Additional Contributors to Rising Strikeouts

Baseball fans, generally, are aware that strikeout rates have been increasing over the period of several years. I wouldn’t say they’re yet “out of control” — it’s not like we’ve got a league of Mark Reynolds against Billy Wagner — but some people have raised some concerns, and, additionally, they’re still trending up. There’s no telling how high the strikeout rate might go. Craig Kimbrel just became the first guy to strike out more than half of the batters he faced in a season. I suspect it won’t be too long before we see another, or at least before we see someone come close.

On Thursday, we discussed evidence that home-plate umpires might be getting better at calling the strike zone. It stands to reason that could be a factor in the rising strikeout rates, since more strikes means fewer balls and you don’t need me to explain this to you, but we covered only the last few years, and also there are presumably a bunch of reasons for the hike we’ve observed. It’s not like it’s all about the umpires, just. Everything in baseball is complicated, and so examining this ought to be complicated.

Now, obviously, there are some clear factors at play. I don’t need to go into depth. Pitchers appear to be throwing harder than ever before. Hitters appear to be more willing to accept striking out than ever before. The former might be due to improved training techniques; the latter might be due to improved baseball analysis. I told you this would be complicated. There’s more, too, and there’s more still pasted below. I hope you’re wearing your table-of-data pants. If not, I hope your current pants are versatile.

Over at Baseball-Reference, I was able to track down pitch data covering the last 25 years, or, since 1988. That seems to be as far back as one can go — whenever I try to access 1987, I get an error. So, I’m satisfied with what we have. What follows is a big giant table, and if you’re curious about the headers, Strike% refers to Strike%. AS/Str% refers to rate of swings at strikes. Contact% is Contact%, 1stStr% is first-pitch-strike rate, 0-2% is the rate of plate appearances that get to an 0-and-2 count, and K% is K%. Sorry for all the numbers.

Year Strike% AS/Str% Contact% 1stStr% 0-2% K%
1988 62% 76% 81% 57% 19% 15%
1989 62% 75% 80% 57% 18% 15%
1990 62% 75% 81% 56% 18% 15%
1991 61% 75% 81% 56% 18% 15%
1992 62% 75% 81% 56% 19% 15%
1993 61% 75% 81% 56% 18% 15%
1994 61% 75% 80% 56% 19% 16%
1995 61% 74% 80% 56% 19% 16%
1996 61% 74% 80% 57% 19% 17%
1997 62% 74% 79% 57% 19% 17%
1998 62% 74% 79% 57% 19% 17%
1999 61% 74% 80% 56% 19% 16%
2000 61% 74% 80% 56% 20% 17%
2001 63% 73% 80% 59% 21% 17%
2002 62% 73% 80% 58% 21% 17%
2003 63% 73% 81% 59% 21% 16%
2004 62% 73% 80% 58% 21% 17%
2005 63% 73% 81% 59% 22% 16%
2006 63% 73% 80% 59% 22% 17%
2007 63% 73% 80% 59% 22% 17%
2008 63% 73% 80% 59% 22% 18%
2009 62% 72% 80% 58% 22% 18%
2010 63% 72% 79% 59% 23% 19%
2011 63% 72% 79% 59% 23% 19%
2012 63% 72% 78% 60% 24% 20%

We can probably go ahead and make this simpler to digest. Here, we break the years into groups of five, instead of proceeding individually.

Group Strike% AS/Str% Contact% 1stStr% 0-2% K%
1988-1992 62% 75% 81% 56% 18% 15%
1993-1997 61% 74% 80% 56% 19% 16%
1998-2002 62% 74% 80% 57% 20% 17%
2003-2007 63% 73% 80% 59% 22% 17%
2008-2012 63% 72% 79% 59% 23% 18%

Feel better? The final column is what we knew about — strikeouts have been going up, rather steadily. If you look at contact rate, there’s a small decline there over the past couple decades. But there’s also a lot more. On average, pitchers have been throwing slightly more strikes. However, hitters have been swinging less often at strikes, meaning there’s been an increased rate of strikes called. More and more plate appearances have started with a strike, and more and more plate appearances have reached an 0-and-2 count.

