A Steroid Era Hangover: The Strikeout Conundrum

By: J. Scott Smith

During the Atlanta Braves recent losing streak, one can almost feel the breeze from how often they strikeout as a team. As of May 26th, the Braves have struck out the 6th most times in the majors at 420. As a team they are striking out 8.4 times a game and are on pace for 1,400 strikeouts for the season. As I flipped back and forth between the NBA Playoffs and Monday Night Baseball with the Braves versus Cardinals two weeks ago, Tim Kirkjian noted that batting averages in baseball have steadily declined over the past five years. He noted that pitchers are throwing harder and are more prepared as pitchers, which has led to the .250 MLB average this season. Bleacher Report’s Zachary D. Rymer argued pitchers are overwhelming hitters today because fastball velocity is up, umpires are calling more strikes, pitchers are throwing more secondary pitches, and hitters are swinging at more balls out of the strike zone. Rymer’s last point is the one I think hasn’t been addressed, at least at the general manager and instructional level. I agree that the quality of pitching is better, but one of the major reasons for batting averages treading downward is the approach that hitters are carrying over from the steroids era.

You remember the steroid era, right? Every game was like playing in Colorado before the humidor. In 2000, at what would probably be the height of the steroids era, the average MLB team hit 190 homers and batted .270. In 2013, the average MLB team hit 155 homers and batted .253. One of the well-known and most subscribed to theories about the steroids era is that PEDs turned fly outs into homeruns. As a result, as noted in Rymer’s piece, pitchers pitched much more carefully during the steroid era. Additionally, steroid era hitters no longer cut down their swings with two strikes to put the ball in play. Orioles manager Buck Showalter noted that strikeouts are no longer an embarrassing moments for hitters, stating:

“Their mentality is, it’s an out. There’s no such thing as a two-strike approach…It’s not the stigma that it used to be. And you’re not getting penalized in contracts and arbitration. Most things can usually be traced back to money.”

The conventional wisdom during the steroid era was the chance at hitting a homerun was worth the strikeout risk. And during the steroid era, they were correct. But currently, the “swing away no matter the count” strategy has outlived its utility. By examining strikeouts, walks, and the average amount of runs scored per team, swinging away was clearly the percentage play during the steroid era. In 2000, MLB teams averaged 1,045 strikeouts, 608 walks, and scored 832 runs. In 2013, MLB teams averaged 1,224 strike outs, 488 walks, and scored 675 runs. Now this stark contrast is magnified by taking the years of the highest and lowest total runs scored in the past 13 years, but the trend since 2008 is fairly clear: MLB is reveling in a new era of the pitcher.

Year

SO

BB

R

HR

BA

OBP

SLG

2013

1224

488

675

155

.253

.317

.396

2012

1214

490

701

164

.254

.319

.405

2011

1150

501

694

152

.255

.320

.399

2010

1144

526

710

154

.257

.325

.403

2009

1120

554

747

168

.262

.333

.418

2008

1096

545

753

163

.264

.333

.416

2007

1073

536

777

165

.268

.336

.422

2006

1055

528

787

180

.269

.336

.432

2005

1021

507

744

167

.264

.330

.419

2004

1061

541

779

182

.266

.335

.428

2003

1027

530

766

174

.264

.332

.422

2002

1046

542

747

169

.261

.331

.417

2001

1080

527

773

182

.264

.332

.426

2000

1045

608

832

190

.270

.345

.437

 Of course this is not breaking news; for the past couple of years Jayson Stark and other baseball pundits have marveled at the revival of pitching albeit to the detriment of fans. As Crash Davis astutely noted, “Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic.” But it appears that updating Davis’s quote seems prudent: “Don’t try to hit a homerun every swing. Strikeouts are boring!” As a Braves fan, watching the likes of Heyward, Uggla, Chris Johnson, and the Uptons strikeout is an absolute snore. They made 2014 Tim Lincecum look like 2009 Timmy as he struck out 11 in 7 2/3 innings. Yes, as Rymer, Stark, and other baseball writers have clearly demonstrated, pitchers are better. There’s no denying that fact based on average fastball velocity and the quality of arms and stuff in baseball has improved over the past decade. But few writers are suggesting players need to reevaluate their approach at the plate. Updating Rymer’s data on fastball velocity, O-Swing (batters’ swing rate of balls out of the zone) and Z-Swing (batters’ swing rate of balls in the zone), the data illustrates that these trends have continued and possibly plateaued. Essentially, if hitters don’t change their approach (or start using steroids again) this is probably the future state of baseball.

Year

Avg. Fastball Velocity

O-Swing 

Z-Swing 

2014

91.5

29.5%

65.0%

2013

91.7

31.0%

65.5%

2012

91.6

30.8%

64.7%

2011

91.5

30.6%

65.0%

2010

91.2

29.3%

64.4%

2009

91.2

25.1%

66.0%

2008

90.7

25.4%

65.4%

2007

90.3

25.0%

66.6%

2006

90.5

23.5%

66.6%

2005

90.1

20.3%

68.0%

2004

90.1

16.6%

69.6%

2003

89.9

22.2%

68.8%

2002

89.9

18.1%

70.1%

Clearly hitters are significantly swinging at more balls out of the zone and fewer in the zone than they were at the end of the steroid era. To further examine hitting trends, I’ve added Fangraph’s data on batting average of balls in play (BABIP), contact percentage, O-Contact (Outside-the-zone contact percentage), Z-Contact (Inside-the-zone contact percentage), and Zone percentage (Percentage of pitches within the zone) to illustrate why hitters have become so inept.

