The beauty (in the eye of the beholder) of the Strikeout Era

I would never presume that I could convince Rob Neyer that those things I find appealing should be appealing to him, too.

Matters of taste are matters of taste. It won’€™t matter to him that I love to watch a 14-strikeout game the way others love to watch heavy waves crashing near a shoreline; or that the divinely inspired pitching lines of Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Dellin Betances are as awesome as the Velvet Underground’€™s discography or Benjamin Franklin’€™s curriculum vitae; or that I love the final moments of a strikeout — the terrible swings and the baffled takes, the pitcher’€™s circumnavigatory strut around the mound — more than any of baseball’€™s alternative denouements; or that I find the three-step progression toward a resolution to be far more satisfying than the sudden deus ex machina of a ball in play. These features of the strikeout please me, and if they don’€™t please Rob (or you) I accept that no volume of effusion will change that. Taste is just chemicals telling us what to like, after all, and rhetoric’€™s power over those chemicals is limited.

But perhaps there’€™s a rational argument that doesn’€™t rely on taste at all. Perhaps I can convince him that all those strikeouts actually do improve his baseball experience — not in an aesthetic sense, but in a more objective and incontrovertible way. There will be a graph.

Happiness, we know, generally correlates to the infrastructure of our lives, not necessarily the stuff in the foreground. Consider two situations: One job keeps you busy with a never-ending series of difficult, high-stakes tasks. It stresses you out! Another is low stakes, utilizing very little of your personal talent and charisma; you can sneak off and read comic books all afternoon and nobody will even notice. No stress whatsoever! And yet the stressful one makes you feel worthwhile, assures you your future is secure, helps you sleep better. The foreground (stressed every afternoon) is far less important than the background (my labor matters; my work is appreciated; I can afford to travel and go to doctors) that you might only think about twice a year.

So what are strikeouts? Aesthetically, they’€™re the foreground. If you object to them, they make the game you’€™re watching more monotonous and rob you of the hypothetical Andrelton Simmons highlight play you might otherwise have seen. If you’€™re in favor, they create the waves-crashing sensation and the pitcher strut. But neither the strut nor the Simmons play is what we need in life; those are just what we want. What we need when we watch baseball is something more structural: The feeling that the pitcher/batter confrontation we’€™re watching actually matters.

So here are some differences between the five-year period since 2010 and the period between 1990 and 1994:

• A ball put in play is much more likely to be a hit (.297 league BABIP in this era, compared to .290 BABIP 20 years ago);

• A ball put in play is much more likely to be a home run (3.7 percent of batted balls, compared to 3.0 percent);

• It’€™s also more likely to be a double (6.6 percent, up from 5.8 percent);

• A batter is about 33 percent more likely to reach base by being hit by a pitch;

• Baserunners steal bases at record success rates;

• Offense-suppressing sacrifice bunts are at all-time lows

And yet, scoring is down. Every offensive measure but two has gone in the hitters’€™ favor, yet we’€™ve seen run scoring first steady itself, then edge toward the pitchers’€™ direction. Those two exceptions: Strikeout rate, of course — the scourge. And walk rate, which is awfully impressive when you think about it.

Now, this is somewhat more complicated than bullet points can convey, as some of the offensive gains (better BABIP, more HRs per ball in play) have a negatively correlated relationship to strikeouts (and strikeouts were also going up in the high-scoring era that preceded this one), but let’€™s accept that a huge part of the strikeout rate increasing is due to defenses discovering and perfecting optimal run-suppression tactics: Using pitchers who throw harder than ever in shorter stretches for more specialized roles and more productive goals (i.e. strike that guy out). And we’€™ll accept that almost any action that reduces strikeouts will likely increase offense.

So what has this done to the viewing experience? It has made it far more likely that when you turn on a baseball game any time after the first batter and before the last batter you will find a game that is close.