Obviously, a plate appearance that starts with a strike is more likely to lead to a strikeout than a plate appearance that starts with a ball (or a ball in play!). Obviously, a plate appearance that gets to 0-and-2 is more likely to lead to a strikeout than a plate appearance that doesn’t. Pitchers have generally been able to make hitters miss more often, but they’ve also gotten themselves into more favorable counts, and hitters have been a little more patient. There are those two effects — hitters have been taking more strikes, and when they’ve swung, they’ve missed a bit more.

Strikeouts have been going up, and we don’t know how much higher they might rise down the road. We have a good idea that a lot of this is due to harder throwers and the wisdom of sabermetrics. Everybody knows, now, that strikeouts are good for pitchers. Everybody knows, now, that strikeouts aren’t that bad for hitters. Of course these ideas have been showing up in the gameplay. But there’s more going on than big sluggers just sitting back and swinging hard. It isn’t just more swings and misses, and one should never underestimate the significance of a favorable count. In today’s analytical landscape, counts don’t get enough love.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


70 Responses to “Additional Contributors to Rising Strikeouts”

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  1. rubesandbabes says:

    This is a cool article and fascinating that the number of 0-2 counts has risen.

    The generational move away from seeing batter strikeouts as a bad thing, is to me a result of sabermetrics stats, but citing improved training methods for pitchers is laughable. The scouts have been looking for the strikeout ability since the beginning of time. Sometimes the new stat knowledge doesn’t work any better than ‘don’t draft undersized righties.”

    The xFIP stat is basically the strikeout stat, duh..

    The problem is the dope, kids. They can’t take the cream and the clear anymore, so what can be taken advantages the pitchers more. It’s just that whole scrotal testosterone patch thing, and now every team has a good bullpen…

    Eric Gagne is sorta the poster child here…dopay!

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    • bowie says:

      what?

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    • I do not believe that scouts have been looking for the strikeout ability since the beginning of time. Look at historical strikeout stats, or even the K/9 of Jim Palmer. Scouts have always liked a good fastball, but especially in the days before the DH and teams having a number of glove-first batters in their lineup, pitching to contact was often a dominant strategy.

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      • Baltar says:

        Wow! A great Jeff Sullivan article and an excellent Alex Remington comment. You’ve made my day.

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      • rotowizard says:

        The 0-2 stat BLEW MY MIND. Seriously, there are brain particles all over my wall right now. What I’m having trouble figuring out is what exactly it means, other than the obvious. Since this has been steadily rising for over 20 years (including the last 5 years) it means that the ‘steroid’ era, and the subsequent ‘clean’ era of the last few years have had cause in this.

        It has to be some sort of fundamental change in approach… doesn’t it?

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  2. JustinSmoakedCheese says:

    Chicks dig the Dead Ball. Well, dead chicks do anyway

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  3. StrikeThree says:

    It’s been unclear to me why the inverse relationship between strikeouts and foul area of 1954-68 was lost in the 70′s and after, through at least 2000. This occurred as foul area was decreasing, which is counterintuitive. Fewer foul balls into the stands, perhaps related to a smaller strike zone, may have been the initial impetus. However, according to today’s post, fewer foul balls may also have been due to fewer swings, and more strikes taken, over the years as well.

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  4. Paul says:

    Despite the fact that a single thing has changed (umpires being evaluated on their performance using Pitch f/x), you’re claiming that sabremetrics is responsible for hitters being “more willing” to strike out? Seriously? Look, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think fundamental statistical analysis was illuminating, but that’s quite a stretch. Did you not get Dave’s memo from last week about dramatic overstatements where the evidence is 50/50 at best?

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    • steex says:

      I don’t see any claim of sabermetrics making hitters more willing to strikeout. The way you say it makes it sound like Adam Dunn has decided to strike out more often because it’s okay.

      I believe the point being made is that sabermetrics have altered how players are evaluated, thus resulting in different players playing in the league. While a player like Adam Dunn would’ve barely had a cup of coffee in the 1950s because of his terrible batting average and strikeouts, he is now viewed as a useful player based on his skill set. The fact that those types of guys are in the league now and weren’t then has an impact on the overall results of the league.

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      • Paul says:

        “Strikeouts have been going up, and we don’t know how much higher they might rise down the road. We have a good idea that a lot of this is due to harder throwers and the wisdom of sabermetrics. Everybody knows, now, that strikeouts are good for pitchers. Everybody knows, now, that strikeouts aren’t that bad for hitters.”

