Collateral Damage of the Strikeout Scourge

In my first article for FanGraphs Community, I noted, in the summer of 2014, that batters were being hit by pitches at a near-record pace. Here is a graph showing the number of plate appearances per hit batter, from 1901 to present. I’ve reversed the scale—fewer plate appearances between HBP mean that batters are getting hit more frequently—in order to illustrate the steady climb from the World War II years to today. While the hit batter rate has flattened out since 2001 (the high point on the chart), the rate in 2015, a hit batter in every 115 plate appearances, is the 14th highest in major league history.

After I cast about for an explanation for the rise, a commenter came up with what I believe is the best explanation: strikeouts (or, as the Cistulli-designated viscount of the internet, Rob Neyer, has dubbed it, the strikeout scourge). Or, more specifically, the increase in pitchers’ counts vs. hitters’ counts during at bats. When the pitcher is ahead in the count, he is more likely to target the margins of the strike zone, either to try to get the batter to chase or to set up the batter for the next pitch. When the batter’s ahead, the pitcher doesn’t have that luxury, and must focus more on pitching in the zone for fear of losing the batter to a walk. When a pitcher’s aiming for the inside edge of the zone and misses inside, the batter can get hit.

For example, here are career zone breakdowns for Chris Sale (who was a co-leader in hit batters in 2015) against right-handed hitters. At left is his location on 0-1, 0-2, and 1-2 counts. The chart at right shows 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, and 3-2 counts. The charts are from the catcher’s point of view, so the left side represents inside pitches. When Sale’s ahead in the count, 38% of his pitches are in the five leftmost zones. When he’s behind, that proportion drops to 31%. That’s typical. (What’s not typical is that Sale is ahead in the count a lot more than he’s behind, but you probably already knew that. Images from Baseball Savant.)

              Ahead in the count                          Behind in the count

This dynamic was clearly evident in the past season. When looking at plate appearances that ended when the pitcher was ahead in the count, batters were hit once in every 90 plate appearances. In plate appearances that ended with the batter ahead in the count, batters were hit once in every 254 plate appearances. Batters were nearly three times as likely to be hit by the pitch when they were behind in the count.

This raises a question: what other outcomes are affected by the count? We know that batters don’t do as well in general when the pitcher’s ahead. Are there outcomes other than batting average and slugging percentage that are affected by pitcher’s count?

Before answering that, I wanted to verify that pitchers are, in fact, increasingly ahead in the count. With rising strikeout rates and falling walk rates, this would seem to be tautological, but I checked anyway. I looked at the counts on which plate appearances ended for every year from 2001 to 2015. For example, in 2015, there were 183,628 plate appearances in the majors. 60,513 ended with the batter ahead (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2), 62,0553 ended with the count even (0-0, 1-1, 2-2), and 61,062 ended with the pitcher ahead (0-1, 0-2, 1-2). Here’s how they’ve tracked:

I didn’t go back further than 2001, but that’s not because I was being selective; it’s because the data from 2001 forward tells the story. Prior to 2001 the trends simply continued. In 2000, batters were ahead in 38% of plate appearances and pitchers in 28%, compared to 35% and 30% in 2001. The advantage to pitchers has fairly steadily expanded. I think we can say with some confidence that the past two seasons are the first two in modern baseball history in which more plate appearances ended with the batter behind than with the batter ahead.

So, having established that there are indeed more pitchers’ counts, what events are most affected by this change? To find out, I calculated the frequency of outcomes in 2015 on plate appearances with the batter ahead compared to plate appearances with the pitcher ahead. For example, in the 60,513 plate appearances that ended with the batter ahead, there were 13,501 hits. That works out to 4.5 plate appearances per hit. In the 61,062 plate appearances that ended with the pitcher ahead, there were 12,311 hits, or 5.0 plate appearances per hit. The p value for those two proportions, given the sample sizes, is 0. In other words, the difference is statistically significant, and we can safely say there is a difference in hit frequency when ahead in the count compared to behind in the count.

Here’s the full list:

According to this analysis, when the pitcher’s ahead in the count, it results in a decrease in hits, doubles, triples, home runs, and sacrifice flies. When the pitcher’s ahead, it results in an increase in stolen-base success rate, hit batters, sacrifices, and wild pitches. Those mostly make intuitive sense: when the pitcher’s ahead, the batter’s more cautious with his swings, resulting in fewer hits and less power. Similarly, when the pitcher’s ahead, he’ll work away from the heart of the plate, and misses become wild pitches and hit batters. By contrast, when the pitcher’s behind, he works closer in to the strike zone, resulting in pitches that are easier for the catcher to handle, lowering his pop time and increasing the chance of catching the runner on a steal attempt. (Max Weinstein illustrated last year that caught stealings are more likely on pitches in the strike zone.) The increase in sacrifices seems non-intuitive, since 0-2 and 1-2 counts usually shoo away the bunt due to the risk of a strikeout on a foul ball, but 0-1 counts make up for it. Batters were more likely to successfully sacrifice on 0-1 counts (1.4% of 0-1 plate appearances) than any count other than 0-0 (2.7%) in 2015.

Given that pitchers’ counts have increased and hitters’ counts have decreased, this model would predict changes in outcomes for which the differences are statistically significant. I looked at the frequency of hit batters, sacrifice flies, and wild pitches, along with the stolen base success rate, for 1979-1981 (the recent low-water mark for strikeout rate) and 2013-15. I excluded sacrifices because they’re both down sharply due to strategic reasons (managers are calling for fewer bunts) more than anything else. They results are consistent with the model.

  • Strikeouts per plate appearance: up 61%
  • Hit batters per plate appearance: up 98%
  • Sacrifice flies per plate appearance: Down 16%
  • Wild pitches per plate appearance: up 39%
  • Stolen-base success rate: up 7% (though that increase, from 66% to 73%, is probably largely strategic, since there are were 54% fewer stolen base attempts per plate appearance in 2013-15 than 1979-81, even though that may not make sense)

The graphs below, while admittedly busy, track the offensive events for which the analysis of 2015 count-related data indicated statistical significance (again, excluding sacrifices). I’ve selected the past 30 seasons. First, the affected base hits (total hits, doubles, triples and homers):

Offense rose through the 1990s despite rising strikeouts but has fallen since.

Now, the less intuitive outcomes of hit batters, wild pitches, sacrifice flies, and stolen-base success:

As the 2015 count data suggest, increased strikeouts, and therefore increased pitchers’ counts, has yielded more wild pitches, fewer sacrifice flies, a higher stolen-base success rate (though, again, that’s probably a reflection more of strategy), and, most significantly, way more hit batters (73% higher than in 1986; I truncated the scale in order to make the rest of the graph more readable).

This isn’t to suggest that these changes are solely a result of pitchers getting ahead in the count more frequently, but it does seem to be a contributing factor. Admittedly, much of the fallout from the rise in strikeouts is pretty unremarkable. There are more strikeouts and fewer walks now than in the past, so the pitcher’s ahead in the count more and the batter’s ahead in the count less; that’s unremarkable. That’s resulted in less offense — specifically, fewer hits overall and fewer extra-base hits; that’s also unremarkable. What I find more interesting are the other trends trends unrelated to strategy: the increase in hit batters and wild pitches and the decrease in sacrifice flies. It’s easy to get upset about batters getting hit by pitches, pitches rolling to the backstop, and difficulties in driving in runners from third with fewer than two outs. What’s less apparent is the degree to which those events can be linked, like lower scoring, to the rise in strikeouts.

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Jim S.
Jim S.

Excellent work.