The fact Major League Baseball has entered a pitcher-dominated era is no secret among Beyond the Box Score’s readers. Moreover, from the rise of velocity among major-league hurlers to the widespread growth of reliever specialization to the notion that steroids are no longer so widespread across baseball, there is no shortage of explanations for why the game has shifted in favor of pitchers at the expense of their bat-wielding counterparts.
Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this reality lies in the surge in strikeout rates that pitchers have enjoyed over the past decade or so. Back in 2005, MLB hitters struck out 16.5% of the time, a mark that rose to 18.5% by 2010. This season, batters have struck out in 19.8% of their plate appearances. This means, of course, that major-league batters are striking out nearly one out of every five times they stroll to the plate.
The increase in strikeouts has led to numerous hitters who have begun racking up the K’s at rates we have never quite seen before. I remember back in 2002 when Milwaukee’s Jose Hernandez just missed out on breaking Bobby Bonds’ 32-year-old record for strikeouts in a single season. At the time, Hernandez seemed like an outlier, someone who had reached a rare level of mediocrity at the plate and, therefore, wasn’t likely to accumulate many followers along the path of whiffing infamy.
But since 2002, Bobby Bonds’ mark of 189 strikeouts in a single season has been topped 13 different times (and by six different players), most notably in 2009 when Mark Reynolds set the current record of 223 K’s in a season. The thing is, though, major-league front offices aren’t exactly shying away from these high-volume strikeout sluggers. Sure, Mark Reynolds isn’t the highest paid player in the league, but he has been an everyday player since debuting with the Diamondbacks back in 2007.
Similarly, Adam Dunn, Reynolds’ most formidable rival in frequent whiffing, is in the midst of a four-year, $56 million contract the White Sox gave him in free agency back in 2011. Now free agency isn’t the best place to go if you are looking for logical, cost-efficient spending, but Dunn too has been an everyday performer for over 10 seasons now. Furthermore, a quick look at MLB’s strikeout leaders among hitters shows us Chris Carter and Mike Napoli atop the list, both of whom are threatening to surpass Reynolds’ single-season record. Yet their current teams acquired both of these players in the offseason (Carter via trade, Napoli in free agency), which suggests they still possess a decent amount of value.
The pattern among these players, if you haven’t already figured it out, is that they all have immense power, and in most cases, collect their fair share of walks. Dunn and Reynolds have long been touted as players who are extreme Three True Outcome performers, and what they teach us (along with Napoli, Carter, and others), is how valuable power and on-base ability have become in this age of pitching dominance.
Major-league organizations have become willing to accept all these strikeouts if they come with their fair share of walks and home runs. Sure, any organization would prefer an athletic, five-tool centerfielder to someone like Reynolds or Dunn, but home runs and walks, any way you can get them, have only grown more valuable as they have grown scarcer in recent seasons. This is part of the reason why Jack Cust got 535 plate appearances per season for Oakland from 2007-2010.
The one question that has yet to be answered is where does the limit on all these strikeouts lie? What number of whiffs is too many for a team to get by with? At various points in the past few seasons, Dunn and Reynolds have hurt their teams with all the strikeouts they rack up, but still they possess starting gigs on their respective squads.
For now, MLB hitters keep striking out at historic rates, and the limit to all this whiffing, wherever it may lie, is not yet in sight.