        Really, you not seeing that?

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        • rotowizard says:

          What I don’t get is that if strikeouts are good for pitchers, why are they not bad for hitters? I always thought that what is good for your enemy is bad for you.

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        • steex says:

          It’s a relative statement. Making outs in general is bad for hitters, but it’s unavoidable.

          Strikeouts are good for pitchers because, really, any way of getting an out for a pitcher is good. There are some situations where the K is especially desirable, making it even more valuable.

          On the other hand, most ways of making outs for hitters are bad. However, it has gradually become acknowledged that, in most situations, making an out via K is no worse than making an out via a grounder to second or fly to right. There are times where you’d rather have contact to move/score runners, but strikeouts also avoid double plays, so it can cut both ways.

          So the point isn’t that strikeouts aren’t bad for hitters – all outs are bad for hitters. The point is that hitters are going to make mostly outs anyhow, and strikeouts aren’t EXTRA bad for hitters.

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        • Nathaniel Dawson says:

          Hitters have more of an influence on the outcome of a plate appearance (especially batted balls) than pitchers do. Hitters like Adam Dunn or Giancarlo Stanton, for example, can do a lot of damage when they make contact. And over time, the powerful (and even the semi-powerful) hitters have realized that if they take a “swing hard in case you hit the ball” approach, they find that their overall results are just as good, perhaps even better, even if they end up striking out more. Because the balls they hit go farther and/or are hit a lot harder, they end up with better result on batted balls. That’s counter-acted by fewer batted balls because of the increase in strikeouts, but oh, boy, those batted balls that they do get! Home runs and doubles, which are a lot more fun than what you get by trying to slap the ball through the infield.

          There are those that take that approach but aren’t going to benefit from it (every man’s got to know his limitations, you know), but those hitters are probably not going to be around very long.

          For pitchers, every strikeout you get is an almost automatic out, and one less hitter that puts the ball in play which might lead to another baserunner.

          It really all stems from the concept I mentioned at the start: pitchers have less ability to control what happens when a ball is put in play than hitters do. As Bill James once said: “No pitcher gives up home runs as frequently as Miguel Cabrera hits them, or as seldom as Ben Revere hits them; no pitcher strikes out hitters at as high a rate as Adam Dunn strikes out, or as infrequently as Marco Scutaro; no pitcher allows a batting average as high as Buster Posey, or as low as Carlos Pena.

          Did you see what I did there? Of course Bill James didn’t use those names, as he wrote that in the 1980′s, while I used hitters from the 2000 teen’s to make the point more relevant for us now. The point holds. Hitters have greater control over their batted balls than pitchers do, so they can tailor their approach more toward whatever works best for them. Even if what works best for them ends up in more strikeouts.

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      • Paul says:

        And by the way, you obviously know enough to recognize that Adam Dunn is an outlier regardless. What about Rob Deer, Dave Kingman, Mickey Freaking Mantle. Yes, strikeouts are up in general. But it’s not like any front office person anywhere scouted a young Barry Larkin and passed because he’d rather have a guy who strikes out a ton. I have not heard any evidence presented that front offices are targeting those types of players in any significant respect, not anymore than they ever have.

        And the reason is that what is not emphasized at all in the article, but should be, is that not only are strikeouts up, but walks are way down also. Most of that research was conducted during a period where the data supported the conclusion. We’ll see if those relationships hold up over time. Call me skeptical.

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        • gereikat says:

          Mickey’s career K rate is 17% Lower than league average today

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        • Paul says:

          Not the most egregious example of a high SO guy during that era, but the league average during his career was 13.4%. The context of the era is kinda the point.

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        • Dimaggio says:

          Led the league in K’s five times.

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        • CJ in Austin Tx says:

          I think the influence of greater analytic knowledge goes beyond the evaluation of players. In earlier eras, there was more emphasis by coaching staffs on putting the ball in play, 2-strike approaches to batting, and productive outs, with less emphasis on walks and OBP.

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        • Baltar says:

          To me, the fact that the most sabermetric team in baseball, the Rays, have a high strikeout rate is an impressive piece of evidence in favor of Jeff’s statement that sabermetrics is partially responsible for the increase.
          It has been a long, long strugle since Casey in Mudville for baseball to recognize that a strikeout is not much worse, if any, than other outs, but it is happening.

