Another Year, Another Strikeout Record?

Strikeouts are up! That sentence is obvious enough that the exclamation mark is probably unnecessary. After all, strikeout rates have been trending upward for a long time. Just take a look at the league’s K% over the last two decades:

leagueK 2

For a variety of reasons, things really started to trend upward around 2005, but we settled around 20.4% in each of the last two years. Strikeouts appeared to be plateauing. Or, at the very least, their growth rate was starting to taper off. The red line, however, shows the increase from 2015 to 2016. The MLB strikeout rate entering play on Wednesday is 22.0%, a full 1.6 percentage points higher than the previous zenith and a year-over-year jump similar to the 2011 to 2012 spike.

In other words, the preceding exclamation point might be warranted. Strikeouts are indeed up(!) in 2016.

Granted, you’re wise enough to realize that it’s just April 13 today and the 2016 season is a mere 10 days old. We’re at the point when you should probably throw out any leftovers from your Opening Day festivities, but it’s still early enough that they probably won’t kill you if you have them for lunch.

Almost everything we say during the first two weeks of the baseball season includes the caveat that it’s too early to tell. Unless it’s an injury or a player we’re never seen, we would be wise to wait it out until we have enough observations to analyze. So this comes with a similar caveat, but one I’m actually not convinced is totally necessary. Yes, it’s only April 13 and there have been just 109 games played to date, but that might be enough to say that strikeouts are going to be up significantly in 2016.

The following is a graph based on the 2015 season. It tracks the league’s strikeout rate upon the completion of each game, with each team’s game being counted rather than each single contest being counted, giving us a total of 4,858. Full disclosure: I didn’t make an effort to ensure the games are in the precise order in which they finished, just that the the game dates are in order.

LeagueK%

The Y-axis begins at 19.5% for readability, and chops off the very highest point for the same reason. The main conclusion is that we’ve completed 218 “games” in 2016 and at that point (see arrow) in 2015, we had basically settled in at the strikeout rate we would have for the entire season. We found ourselves between 19.9% and 20.6% for the remainder of the season. In other words, using 2015 as a guide, the league strikeout rate for 2016 will probably sit somewhere between 21.5% and 22.5%, a substantial increase over 2015.

The league’s contact rate is down somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 points compared to last season and batters are swinging less often as well. You’ve probably noticed that home runs are also up substantially to go along with run scoring, meaning that this looks an awful lot like the league is collectively selling out for power.

I don’t want to make too much of this early season trend, as early season trends are more vulnerable to irregularities than midseason trends. If we had played 1,000 games already with the same results, I would bank on a meaningful full season increase. After a mere 109 games, it’s too early to make grand proclamations, even if the evidence does seem to support such things.

This is a particularly interesting trend because there was plenty made about the Royals’ high-contact, no-strikeout approach and its impact on their World Series run last fall. The Royals were praised for zigging when the league zagged, picking up a player type that the game had undervalued a bit over the last few years. Some even hypothesized that it was a strategy that allowed them to outperform their Pythagorean and BaseRuns records. Yet if the early signs are any indication, teams do not appear to be pushing their players toward contact in 2016. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be the case. Hitters appear to be swinging for the fences to the detriment of their own strikeout rates.

It’s far too early to pay much attention to individual or team strikeout rates, but even the Royals look less like the Royals than they did eight months ago. There was plenty of talk about shrinking the zone and attempting to foster more balls in play, but walks, strikeouts, and dingers are all up in 2016 anyway. It’s truly a three-true-outcome league.

Whether this is good or bad is a matter of taste. I’m on record as being in favor of the drift toward the three true outcomes, but there are plenty of prominent voices who disagree.

With pitchers firing pitches at higher and higher velocities, it stands to reason that strikeouts might increase, especially if batters are attempting to hit for more power at the same time. If the league wishes to take the game back to the 1980s style of play, it may have to look at lowering the mound or moving it further from the plate. Although, given the recent increase in run scoring, that’s probably not on anyone’s immediate to-do list.

I will stop short of predicting a 22% strikeout rate for the entirety of the 2016 season, but given that the league’s strikeout rate seems to stabilize rather quickly, it appears as if we’re heading for another record breaking season in the strikeout department.





Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Dick Monfort
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