Slowing the unabated #StrikeoutScourge

I’ve been writing about the #StrikeoutScourge for some time now, and often, because I believe it’s important. If for no other reason than it offends my tender sensibilities. Last week, Rob Manfred took some heat for suggesting that one cure for baseball’s ills – its ills on the field, that is – might be limiting infielders’ ability to position themselves optimally for each hitter. Which would be fine, except a) that offends a lot of sensibilities, plus b) it wouldn’t actually work.

Does Manfred (I wondered) really not understand the real issues here? Because there’s really no excuse for not understanding, considering how much work’s been done already.

Well, now there’s really no excuse. Steve Treder wrote a tremendous essay about the #StrikeoutScourge – he calls it the Strikeout Ascendent, but whatever – in the old-fashioned (i.e. book) Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2015. Deservedly, Treder’s piece has been nominated for an award; fortunately, The Hardball Times has now published said article on the Internet. Did I mention it’s tremendous?

It’s tremendous because Treder goes back, way back, to give us the historical perspective that important matters deserve. We’ve actually reached an interesting point where most of the important work – the important research, I mean – has already been done.  Think about on-base percentage in the 1980s, or pitch-framing and infield shifts three or four years ago. But after the work is done, there’s still the proselytizing. Which is all the more difficult with the #StrikeoutScourge, because there’s nothing that a particular team can do about it, except try to take advantage somehow. There’s not a particular agent for change, as there has been with various sabermetric principles.

Treder begins his story in 1893, when the current pitching distance was established, and takes us through five strikeout eras, including the latest. I highly recommend the history lesson, but here we’ll skip ahead to the current era: 1993-2014.

One thing I’ll mention in passing, but shouldn’t: According to Treder, “it seems nearly obvious that the liveliness of the ball increased beginning in 1993.”

Of course that’s never been proved, and in fact studies of baseballs at the time didn’t come up with anything conclusive. But Eric Walker, for one, has argued that the power surge in the 1990s was due almost purely to a livelier baseball (and, correspondingly, had nothing to do with sports drugs).

But while we don’t know exactly what was happening with the baseballs, we do know approximately what happened with the umpires. After the 2000 season – arguably the last year of “Silly Ball” – the umps were instructed to actually, you know, call the strike zone sorta like how the rulebook says. Unsurprisingly, the walk rate went down and the strikeout rate went up, because the umps had been calling a small strike zone.

After the 2005 season, the umpires were again told to stick closer to the official strike zone, and this time Major League Baseball had the QuestTec system providing actual data on the umps’ actual zones. Oddly, the walk rate didn’t really change … but the strikeout rate jumped and hasn’t really stopped since. We’re actually nearing a point, Treder writes, “at which batters will be more likely to strike out than to reach base with a hit, a situation quite unlike anything ever imagined in history.”

Well, let’s not put a leash on anyone’s imagination. But if you’d suggested such a thing to, say, Branch Rickey or Ted Williams 50 years ago, they’d probably have wondered – Rickey to himself, Williams right to your face – if maybe you’d taken too many fastballs on the noggin.

Now, as Treder admits (and as I’ve admitted), what you think about all this is almost entirely a matter of taste. You might prefer even more strikeouts. You might prefer a game that includes only a pitcher, a hitter, a robot catcher, and an automated strike zone. I prefer more batted balls and fielders doing fielder things. Objectively speaking, neither of us is right. Even business-wise, I don’t believe anyone’s done any work proving that fans generally prefer much of anything, except there is some evidence to suggest that they’ve historically preferred high-scoring games over low-scoring games.

Still, I do believe that most fans, and especially most hard-core fans and baseball insiders, agree that baseball’s more fun when everybody on the field gets involved more often than they’re involved now. Or, maybe more to the point, more often than they’ll be involved in future seasons, if this trend continues.

And there’s simply no reason to believe the trend won’t continue. Treder:

In discussions about this issue (and/or the issue of declining scoring rates in general), one often encounters an assertion to the effect of, “These things are cyclical. Left alone, current trends will revert toward historical equilibrium.” However, baseball history provides no evidence to support such an assertion. Indeed, the historical record indicates that reversal of long-scale dynamics occurs only through imposition (whether intentionally or not) of significantly new conditions. Therefore:

If no changes are undertaken, we will see ever-greater rates of strikeouts. As the rate of strikeouts overtakes the rate of hits, batting averages, base runners, long-sequence innings, and scoring will continue to decline.

But Treder doesn’t stop there. Just in case Manfred and Tony Clark have missed all the other things we’ve been writing for the last few years, Treder next reviews ALL THE THINGS THAT MIGHT BE DONE to arrest this trend. Hey, who knows? Maybe even reverse it.

In the “impractical” category, Treder mentions making ballparks less homer-friendly and lengthening the distance from the pitcher’s rubber to home plate. Neither of these things can happen in the next decade or three.

In the “What Can Be Done” practically category, Treder offers four suggestions:

1. Reduce the size of the strike zone.

2. Reduce the size of the fielders’ gloves.

3. Increase thickness of bat handles.

4. Increase average length of pitcher’ outings.

Here’s where we fall into a bit of rabbit hole, since we know between little and nothing about what impact these changes would actually have. I’m particularly skeptical about the first three. If you reduce the size of the strike zone, does every game turn into a walk-fest? If you increase the thickness of bat handles – something Bill James has advocated for some years – does that just make it easier for power pitchers to throw pitches past batters who can’t swing as quickly?

What seems obvious, to me at least, is that we’ll have a more interesting, exciting sort of baseball if pitchers, and relief pitchers especially, are compelled to pace themselves just a bit more than they do now (read: not at all). If a reliever knows he has to face two or three batters rather than just one, he’ll either dial back the effort a little, or he’ll be slightly more vulnerable; either tactic means more batted balls.

What seems obvious, to me at last, is that we’ll have a more interesting, exciting sort of baseball if the pitcher’s mound is lowered an inch or two, or three. How many inches? That could be easily judged, both theoretically and experimentally.

You won’t hear much of anything about such changes, officially. Too many feathers, most of them in the Players Association, would be ruffled. But at some point in the next five years, we’re going to have a tipping point. Maybe it’s a rash of perfect games, or maybe we’ll have a whole season with more strikeouts than hits, or maybe the local TV ratings will actually decline. But there will be a tipping point, and then the serious people will actually have some serious conversations about keeping this thing from becoming a bad joke.