You’ve probably caught yourself saying “They strikeout way too much,” at least once this season when discussing your favorite baseball team. You would not be alone in that sentiment. Strikeouts are at record highs among Major League Baseball, while base hits are reaching record lows.
The combination of pitcher dominance and offensive approach has led to a product that is unwatchable at times, with batter after batter failing to make contact. Emphasis on launch angle, walks, and home runs as well as the rise of defensive shifts are leading to the death of the base hit. Unless drastic changes are made either to the game or the approach to playing it, MLB will enter a new Deadball era.
The 2021 leaguewide batting average on the morning of Memorial Day is .236. That would be the lowest average in MLB history. It is already the lowest since 1968. In that year, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson went 22-9 and had a 1.12 ERA which set the record for lowest since the earned run stat became official in 1913. Following that season, Major League Baseball lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches in order to gain more offense.
|Lowest Leaguewide Batting Averages MLB History||Year|
|.236||2021* (start of play on May 31st)|
The 2021 season is not an outlier, as the leaguewide average has been in decline since 2000, with a sharp decline around 2010.
There have already been six official no-hitters this season as well. There are seven total, but Madison Bumgarner’s seven inning no-no in a doubleheader was deemed “unofficial” by MLB. The MLB record for no hitters in a season is 8 which was set in 1884. The modern era record is 7, which has been done three times (1990, 1991, 2012.) In fact, there have been 63 no-hitters total since 2010. That is 20% of the 310 no-hitters in Major League history.
While hits are reaching all-time lows, strikeouts are reaching all-time highs. The 2021 season currently has the highest average number of strikeouts per game in MLB history with an average of 8.98. The three highest totals have come in the last three years, with 2019 and 2020 being second and third behind 2021.
Games with double digit strikeouts are dramatically higher than ever before. Currently, there have been 664 team games where a team has struck out at least 10 times. There were 667 in the 60 game season of 2020. The record was set in 2019, where there were 1,879 instances of double digit punch-outs.
The Tampa Bay Rays lead baseball entering Memorial Day with 38 double digit strikeout games in 54 games played. That means they have struck out at least ten times in 70% of their games. It’s also already more than they had last year when they racked up 33 10+ K games in 60 games. The Rays franchise record for double digit strikeout games is 81 which was set in 2017. With over 100 games still to play, the Rays are 44 games away from breaking that record. They already have the tenth most such games in their franchise history, which goes back to 1998.
Now let’s look at a team with some more history. The Philadelphia Phillies have existed since 1883. They enter Memorial Day fifth in 10+ strikeout games with 30 in 53 games, good for 52% of their games. The franchise record was set in 2018 with 79 in 162 games, or 48%. The 2021 team is already eleventh on the team leaderboard since 1901 for double digit strikeout games. Nine of the top ten have come since 2001, and six have come since 2010.
The Phillies have not made the playoffs since 2011. In the entirety of that 2011 season, they had 20 double digit strikeout games. They soon after fully entered a rebuild in 2013, a season where they had 29 double digit strikeout games. The Phillies bottomed out in 2015, finishing with the worst record in baseball at 63-99. They had 44 double digit strikeout games that year, just 27% of their games.
What does this all mean?
The point of laying all this out was to illustrate the concerning trend among baseball. MLB is on pace to have the worst offensive season in its long history. Balls are being put into play at record low rates, resulting in games with little action actually occurring. Offense has been in a steady decline since 2010, with dramatic drops occurring after 2015, which we will call the unofficial beginning of the Statcast era. That is because 2015 is the year Statcast data became available to all 30 MLB stadiums. This is when words like “launch angle” and “exit velocity” started to become much more commonplace.
To combat the growing dominance of pitching and prevalence of shifts in the early 2010s, MLB teams began to use Statcast data to build offenses with an emphasis on home runs and drawing walks. Extra-base hits took preference over singles, and strikeouts began to be viewed as just another out. This approach succeeded in increasing the number of home runs hit, with five of the highest HR rates all-time coming since 2017, including the highest in 2019. However, it has failed spectacularly in increasing the actual amount of offense happening in the game.
So what’s the solution? How does MLB avoid a new Deadball Era?
There are two clear options. Option 1 is a leaguewide shift in offensive philosophy, re-emphasizing the desire to make any form of contact instead of the perfect contact and an emphasis on avoiding strikeouts at any cost. This option simply won’t happen. Teams and players are too far entrenched into the current philosophy for such a dramatic shift to occur.
Option 2 is to move the pitcher’s mound back and ban defensive shifts, or at least to regulate the forms they can take. Lowering the mound was the answer after 1968’s record lows. Moving it back is a logical successor for 2021’s numbers. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, with over 100 active pitchers averaging at least 95 MPH on their fastball in 2021. Batters need more time to be able to pick up the spin on pitches being thrown this fast.
As for defensive shifts, thousands of base hits have turned into easy outs in recent years because of three or more infielders playing on one side of the infield. What was a single 20 years ago is now a routine ground ball to the shortstop standing in right field. A perfect line drive hit right back up the middle is finding the glove of a fielder who doesn’t even need to move. Banning the shift would be the easiest solution, but that’s unlikely.
Therefore, a lesser measure would be to make it illegal for the shortstop and third baseman to play on the right side of second base base and the opposite for the second baseman and first baseman. They can go anywhere on their respective side before the ball is hit but cannot cross the imaginary line. Outfield shifts would be harder to regulate, but those have not been as egregious as infield shifts.
Urgent response needed
Whatever the solution is, MLB needs to find one soon. There doesn’t need to be any more changes to the game for the sake of shaving off three seconds of game time. But, there does need to be immediate and possibly drastic changes made to save the dwindling offense. Major League Baseball and its commissioner Rob Manfred must prioritize these kinds of changes this offseason, especially with a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon. MLB is still suffering from declining popularity. It cannot suffer through another deadball era.