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        • Paul says:

          Normally we would assume on this site that one means “significantly” when they state something like that. If you don’t think a 9+% rate in the late 90s and early 2000s to 8.1 and 8 the last two seasons is significant, then you might be in the wrong place.

          Let me re-state it like this: Last year’s walk rate was the lowest in the post-lowered mound modern era.

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    • munchtime says:

      Pitch f/x is not the only thing that has changed. Perhaps you have heard of “sabermetrics”. How many front offices used advanced statistics in the 1980s, and how many do today? The change in how front offices evaluate players has had a huge impact on the sport. Quite simply, there are different skillsets considered acceptable today than 25 years ago.

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      • Paul says:

        My intent here was not to bait people into parodying sabremetrics, which is exactly what you are doing.

        What sabremetricly-inclined egghead would not pee himself seeing Jack Clark’s 25%/25% (K/BB) rate from 25 years ago. Sabremetrics did not invent the high strikeout power hitter! To this day Steve Balboni, not George Brett owns the Royals HR record.

        Here are the MLB SO leaders from 1987:

        http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=y&type=8&season=1987&month=0&season1=1987&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=11,d

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        • munchtime says:

          Of course sabermetrics didn’t invent the high strikeout power hitter. Statistical analysis can not create one particular type of player. It does allow for broader analysis than traditional stats do.

          Keying in on high HR guys isn’t where the difference lies, because traditional stats look at HR. What about a guy like Ricky Weeks, who is high K with gap power – but isn’t a league leading slugger like the high K guys in 87. Yet he takes a lot of walks, improving his OBP to the point that Milwaukee had him hitting lead off despite those high K and low AVG. That doesn’t happen looking only at traditional stats.

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        • Paul says:

          Rubbish. Ever hear of Juan Samuel? He didn’t bat only leadoff, but he did in fact accumulate more PAs at leadoff than any other spot. Both Samuel and Weeks led off despite the huge number of strikeouts because they were fast and could steal bases.

          You should take a look at a scouting report on Weeks from back when he was at Southern. He was an athletic freak, his projection as a leadoff hitter was for that reason, not because he might have a 12% walk rate.

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        • munchtime says:

          Those two aren’t remotely similar players. One had a batting average in the mid .270s and was a 40+ SB player. The other had a batting average in the .230s and is a 10+ SB player.

          Try again.

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  5. snack man says:

    “Here, we break the years into groups of five, instead of proceeding individually.” how many people wrote this?

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  6. olethros says:

    It would appear that overall, pitchers are throwing just as many strikes as they always have – Strike% is basically unchanged, fluctuating between 61% and 63% for the entire 25 year period. All of the other numbers point towards increased hitter patience, and in the case of 1stStr%, pitchers’ reaction to that trend. The decline in contact rate is probably a result of the increase in pitchers’ counts and batters defending the plate as a result. Is it possible what looks like umpires getting better at calling balls and strikes is a result of these trends rather than a cause?

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    • Paul says:

      We also know that pitch usage has changed over time. So if for example, pitchers are throwing more sliders that are replacing fastballs with sliders that are being called for strikes more often (more accurately), wouldn’t it stand to reason that hitters won’t be swinging as much as those pitches. We know that swing rates at off-speed pitches are lower.

      The reasons could be numerous. But again, the only thing that has changed during this time is Pitch f/x introduction, and umpires being evaluated on it. The alternative explanation, that hitters are being more patient, seems like a real dumb strategy when walks are way down along with all offensive metrics including the power metrics.

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  7. Tim says:

    “Everybody knows, now, that strikeouts are good for pitchers. Everybody knows, now, that strikeouts aren’t that bad for hitters.”

    Well, that’s an interesting pair of statements. When did baseball become positive-sum?

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    • Gordon says:

      That’s what I was wondering about. Can someone explain how this makes sense?

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      • Will says:

        For an individual hitter strikeouts often correlate with higher OBP and SLG, because they are often a byproduct of deeper counts and more power-generating swings. Yes, at the end of the process, sometimes you get a strikeout, which sucks. But there is still a positive correlation at the macro level.

