Whiff-le ball: Twins players, coaches theorize increase in strikeouts

Already in 2014, Joe Mauer has 31 strikeouts in 34 games and is on pace to set a career high.

Jesse Johnson/Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins’ hitters are on pace to strikeout more times this year than any season in franchise history.

The thing is, though, they’re not alone.

Strikeouts are up all across baseball this year, part of a trend that’s taken place the last several seasons. Back in 2011, Washington struck out the most of any team, fanning 1,323 times. In 2012, Oakland upped the ante with 1,387 strikeouts. Last year, Houston set a new major league record with a whopping 1,535 strikeouts. That same season, the Twins were second in that category with 1,430 strikeouts, which set a team record.

What’s been the cause of all these extra strikeouts? It’s not easy to pinpoint.

"I think baseball’s always been trendy. You have those cycles," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "If you look at it, strikeouts go up one year, whether it’s the equipment, change in the ball, more home runs. That’s just part of the game. It goes in waves and always goes up and down. Whether it’s maybe a little bit better pitching this year or guys swinging for the fences a little bit more. I think there’s really no way to answer that."

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Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky has a few theories about the steady rise in strikeouts. During his playing career in the 1980s and early 1990s, teams were typically striking out fewer than 900 times a season. In this day and age, even the teams with the fewest strikeouts are whiffing 1,000 times a year.

One possible explanation Brunansky offers up is the change in the strike zone over the years. A pitch an inch or two off the plate that is now called a strike in today’s game would likely have been a ball a decade or two ago.

"You look at the zone. To me, when that QuesTec box comes out and the umpires get graded on that box, I see pitches that I come in here every inning and watch that are off the plate," Brunansky said. "They’re graded, and those are on the QuesTec box of which the umpires’ grading system. That’s a strike. If they don’t call that, then it’s a mark against them in their grade at the end of the day. What are they going to do? They’ve got to call it."

The QuesTec system was first used by Major League Baseball in 2001 to try to set a standard strike zone throughout the league, but it was only utilized in 11 ballparks. It’s since been replaced by a technology called Zone Evaluation, which is now used in all MLB 30 stadiums. The software tracks each pitch, and the ball or strike calls made by the umpires are then matched up with the Zone Evaluation data.

In Brunansky’s mind, the newer strike zone technology is one key reason why strikeouts continue to increase.

"The thing is, a lot of these guys haven’t played in the era that I grew up playing in when the strike zone was what it was," Brunansky said. "If the catcher sets up in one spot and he misses totally against the plate and he has to reach back across the plate, whether it’s on the plate or not, it’s a ball. That’s what it used to be. Nowadays, every game you’ll see a catcher set up and the pitcher miss across the whole plate. But it is catching the plate. It’s a strike now."

Twins first baseman Joe Mauer saw the evolution of the strike zone during his decade as a catcher before changing positions this offseason. A three-time batting champion, Mauer has also seen the impact of more strikeouts in his own at-bats. His 89 strikeouts in 113 games during the 2013 season were a career high. The year before that, he fanned 88 times in 147 games.

Already in 2014, Mauer has 31 strikeouts — 25.8 percent of which have been on called third strikes — in 34 games and is on pace to set yet another career high. His strikeout percentage (the percentage of his plate appearances that result in a strikeout) is 19.8 percent, well above his career average of 11.4 percent.

Mauer is striking out more than ever, but he’s not alone.

"I think (umpires are) more worried about the box and things like that than they have in the past," Mauer said. "I think, too, I know I could see three pitchers a night instead of maybe two when I first came up. Specialization comes in, things like that. Guys throwing hard and more movement. The cutter’s been a lot more prevalent than when I first came in. I think it’s not just one or two things, it could be a variety of things."

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Contrasting the Twins’ high number of strikeouts this year has been Minnesota’s penchant for getting on base at a high rate. Despite having the sixth-most strikeouts in baseball, the Twins have the third-best on-base percentage (.336) in the majors.

Brunansky isn’t bothered as much with the number of strikeouts he’s seeing, but rather the timing of some of those strikeouts, particularly with runners on base. Ultimately, though, he’s pleased with the approach his hitters have at the plate each and every game.

"A lot of these guys aren’t afraid to hit with two strikes," Brunansky said. "I don’t mind. It’s not something I’m going to sit down and have a meeting about and say, ‘We’ve got to stop striking out.’ My whole point — and I’ve been telling them since Day 1 — is I want you to compete. . . .

"The way we’re going about it this year is a lot better than last year. Last year, I think we were overmatched and we gave a lot of at-bats away. I think this year when I’m going up and watching, I like what I see because guys are competing."

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