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When It Comes to Balls in Play, MLB Is Striking Out

Baseball’s new rules have quickened games and increased stolen bases, but strikeout rates haven’t budged

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Once upon a time, strikeouts weren’t a cause or symptom of baseball’s lack of action. They were, in fact, the fix. Without them, the sport’s pioneers discovered, the game got bogged down.

“The swinging strike was the earliest identifiable addition to the game, put there in response to the batter who was hopelessly flailing, making everyone else stand around and wait for him to successfully put the bat on the ball,” says historian Richard Hershberger, author of Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball. “The solution was that the third time he swung and missed, the ball was in play regardless and he had to run for first.”

Once someone was on first, though, another pacing problem presented itself, which soon led to the invention of another way to K. “The called strike rule was instituted in 1858 because some clubs would, once they got a runner on first base, refuse to swing at anything,” Hershberger says. “A ball would eventually get past the catcher, allowing the runner to advance without risk. This was every bit as exciting as you would expect.”

Strikeouts, then, were a remedy for slow-paced, boring baseball: swinging and missing ad infinitum, or refusing to swing at all. (Walks came along a few years later to address a related problem: hurlers who refused to throw pitches within batters’ reach.) It’s ironic, then, that strikeouts came to be seen as obstacles to action: “Strikeouts are boring,” Crash Davis said. It’s doubly ironic that in a year when Major League Baseball has implemented several significant new rules that have, as intended, quickened pace and increased action, strikeouts have thus far proved impervious to change.

This season, MLB set out to “restore the game to the way it’s traditionally been played,” as consultant Theo Epstein put it in 2021. The league has succeeded in most respects. Thanks to new constraints on defensive positioning, infield alignments look more like they did 15 years ago, before the infield shift’s ascendance. Thanks to the pitch clock and its attendant tweaks—a more predictable tempo between pitches, more balk calls, and restrictions on pickoff attempts—the rate of stolen bases per game has bounced back to what it was 30 years ago. Thanks largely to the clock, games are shorter than they’ve been in 40 years, and they vary less in length than they have in a century. “The results are completely in line with what we were hoping to see based on the minor league testing,” says Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations.

When Epstein laid out the changes fans said they wanted, however, the wish list led with “a lot more balls in play.” That type of time travel hasn’t happened. Players may be fielding more like Ozzie and running more like Rickey, as one of the league’s promos this spring promised, but they sure as heck aren’t making contact like those ’80s and ’90s icons did. Despite this season’s revamped rule book, strikeouts are as common as they were last year. The best we can say about MLB’s attempts to corral the K rate and the combined rate of “three true outcomes”—strikeouts, walks, and home runs—is that those figures are no more inflated than they were five years ago. K rates did decline a little in 2021 and 2022, when stricter enforcement of the league’s long-toothless foreign-substance ban, a deadened baseball, and the universal DH tag teamed to end a 15-season streak of increasing strikeouts. But this year’s new rules have thus far failed to hold the line.

It’s not so surprising that the no-contact tide’s rise has resumed, even as shifts and four-hour games have been all but banished. A climbing K rate is one of the sport’s most persistent trends—and, therefore, one of its most stubborn, intractable problems. “The strikeout rate in baseball is on a hundred-plus-year trend upward, and it’s a really difficult thing to deal with,” Sword says. “And it just stems from the fact that pitching is so dominant these days, and the pitchers have become not only so talented, but clever about how to miss bats.”

Although this season’s new rules have handcuffed pitchers when it comes to controlling the running game, they’ve done nothing to suppress their stuff. As was the case in the minors, speeding up pitchers’ pace hasn’t sapped any speed from their offerings: The average four-seam fastball speed so far (93.9 mph) is unchanged from its full-season level last year. And pitchers’ gravitation toward breaking balls—especially whiff-inducing sliders and their sideways-sailing subtype, the sweeper—hasn’t slowed either. Ever since pioneering pitcher Jim Creighton started snapping his wrist and spinning the ball in 1858 (the same year that umpires started calling strikes), pitchers have been finding new ways to fool batters. The data-driven pitch design that helps pitchers today develop ever-nastier breaking balls is the latest tool hurlers have enlisted in an almost 200-year struggle to establish supremacy.

