Tom Verducci recently published a column lamenting the lack of contact in modern baseball. He cites rising walk and strikeout rates and lower numbers of balls in play as reasons the game is steadily losing an essential part of its charm. He makes some good points; it is immensely more enjoyable to watch Ichiro slap and run than to see Kevin Youkilis take a six-pitch walk without removing the bat from his shoulder. When my friends and I are watching a game, we refer to the walk as “the most boring play in baseball.” The pitcher misses his spot, and the hitter drops his bat and trots to first base. It is good for the team that is batting, but it is not fun to watch.
However, Verducci’s claim that walks and strikeouts have been on the rise for decades is only partially true. An article by Sky Andrecheck from the offseason demonstrates that walk rates have fluctuated over the past 30 years but have not shown a general upward trend. And while Verducci correctly points out that walks have risen for five straight years, they actually dropped every year during the first half of the decade and are no higher now than they were in the mid-1980s. Strikeouts have certainly climbed steadily, going from 12.5 percent of plate appearances in 1980 to about 18 percent today. As I described in my posts on high-strikeout players, the main ways to overcome a ton of whiffs are to walk a lot and to hit home runs. Walk rates have not changed a whole lot, so as the game has allowed in more high-strikeout players, home run hitting has increased to compensate. This increase is necessary to balance the negative effects of strikeouts, because players without power who strike out a lot cannot provide much value. However, while high-strikeout sluggers have been on the rise for a while, Verducci’s calls for changes to the game may be premature.
This type of play may just now be reaching its peak. As Moneyball explained, Billy Beane and the Athletics realized in the late-1990s that on-base percentage was vastly undervalued, and they set out stacking their team with flawed castoffs who were undesirable to other teams but could get on base. Today, a sort of boomerang effect is occurring. Teams such as the Athletics, Red Sox, and Mariners realized this past offseason that, as the rest of the league had caught up to the on-base bandwagon, it was the traditional baseball skills—speed and defense—that had now become undervalued. The Athletics and Mariners, in particular, set out acquiring these undervalued players, and both teams now find themselves with rosters full of excellent defenders who save runs with their gloves. Both teams also suffer from a severe lack of power.
Perhaps, as player valuation continues to evolve, the mix of skills in the pool of major league players will fluctuate and recalibrate around an equilibrium. Teams may value low-power speedsters more and more, until there is a better balance between fleet-footed defenders like Franklin Gutierrez and lead-footed sluggers like Adam Dunn. And as recalibration happens and players with speed and a lack of power become more prevalent, strikeouts and walks may begin to come down some.
Changes are not only happening on the position player side. Pitchers, too, have evolved in recent years. Velocity and the ability to miss bats have been highly valued commodities for decades, and as I detailed in my post on the fireballers of today’s game, great velocity often comes with great wildness. Many pitchers who can blow hitters away also have trouble throwing strikes. And as with walks and power, this skill set has become extremely expensive. Some teams, particularly the St. Louis Cardinals, are turning to a new formula to get maximum value from their pitchers: control and groundballs. Pitching coach Dave Duncan, as has been widely documented, has rescued careers by converting pitchers into strike-throwing groundball machines. Joel Pineiro is the most extreme example. Last year, as a 30-year-old journeyman, he posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career—105 in 214 innings pitched—while also putting up, by far, the best season of his career. He did this by walking almost nobody and keeping the ball on the ground, allowing very few home runs.
Pitching to contact is not a good strategy for players who allow a lot of fly balls. When batters put the ball in the air, a good number will leave the park. This is especially true in an era when shortstops can slug 40 home runs. Thus, fly ball pitchers must strike batters out, limiting those balls in play, to succeed. Groundball pitchers prevent hitters from lofting the ball, minimizing the threat of the home run. They can afford to let the batter put wood on the ball and count on the infielders to make outs. Many ground balls get through for singles, so to be successful with this strategy pitchers must hold down walks to limit the number of baserunners. With this formula, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe have had many years of success despite below-average strikeout rates. Pineiro and now Brad Penny are veterans that have recently converted, and young groundballers like Doug Fister of the Mariners and Nick Blackburn of the Twins are carving out spaces for themselves in the majors with miniscule strikeout numbers.
While it is certainly true that hitters are putting balls in play at historically low rates, it is not entirely clear what the exact causes are. It may be that batters are better trained to work the count and wait for good pitches to drive, and that they consequently strike out more. Teams may be selecting for these skills more vigorously. It may be that lineups with power from top to bottom have forced pitchers to move to the edges of the zone, limiting their ability to keep walks down. Whatever the reasons, it also is not clear that current trends will continue. Verducci mentions potential tweaks to the game, such as expanding the upper limits of the strike zone, but changes are likely to have unintended consequences. Enlarging the strike zone, for example, might not actually increase the number of balls in play.
Perhaps before changing the game, MLB’s bosses should consider the latest developments in player evaluation and wait to see whether the game is changing itself. For hitters, walks and power are here to stay, and for pitchers, velocity and whiff-inducing stuff will always be prized traits. But the mix of skills may be shifting as teams learn to better quantify all of the ways they can score and save runs. Perhaps recent trends will be counterbalanced as teams copy the money-saving measures of innovative teams—the Athletics and Mariners with their light-hitting fielders and the Cardinals with their groundballers. While balls in play may be at an all time low, one thing we can be sure of is that the game will continue to evolve, with or without drastic action by the people in charge.
This article originally ran on Ball Your Base.