Beek's Blog: Hey, get a whiff of this -- strikeouts are baseball's growing epidemic

Posted by Brian VanderBeek on July 23, 2013 

— The pitchers throw harder.

More pitchers are used in every game than ever before, so hitters routinely see three or four different pitchers every game.

The two-strike approach is dead because chicks (and agents) dig the long ball.

There no longer is a stigma attached to carrying one’s bat back to the dugout.

Mix, match or take your pick of these reasons/excuses and feel free to add your own, but it won’t change the cold, hard truth that strikeouts are increasing at record rates throughout baseball.

I asked Bakersfield manager Ken Griffey and Modesto manager Fred Nelson if they had an idea why the strikeout rate has soared in the last 15 years. While neither claimed to have scientific reasoning on their side, they both pointed in the same direction:

A mixture of all of the above.

“To me, the batters don’t care if they strike out,” Griffey said. “They just go up there wailing. There’s no situation where you’re protecting the plate anymore - that doesn’t even come into being anymore. They just wait.

“I haven’t seen a guy choke up and protect the plate with two strikes all year. If they strike out, so what? They come up the next time and swing at the same pitches. There are no adjustments being made.”

Nelson, who inherited a team well on the way toward setting an all-time California League record for striking out, agreed with Griffey.

“I’m not sure there’s an explanation, but my guess is that it might have something to do with the lack of a two-strike approach,” Nelson said. “There’s an idea that power hitting is what pays because that’s all the kids see on SportsCenter. They don’t see the hit and run, the ground balls up the middle or the huge at-bats where guys see nine pitches. People have a tendency to emulate what they see on TV.”

Here are some of the eye-opening numbers:

At the major league level, the first time teams averaged 7.0 strikeouts per game for an entire season was 2010, and that rate has risen each year since then.

In 2012, MLB teams averaged 7.5 strikeouts per game and 10 of the 30 team achieved records for whiffing. This year’s strikeout rate entering Tuesday night was slightly higher than the 2012 pace.

Here are some more numbers to digest:

There have been 13 players in major league history to strike out 190 times in a season, all since 2004.

This year’s Detroit Tigers’ staff is on pace to become the first set of arms to average nine or more strikeouts per game.

Let’s bring all of this back to John Thurman Field, where the Modesto Nuts came into Tuesday night’s game having struck out 1,029 times in 102 games.

The league record for whiffs in a season was set in 1972, when the Stockton Ports failed to make fair contact 1,313 times, striking out a tad less than 9.3 times per game. To avoid establishing a new record, the Nuts will have to strike out only 283 times over their last 37 games, or reduce their rate to 7.6 per game.

Individually, Modesto has three of the top five strikeout victims in the league this season. Entering Tuesday, Harold Riggins has struck out 149 times and Trevor Story 134 times to hold the top two spots. Will Swanner ranks fifth with 105 whiffs.

But the entire California League has been contact-shy this year, averaging 8.2 strikeouts per game. Remember, this is supposed to be an offensive league, and it hasn’t averaged eight whiffs per game league-wide since 2002.

To provide historic background, the Cal League average was 5.85 strikeouts per game in 1983, 6.5 in 1993 and 7.2 in 2003.

Not only are the Nuts leading a whiff-happy league by a wide margin this season, but their reputation for having a lack of two-strike discipline is spreading quickly.

“I see guys when we come to Modesto that I know we’re going to get at least two strikeouts a night against them,” Griffey said.

“I know that’s a strange thing to say, but I’m not seeing those guys change their approach to anything. There’s no thinking to protect, not even a thought of looking for the ball in a certain zone. If we throw it, they’re swinging, or at least that’s the way it looks.”

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