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        • Tim says:

          If this is true, then those deep counts are obviously just as bad for pitchers as they are good for hitters. You can’t disconnect the two.

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        • Will says:

          For walks, yes.

          But Craig Kimbrel isn’t more likely to give up home runs because he strikes people out.

          And again, a pitcher and hitter tend to generate strikeouts in different ways. A relief ace may not be throwing more pitches per PA.

          Adam Dunn is posting high strikeout rates not because Kimbrel got him, but because he also struck out against, I dunno, Kyle Davies.

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      • Baltar says:

        Those two sentences of Jeff’s make perfect sense, and they are true. He didn’t say that one had anything to do with the other, so I don’t see why some of you are having a problem with them.

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    • Ryan says:

      For pitchers, strikeouts are great because they are an automatic out, as opposed to a ball in play, and are a good proxy for general stuff. The more strikeouts the better the stuff. Strikeouts are the usually the best result a pitcher can get.

      For batters, strikeouts are an out, but are not generally worse than a fly out or ground out, and are actually better than a GDP. A batter who makes too many outs is a bad hitter, regardless of whether it’s from strikeouts or other types of outs. Strikeouts are bad, but so all are outs. A player who strikes out a lot but also gets on base a lot due to walks is still valuable.

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      • Tim says:

        As others have pointed out below, it isn’t appropriate to compare a strikeout to a ball-in-play out. Not striking out doesn’t produce a ball-in-play out, it produces a ball in play. We value strikeouts by pitchers precisely because they don’t produce balls in play, but then don’t devalue them equally for batters.

        As in the original statements in the article, this ends up making baseball look like it’s non-zero-sum, which is really obviously wrong. It’s important not just to look at the numbers but to verify them against reality.

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        • StlFan says:

          Go look at the top 25 pitchers by strikeout rate. You get the best pitchers in baseball. Go look at the top 25 hitters by strikeout rate. You get a mix of players, some elite, some below average.

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        • StlFan says:

          I would also add that you might think of this in terms of approach.

          The pitcher is trying to prevent the hitter from hitting the ball. This involves missing the bat and also leads to pitches contacting the bat, but not in the sweet spot. So the side effect of the “missing bats” approach – weak contact – is also a good thing from the pitcher’s perspective.

          The hitter is trying to avoid making an out and hit the ball a long way. This is achieved by taking a lot of pitches in the hopes that the pitcher throws four balls and/or swinging hard. The side effect of this approach is lots of strikeouts.

          Strikeouts for a pitcher are a sign of dominance. Strikeouts for a hitter are a sign that the hitter almost walked or crushed a ball.

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  8. Pat G says:

    I wonder at what point does it make sense for batters to be more aggressive in the early counts (including or maybe specifically 0-0). Are pitchers reacting to sabermetrics driven “count working”? And if so do hitters react back by jumping on get ahead pitches?

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  9. Pedro says:

    A possible explanation is the improvement in relief pitching and the increased usage of specialty relievers. If we remove starting pitchers from the data I would expect a much clearer trend. The strike rate seems to be constant suggesting that either hitters are taking more pitches, or pitchers have become better at striking out batters. I find it hard to believe that pitchers as a whole have become that much more effective, I think greater emphasis on relief pitching and developing young pitchers as relievers first may be contributing to this slight trend.

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  10. mastro802 says:

    The data supports that a strikeout isn’t bad for a hitter? A strikeout is only “better” than a double play, but that’s merely playing the results. If we understand that a double play is normally a strongly struck ground ball (or a line drive right at somebody) most double play balls are a matter of inches away from being a hit. A strike out is just that, an out. Even a pop up will get occasionally lost in the sun.
    Putting the ball in play is far and away better than striking out. If you disagree, then you’re lost in your books and have never played the game.
    This is why The D-backs have decided to part ways with guys like Chris Young and Justin Upton. Fantasy players do not win championships. Winning ball players (for the most part) do the little things to win. Those little things include making contact on a regular basis. Of course a big time power hitter like Reggie Jackson or Mickey Mantle will have higher K rates, but they balance that out with their prodigious power numbers. Today, lead off hitter are striking out 100+ times. Not good.

