. “They’re basically swinging out of their asses and they figure if they can put 25, 30 out of the park, it’s OK to hit .210.”
Reggie Jackson was one dude who never cared about striking out. He fanned majestically. Jackson led the league four years in a row in striking out in the 1970s. He average 152 K’s in those years. Last year, 23 players struck out more than 152 times in the big leagues.
With pitchers becoming more specialized and more and more guys throwing in the high 90s, it’s harder to string together baserunners and score runs in the conventional manner − or at least, that’s the prevailing notion. Teams want to strike quickly, with the longball.
The numbers bear that out. Last season, 40.2 percent of all runs in baseball were scored via the homer, the most in history. For the first time, the home run percentage per team (1.16) was more than one-quarter the average runs per game.
Last year saw a record for most innings thrown by relievers. Why not, when so many of these “super relievers” throw serious gas? There were 48 relievers who pitched at least 40 innings last season and averaged at least 10 Ks per nine innings. Some, like Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Kenley Jansen, averaged in the 14 per nine range.
Stolen bases are down to the lowest level in 40 years. Sacrifices have reached all-time lows the last five seasons. Small ball is becoming obsolete. The late Billy Martin, who used speed to score runs and intimidate opponents, wouldn’t recognize the game being played today.
Cynics would suggest that this power surge is the result of juiced baseballs, or players. But MLB instituted a vigorous drug testing program after the steroid era, and Commissioner Rob Manfred says the baseballs were examined and they don’t seem to be the cause of the surge in home runs.
This might be naive, but it could be the simple evolution of the game in an age of analytics. Hitters are reacting to the rise in power pitching with a revolution of their own. More and more players are reinventing their swings and dismissing the more time-honored tenets of hitting.
They’re turning to modern hitting gurus who are adjusting their swing mechanics and teaching them ways to elevate the ball and generate more power. Essentially, many of them are no longer swinging down on the ball and seeking to elevate it instead, to increase their “launch angle.”
“I don’t know if it’s a philosophy of hitting, to try to create more lift, but it sure seems like it,” Lancellotti said. “Nowadays, you see a lot of guys letting go with one hand. That means the bat is going one way. Up. It’s not like when George Brett did it with one hand. He kept it fairly flat. These swings start low and go high. That means your point of contact is less, because it’s an arc to create lift.”
Bob Tewksbary, a former minor-leaguer who runs a hitting facility in New Hampshire, is the most renowned of the new school instructors. He helped the Jays’ Josh Donaldson and Chris Colabello become much better hitters (Colabello later served an 80-game suspension after testing positive for PEDS and is now in Indians camp).
In 1941, the year he hit .406, Ted Williams struck out 27 times. Joe DiMaggio, struck out 13 times that season, when he had his 56-game hitting streak. DiMaggio was in the game for 10 years before reaching 200 Ks for his career.
Today, players would rather look at a third strike than hit a groundball on a 1-2 pitch. They laugh at the idea of shortening up on the bat and protecting themselves by putting the ball in play. If you don’t get the pitch you wanted to take out of the yard, why knock the ball to some infielder. An out’s an out, right?
The question is whether making baseball a glorified home run derby, with a growing number of at-bats ending without the ball put into play, is good for the game. All the long counts and pitching changes aren’t helping with one of the game’s more pressing issues: The slow pace of play.
In 2015, after MLB put in new rules to hasten play, the average game time was 2 hours, 56 minutes, down 6 minutes from ‘14. But last year, it went back up to 2014 levels. It was worse in the postseason. The five-game series between the Nats and Dodgers averaged 4:01, and none of the games went extra innings.
MLB attendance remains strong. It was 73.15 million last season, a dip of about 0.8 percent from 2015. But there’s concern that the sport is losing the marginal fans, especially the younger audience, because it’s perceived as slow and boring. Studies indicate that fans feel the games drag on too long and don’t have enough action.
Manfred has pushed for rules changes, including limiting trips to the pitcher’s mound, automatic intentional walks, a pitch clock and raising the bottom of the strike zone to get more balls in play. I worry about the rise in homers and strikeouts, and how it might drain action out of the game.
I often argue with people who say baseball is boring. I tell them to watch and see how many athletic plays occur. I’m not talking about homers and strikeouts, but the exhilarating things that happen when the ball is in play − the diving stop at third, the relay throw from deep right field when a batter is trying for a triple.
I like a home run or strikeout as much as anyone. I just want the game to maintain a balance. As a kid, the thing that connects you to baseball is your glove. I love fielding and the many ways a great defensive player can affect a game. When balls aren’t put in play, it diminishes that part of the sport.
Baseball is a great game and has survived a lot of changes through the year. But at times, I barely recognize it. We played a lot of home-run derby as kids, but it was the real games we lived for. Nowadays, it can be hard to tell the difference.