If a meaningfully lower strikeout rate is MLB’s white whale, then the league needs to pick a harpoon. Or, maybe, multiple harpoons. Sword draws a distinction between the two “thematic priorities” of MLB’s rule changes: improving pace and length (as measured by time between pitches and time of game) and enhancing action (defined as increasing the frequency with which the ball is in play). “In the timer,” he says, “we have basically a turnkey solution to issue one, which is a single set of rules which dramatically improves the pace and length of the games and gets it pretty close … to the length of a baseball game that fans desire.” As for strikeouts, he continues, “There is no analogous turnkey solution to that issue, at least not one that we’ve identified that is realistic, palatable for the baseball world. So the fix there and the corrective action there is likely going to be the cumulative effect of multiple smaller changes that nudge the game toward getting the ball in play more.”

Shift restrictions are supposed to be one such nudge. By limiting teams’ capacity to position fielders wherever they want, MLB hopes to incentivize hitters to put the bat on the ball. “I don’t think it’ll be the whole solution, but it does make sense to me that over time, increasing the value of putting the ball in play will increase the frequency with which the ball is put in play,” says Sword. “And that’ll take awhile to wash its way through hitter approach at the big leagues, development plans and approach for the clubs in the minor league level, the way clubs scout and select players in the draft, the way amateur players are developed. And what you’re trying to do is change what’s rewarded at the highest level so that that effect filters down all the way through the giant baseball system around the world.”

Of course, the exponential increase in shift usage over the past decade theoretically rewarded hitters who could “beat the shift” by bunting or hitting to all fields, but that behavior wasn’t widespread. Aiming batted balls isn’t easy when breaking balls are lab-designed terrors and fastballs are sitting 94. It’s possible to prioritize contact over power, but batters know it’s beneficial to hit the ball hard and drive it over the wall. In fact, doing away with the shift removes a reason not to be the kind of hitter who used to be punished for gripping and ripping with a low-contact, high-power, dead-pull approach.

The impact of the long-gestating pitch clock was immediate and dramatic, but the ramifications of the shift will take time to assess, especially because the pandemic and the lockout left their fingerprints on the stats from the past few seasons. As Sword acknowledges, “We haven’t had a normal season in baseball in a long time. … That does make year-over-year comparisons, particularly with small chunks of seasons, very challenging.” Scoring is up considerably relative to last spring, but 2022’s compressed spring training seemed to hold hitters to an abnormally slow start. In addition, the baseball has been livelier than last year’s (and more in line with 2020’s and 2021’s) due to lower drag, which Sword attributes to “the randomness associated with the natural materials and the handmade product that the baseball is.” If the ball keeps flying farther than it did last year, hitters will have even less reason to stop accepting strikeouts as a natural consequence of swinging for the fences.

For what it’s worth, league-wide batting average on balls in play is higher than it has been through the same date since 2014. Hitters have enjoyed slightly improved results across the board on balls in play, especially on grounders and liners from lefties, and Sword thinks the upticks are more likely to be bolstered than to shrink over the rest of the season. MLB is also still testing the “pie slice” rule—which would prevent infielders from playing up the middle—in the Florida State League, and it could be adopted in the big leagues in the future if this year’s measures don’t nudge the needle enough. If the goal is to trim strikeouts substantially, the current approach to positioning, Sword says, “is not going to get you all the way there, but I think it gives us hope that turning more of those balls into hits over time will encourage players and encourage clubs to prioritize that skill, to select for players that have that ability, to reward players, with playing time or financially, that are able to do those kinds of things.”