Here, for example, is the average lead after the first inning of all the games played in 2014, as well as those past seasons going back a half-decade at a time:

After the 1st

Year After inning Average margin
1989 1 0.8704
1994 1 0.9606
1999 1 0.944
2004 1 0.904
2009 1 0.8712
2014 1 0.7789

Here’s the same for after the sixth inning:

After the 6th

Year After inning Average Margin
1989 6 2.6831
1994 6 2.9313
1999 6 2.9716
2004 6 2.8805
2009 6 2.8975
2014 6 2.6159

And after the eighth:

After the 8th

Year After inning Average Margin
1989 8 3.1614
1994 8 3.4117
1999 8 3.5281
2004 8 3.4066
2009 8 3.4574
2014 8 3.1009

I promised you a graph, and here is one: The average margins in each game, per inning, by year, going back to the 1970s.

We used to live in a world where games were tight. Then hitters started hitting everything hard, and before we knew it games were no longer tight. You’€™d turn a game on in the fourth inning and it was 14-2 or 17-1 or 10-2 or 11-5. If baseball games seem too long in general, imagine how long they seem when the last two hours are just an unnecessary ending for a premature conclusion. Andrelton Simmons can make all the plays in the world; if they’€™re not actually for something (like preserving a two-run lead) then what good are they?

Fundamentally, then, baseball is better now. You might think that offense makes the game more exciting, that strikeouts make it more repetitive, but the fundamentals of the competition are strong. Just turn on the TV at any random moment, look at how close the score is, and you’€™ll see.

But wait, the Neyer angel that appears over my left shoulder tsks. You’€™ve made an incredibly dishonest argument, have you not? I hate it when the Neyer angel shows up. 

There’€™s an obvious problem with what I’€™ve done here. Imagine that the Red Sox and Angels play today under the current era’€™s strikeout scourge. After six innings, the Red Sox lead by two. Maybe in 1994, the Red Sox would have led by three. Two feels close (just one baserunner and the tying run is up!), three feels distant. But the same factors that keep games close also make it harder to score the runs to come back. Two is obviously a smaller number than three, but relatively speaking two today might be more than three was two decades ago.

Well, okay, it’€™s not, but two today is more than two was two decades ago. You can see this in win-expectancy charts, like those at FanGraphs. The Orioles on Sunday trailed the visiting Indians by two runs heading to the bottom half of the seventh. They were 80 percent likely to lose. Twenty years ago, on the last day of the strike-shortened season, the Reds trailed the visiting Dodgers by two runs heading to the bottom half of the seventh. They were just 78 percent likely to lose, using era-specific win-probability models. Two runs was closer then.

So are games actually closer now or not? We can answer that by looking at whether you’€™re more likely to see a lead change in the next inning. Using Baseball-Reference’€™s Play Index tool, we can see how often teams that started an inning ahead ended that inning tied or behind. And, somewhat surprisingly, we find that the closer margins of the 2014 season are actually more fixed than the wider margins of yesteryear:

Click here for full size.

Comeback chances

Year Blown Lead
2014 10.10%
2010 10.70%
1994 11.00%

The differential grows further if we look only at the chances of a blown lead in innings six, seven, eight or nine. Leads are, then, not smaller in this era, but (relatively speaking) actually larger.


Now, I will note one thing in favor of the strikeout era: You’€™re more likely to turn on a game and have the score be tied today. Ties are exciting, maybe the most exciting, so the pro-strikeouts crowd has that going for us. And maybe, just maybe, the relative closeness of the score doesn’€™t matter as much as the numbers themselves; maybe our brains are too simple to recognize that a two-run lead is larger now than it used to be, and we’€™re just happy to see more two-run games. To see more of what our simple brains categorize as "€œgames."

But that’€™s just a desperate hope on my part. More accurately, I can only conclude that strikeouts make it more likely that the game I turn on has already been decided. There it is, the objective and incontrovertible argument against the strikeout era. Siggggh. If you need me, I’€™ll be over here, clinging to the last defense of a losing argument: personal taste.

Thanks to Andrew Koo for providing research assistance.