MLB: The Curious Ks of Modern-Day Hitters

Today’s MLB hitters are striking out more than ever—and that’s okay.

There used to be a stigma attached to a MLB player striking out 100 times in a season. Now there’s hardly a stigma attached to striking out 200 times.

As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated points out, 2016 marked the 11th straight year that the league strikeout record was broken. With 219 Ks, Orioles slugger Chris Davis fell just four shy of the single-season record set by Mark Reynolds in 2009 (and with 178 Ks in 116 games, Miguel Sano was on pace to shatter the record had he not been injured).

To give you an idea of how much the game has changed in just a few decades, since retiring in 1986, Dave Kingman has been bumped from fourth all time in strikeouts to 16th. His average of 152 Ks per 162 games would have put him behind 23 other guys in 2016.

Several factors explain the rise in strikeouts.

First and foremost, pitchers have gotten much better. While the radar gun wasn’t used in baseball until the 1960s, it’s widely believed that the average fastball velocity in the early 20th century was much lower than it is today. It’s not uncommon now to see hurlers sitting in the high-90s and regularly touching 100 mph (or in the case of Aroldis Chapman, 105).

Today’s players also have to compete with “super-relievers,” guys like Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances who have batters looking back nostalgically at the first half of the game. On top of setting the record for most strikeouts, 2016 set the record for most relief innings in a season. The increased reliance on bullpens also means that starters don’t have to worry as much about pacing themselves and can throw their best stuff.

Of course, hitters are also to blame. Players today are much more selective when it comes to the pitches they swing at, which means taking more strikes. Gone are the days of putting the ball in play and seeing what happens; today’s hitter goes up there with a pitch in mind, and if he doesn’t get it, he’s content to leave the bat on his shoulder.

While the rise in strikeouts might seem like an alarming trend at first glance, it’s actually not necessarily a bad thing.

With more strikeouts comes more home runs—what Verducci calls a “freakish” increase. Hitters are exhibiting more of an “all or nothing” mentality at the plate. Sure they’re coming up with “nothing” at a record rate, but they’re also coming up with “all” at a record rate. Almost twice as many players hit 20 home runs in 2016 compared to 2015.

Some of the most productive hitters in the game are also the worst strikeout victims. Of the top 15 home run hitters last season, only David Ortiz struck out less than 100 times.

The stigma associated with striking out used to cause players to change their approach with two strikes (choking up on the bat, swinging at anything close to the plate, and just putting the ball in play). Now that the stigma’s been lifted, hitters aren’t afraid to strike out, which means they never cheat themselves.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, like Mookie Betts and Adrian Beltre, who’ve managed to hit for power and average without sacrificing strikeouts. But for the most part, today’s top hitters are fine with racking up the Ks, so long as it means a few more home runs.

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