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    • TimBrownU says:

      Yes, strike outs are slightly, slightly worse than other outs, but it’s not a big enough difference to have much of an effect. Tom Tango shows that the value of a strikeout is -.301 runs and the value of a non strikeout out is -.299 runs

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    • Wil says:

      There is statistically no difference in strikeouts from other outs. Both are generally worth -.300 runs. You can argue contrary to that if you’d like but the statistical analysis confirms the general equality of the outs.

      I find your Dbacks argument interesting because the same team lead the league in strike outs just a few years ago and won 94 games. Also several teams who made the playoffs this year were the teams that struck out the most like the Athletics, Orioles, Nationals, Braves and Rays to name a few. Not that I am assuming their is a correlation between the two one way or another.

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      • Cozar says:

        The statistical analysis is incomplete. Strikeouts and ball in play outs are identical when there is nobody on base. If we looked at outs only with runners on base, we might find that strikeouts are worse than people think.

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        • RMR says:

          The problem is comparing the strikeout to the ball in play out. That’s not the comparison people are making when they react they way they do; they are comparing a strikeout to a ball in play. A ball in play is definitely worth more than a strikeout.

          What people forget is that linear weights provide fixed values on a system that contains a lot of intercorrelation. It’s not that strikeouts and regular outs are the same. It’s that guys who strike out a lot tend to walk more and make harder contact when they do connect, offsetting the negative value of the strikeout in the context of the broader system of possible plate appearance outcomes.

          Just looking at the outcomes with appreciating the context in which those outcomes have come about historically misses the point.

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        • Dimaggio says:

          In a linear weights system they are equal overall because of the double play risk when the ball is put in play. Yes it can have added value if a groundout to the right side moves a man to third. But it’s much worse if you ground into a double play. Obviously their are many different situations but when doing a broad based study you need to look at the larger pictures.

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        • Hoof says:

          Very well said, RMR

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        • Hoof says:

          I’ll take it one step further (and I think this is the point you’re getting at):

          The reason Jeff made the statement he did is because our primary means of evaluating pitchers (at least on Fangraphs) is defense independent but with hitters, it’s not.

          When you group everything that isn’t a BB, K, or HR as a “ball in play”, then the K looks great for the pitcher. When you distinguish ground outs, fly outs, etc. from hits, then all of a sudden the K is the same as any other out.

          The point is that whether you are a hitter or a pitcher, defense is just as important. The reason we use DIPS for pitchers and not hitters is because for batters the quality of the defense will vary enough that we can ignore it. It’s not because defense or strikeouts are any more or less important for pitchers than hitters.

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      • Baltar says:

        Good comment, Will. People who argue that strikeouts are worse than other outs inevitably bring up balls in play, which are irrelevant.

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    • The Royal We? says:

      that’s a clown comment, bro.

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  11. Nate says:

    “Sorry for all the numbers” should be the rallying cry of SABRists everywhere. Or at least the byline of Fangraphs.

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  12. Baltar says:

    I have to hand it to you, Jeff. Your excellent article somehow managed to invoke an astounding number of bad and irrelevant comments.

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  13. Matthew says:

    For what it’s worth, in his career, Mark Reynolds was 1-3 with a HR, 2K, and 2 BB against Billy Wagner. That’s kind of a beautiful illustration

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  14. tvfan says:

    “everybody knows, now, that strikeouts are good for pitchers. Everybody knows, now, that strikeouts aren’t that bad for hitters.Thanks to sabermetrics?
    You wish. Reggie Jackson told that to Tony Armas 30 years ago

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  15. Antonio bananas says:

    Didn’t look through all the comments, but what about ballpark size and foul territory size? Shorter fences mean more homers and less flyouts and more batters per inning (more k opportunities). Smaller foul ground means more fouls into the stands, longer AB, and more strikes continuing AB. Combined with the realization that a k isn’t the worst thing in the world and how sophisticated bullpen strategies are getting, it’s no wonder Ks have been n the rise.

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    • Antonio bananas says:

      Maybe look at the number of fouled strikes. I bet that has gone up as well. Maybe look at teams in years they switched from cookie cutter multi purpose stadiums to baseball specific parks. Gio Gonzalez struck out half a batter more per 9. Is this significant? Is this one guy every other game fouling a 1-1 pitch to the stands in DC where he would have been caught in the spacious coliseum foul territory and gio finishes them off?

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