There are less indirect, double-bank-shot strategies for reducing strikeouts, including two that Sword says MLB “talk[s] about all the time”: moving the mound back (which was tested in the Atlantic League in 2021, with inconclusive results) and lowering the maximum number of pitchers on the active roster from 13 to 12 (or lower). Because it would encourage pitchers to pace themselves and throw at maximum effort less often, the latter measure seems to offer a whole host of potential benefits, from reducing strikeouts to keeping starters in games to preventing injuries.

“There is broad agreement that it would be effective in the long run,” Sword says of the roster-restriction route, though he warns that “there’s a practical challenge that we haven’t fully worked through with reversing the effects of multiple years of preparing for this high-pitcher version of baseball.” Teams didn’t take kindly to the imposition of the 13-player limit last year, and they’ve compensated in part by using more position-player pitchers, another practice MLB has tried to curtail this season, to no avail. “One of the effects of the progress that’s been made in pitching performance and development in the last decade or so is that clubs just need a lot more pitchers to get through a season than they did historically,” Sword says, simultaneously explaining both the need to wean teams off their dependence on big bullpens and the difficulty of doing so. “So limiting them even to where they were voluntarily five or 10 years ago is a real challenge for the clubs, just given the way that they have prepared everybody to pitch.”

Another challenge of the anti-strikeout campaign, Sword says, lies in knowing which rate to target. “On the pace issue, we were able to ask fans, How long do you want a baseball game to be? … And every fan, casual, intense, whatever, can … give you a real helpful answer to that question. What do you want the strikeout rate to be? I don’t think there’s a fan in the world that could tell you the optimal strikeout rate for a baseball game, myself included. … It’s hard, frankly, without watching an incredibly high volume of baseball, to tell the difference between a 23 percent strikeout rate and an 18 percent strikeout rate in the way the game looks. There’s not the same precise goal, and as a result, it’s a little tricky to engineer toward a result like we were able to do on the pace issue.”

If the difference between the K rate of today and the K rate of the era of early Ozzie and Rickey amounts to only a few strikeouts per team game, MLB probably had its rule-change priorities straight; a half-hour difference in game time is a lot less subtle. Plus, speeding up games and making balls in play more likely to lead to hits and steals has already made games more eventful, high strikeout rate and all. After all, though there aren’t more balls in play in the average game than there were last year, there’s typically less time between balls in play: 3.2 minutes, compared to last year’s 3.7. This season’s gap is roughly the same as it was in 2008, when the strikeout rate was a good deal lower.

Then again, the last time the average game was this short (in 1981), the typical time between balls in play (2.7 minutes) was a half minute shorter than this year’s, just as this year’s is a half minute shorter than last year’s. And so, Sword says, “Directionally, there is consensus across baseball in all of its various groups that we should try to push [the strikeout rate] down. And maybe the fact that there is no real target is consistent with the idea that we’re going to approach this with more subtle changes that are aimed at just bending the curve, and maybe at some point along the way, we hit something that feels good and we’ve been able to do it without totally ripping up the rule book.”

By baseball standards, the rule book has already received an extensive revision. From one perspective, this season’s adjustments may have broken the seal: By enacting so many major changes all at once, with heartening results, MLB may have made it easier to sell its next initiatives to teams, players, and fans. On the other hand, Sword says, “There probably will be a cadence to changes like this where we don’t want to overwhelm the players on the field or the fans with too much change too quickly, and this is a seismic change that we’ve made this season. So I think we want to be really careful about doing too much too quickly, because we have time and we want to get it right.” In other words, an all-out assault on strikeouts may have to wait awhile, especially with a ball-strike challenge system in the works.

“If we ended the season with the numbers that we saw in April, we would mark this season as a success,” Sword says. That’s more than fair: The average game time has fallen by about 15 percent, and the average stolen-base rate per game has climbed by about 41 percent. When it comes to balls in play, though, MLB is still striking out—and by the league’s own criteria, any season with a near-record-high strikeout rate can only be a qualified success. For this year’s K rate to resemble that of, say, 1981 would require an even more drastic change—and additional alterations to the rules. Thus, the modifications will continue until contact improves.

Thanks to Kenny Jackelen of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.