Are Strikeouts Killing Baseball?

The rate of strikeouts in Major League Baseball has been steadily increasing for a while now. But, in April 2018, the MLB made history. For the first time, the number of strikeouts in a month exceeded the number of hits.

According to many sports fans, commentators, writers, and others, this is not a good thing.

Is it Really So Bad?

Whether or not having more strikeouts is a bad thing is, of course, subjective.

The main reason that people see the increasing frequency of strikeouts as a negative is the fear that the trend will drive fans away. While some might not mind seeing more, others might get bored with games where the ball is ever more rarely in play.

Non-fans of baseball often deride the game for being slow. While part of that is just how the game is, baseball has slowed down over the years. Compared to 1998, games now take 15 minutes longer and have 17 fewer pitches put in play. Today, there's about three minutes and 45 seconds between balls put in play, as compared to 3:04 in '98.

If game attendance and other markers of popularity were still high, few people would be concerned about this issue. There's no crisis yet, but game attendance has been declining, which has front offices across the league worried.

Why So Many Strikes?

So, what's the reason for this plague of strikes? In short, pitchers are getting better.

Increased pitch velocity is one potential contributor to the trend, but it may not be the main culprit. Pitchers today are throwing fewer fastballs and opting got more breaking balls, which analytics shows lead to more strikes. Between 2003 and 2017, slider usage increased from 11.8 to 16.3 percent. According to data from the last three years, the slider is the fastest-growing strikeout pitch.

Teams now also have more robust fastball and slider relief specialists, enabling managers to turn to the bullpen sooner, which data shows increases strikes. Starting pitchers no longer have to worry as much about pacing themselves, which has led to a narrowing gap between strikeout rates between starters and relievers.

How to Fix It?

MLB leadership has been debating how to change this trend for years, with the two main philosophies being to let the changes correct on their own or to impose rules to nudge the game in a different direction. So far, the league has only made minor adjustments.

One change that has been suggested is lowering the mound. Reducing the steepness of the path that pitches take makes them easier to hit. Doing this could, however, increase the likeliness of injury for pitchers.

Another potential solution is limiting the number of pitchers a team can have on its roster, which would reverse the trend of starters adopting more of a reliever mentality and focusing less on conserving energy.

Another big idea is adding a pitch clock. While this would likely be met with lots of resistance and would take some time to get used to, players would eventually adapt, and the game would speed up.

Many of the top people in baseball are already working to change the strikeout trend, but making adjustments to the game is no easy task. If the league doesn't take action, this trend will likely continue for a while longer. If it does, perhaps we'll see rising game attendance as more balls get put in play.

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