Year

BABIP

Contact %

O-Contact

Z-Contact

Zone %

2014

.297

79.5

65.0

87.0

46.4

2013

.297

79.5

66.6

87.0

44.7

2012

.297

79.7

66.8

87.2

44.9

2011

.295

80.7

68.1

87.9

45.3

2010

.297

80.7

66.5

88.1

46.5

2009

.299

80.5

61.7

87.8

49.3

2008

.300

80.8

61.7

87.9

51.1

2007

.303

80.8

60.8

88.2

50.3

2006

.301

81.0

57.4

88.5

52.6

2005

.295

80.8

51.8

88.3

53.8

2004

.297

80.1

53.7

85.2

55.1

2003

.294

79.4

51.9

87.8

51.4

2002

.293

78.8

47.5

85.5

54.6

The first thing that strikes me is BABIP, contact percentage, and Z-Contact have been fairly consistent over the past 13 years. What has changed significantly is O-Contact and Zone Percentage, which is not surprising given their relationship to O-Swing. Hitters are swinging at a greater amount of pitches out of the zone, which has significantly increased the amount of pitches they see out of the zone. Remember, thanks to the “Moneyball effect,” hitters are taking more pitches to increase the chances of walking, but as the data above suggests, hitters aren’t walking more; they’re striking out more.

Okay, so just teach them better plate discipline, right? Unfortunately, the biggest issue to combat the strikeout problem is that plate discipline isn’t easily taught. In 2009, Red Sox assistant GM Ben Cherington argued, “It’s [plate discipline] an incredibly difficult thing to teach at the major league level. There’s pressure on players in terms of winning, keeping a job and earning money. It’s hard to do at any level, but it’s really hard at the major league level.” Some, including myself, think plate discipline is something that is primarily nature rather than nurture. As Oakland A’s farm director Keith Lieppman noted to Jerry Crasnick, “I’ve been in this job 18 years, and I’ve gotten phone calls from people in other organizations who say, ‘How do you guys teach that selectivity thing? I tell them, ‘Have you got a couple of years?'” So with plate discipline being so difficult to teach, where does that leave us?

Here is where I’ll depart from Cherington’s argument. I absolutely think that if strikeouts were the stigma they were before the steroid era it would make a tremendous difference. Cherington argued, “We don’t want guys to strike out, but I don’t think a guy strikes out less by telling him to strike out less.” I disagree. If from the time a player is drafted the organization’s stance is that the player should take every effort to avoid swinging at balls out of the zone with two strikes, strikeouts would decrease. It’s no coincidence that of the top-50 single-season strikeout leaders, only seven of them came before 1990. The top-15 single-season strikeout records have all come since 2004. Even the player compared most to Ted Williams as the game’s most cerebral hitter, Joey Votto, strikes out more than 100 times a season. Votto might read Ted Williams’ The Science of Hitting, but he doesn’t come close to Williams (and who does really?) with regards to putting the ball in play. The team with the greatest strikeout problem? The George Postolos sabermetric-driven Houston Astros who struck out a major league record 1,535 times last season with only 426 walks.

The part I find most fascinating about the strikeout problem is the sabermetric conundrum. For pitchers, the strikeout is a primary measure of pitcher performance and dominance. This is best demonstrated by Fangraphs preferring fielding independent pitching (FIP) as a primary means for determining pitcher WAR. Fangraphs Dave Cameron defines FIP as:

“The FIP formula is (HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP, plus a league-specific factor that scales FIP to match league average ERA for a given season and league.”

As you can see above, the only positive measurement of a pitcher’s performance in the numerator of the equation is strikeouts. Well if strikeouts are an important indicator of a pitcher’s success, why isn’t a hitter’s strikeout rate a greater determining factor his success or lack thereof? (The statistical reason is studies have found that strikeouts and performance are not correlated). I’ll revise that question since WAR is more interested in a player’s relative success: Why aren’t strikeouts taken into account at all? Here’s Fangraphs 2010 wOBA (Weighted on-base average) formula:

(0.70 x uBB + 0.73 x HBP + 0.89 x 1B +1.27 x 2B +1.61 x 3B + 2.07 x HR +0.25 x SB + 0.50 x CS) / PA

Now I’m not a sabermatrician (Although I did watch a lot of baseball during my ANOVA class), but someone has to explain how the metrics community has not weighed in more on batter strikeouts being detrimental to player performance when the league is moving toward Jeff Francoeur-level plate discipline. Fangraphs Steve Staude even titled his 2013 piece, “Why Strikeouts Secretly Matter for Batters” to illustrate how the metric community had all but dismissed strikeouts as having any influence in player performance. Now strikeouts may not have mattered during the steroid era because of the increase in power and walks, but current players hit fewer homeruns, walk less, and strikeout more using the same approach at the plate. As Staude noted, Mike Trout’s “ISO (Isolated Power) and BABIP have been almost identical these past two seasons:”

Season

BB%

K%

ISO

BABIP

OBP

SLG

wOBA

wRC+

WAR

2012

10.50%

21.80%

0.238

0.383

0.399

0.564

0.409

166

10

2013

14.80%

18.30%

0.241

0.381

0.435

0.570

0.430

180

10.2

Staude concluded, “If Trout had not improved his K% in 2013, his OBP would have been about 13 points lower than it is, and his wOBA approximately 11 points lower. He’d still be amazing; just less so.” That’s right; by lowering his strikeout rate he was more successful.

Now I know MLB players will never hate striking out as much as I do as a 32 year-old playing adult league baseball, but if they plan on being more successful in the new era of pitching, hitters will need to abandon the steroid era boom or bust approach and put the ball in play more (Looking your way Braves). Per usual, follow the lead of the Oakland A’s who are bottom 10 in strikeouts, lead the league in walks, and are in first place in the AL West.