Through 30 games, the Atlanta Braves have only struck out 242 times. That may sound like a lot of strikeouts, but it’s well below one per inning, and also good for the fewest in the National League. That’s right, the team whose lineup boasts the two youngest position players in all of baseball is dead last in the NL in strikeouts. Consequently, the Braves sit atop the NL East. Coincidence? I think not.
I have long been an advocate against the strikeout from a batting standpoint, but time and time again my mindset is turned away by fans of the game — often Yankees fans — telling me that strikeouts “don’t matter” or “aren’t bad”. Obviously there’s often bias behind those statements, but it’s obnoxious to hear regardless.
- As a hitter, strikeouts are inevitable — to a certain extent. Pitchers watch film on hitters. They know weak spots. They’re going to strike guys out. However, simply accepting that “strikeouts will happen” and swinging as hard as you can every at-bat does not project well in the big leagues (see: Juan Francisco).
After watching the strikeout seemingly become more and more of a hitter’s routine over the last three or four years, I decided to see what a few of the per-game league averages had to say about the way the strikeout is impacting the game.
For the purpose of this article, I’m only using stats from the last 25 years, because I feel that the mid-90’s are when baseball evolved into the game it is today. The game has been played differently over the years, but for periods of 20 or so years at a time, the game remains the same as the remaining players adjust, and then right as they adjust, the cycle repeats itself.
Productivity is down.
Simply put, hitters are not producing at the level they were ten years ago, and I would be extremely hesitant to blame this on a spike in good pitching, because the league’s average ERA in 2017 was its highest since 2007. Why? Look no further than the league’s strikeouts, hits, and runs scored per game.
Strikeouts are up 41.6 percent from the 1994 mark of just 6.18 per game. That mark, now at 8.75 per game, slowly crept upwards until the 2012 season, and that’s when the flood gates burst. Just since the start of the 2012 season, strikeouts are up 23.2 percent from the 2011 mark.
But they’re not bad for the game, right?
Over the last 25 years, the league has finished with an OPS of under .720 just twice (2013 and 2014), but is on its way to do so this year with a .719 mark. The jump from 7.10 to 7.50 strikeouts per game from 2011 to 2012 was likely a result of the lack of overall production between 2013 and 2014.
The last time a strikeout spike that severe happened was the jump from 5.34 to 5.87 strikeouts per game from 1985 to 1986, and then the league posted OPS marks of .696 and .695 in 1988 and 1989 respectively as hitters tried to adjust to a changing game. The eventual solution? Steroids, of course, mixed with an influx of generational talents in the 90’s.
Wait a minute, let’s not get carried away and start assuming things about a bunch of increasingly massive human beings that shattered the season home run record set in 2000, the peak of the steroid era… No, seriously, don’t get carried away. That’s very likely not the case here.
If not steroids, then what?
At the first mention of the word “steroids”, the mind goes straight to home runs, but I can assure you that home runs are not the only benefit reaped through the use of PED’s. Just look at the 2000 season in comparison to the 2017 season:
2000 season: .270/.345/.437, 45,246 hits, 8,901 doubles, 952 triples, 5,693 home runs, 18,237 walks, 31,356 strikeouts
2017 season: .255/.324/.426, 42,215 hits, 8,397 doubles, 795 triples, 6,105 home runs, 15,829 walks, 40,104 strikeouts
Steroids helped improve nearly every facet of an player’s offensive game. Ground-outs turned into singles, singles into doubles and triples, and doubles and triples into home runs. Heck, hitters even managed to draw over 2,400 more walks in 2000 than in 2017.
Speaking of walks, aren’t these high-power guys supposed to getting on base more often to compensate for them striking out more often? I mean, in all fairness, walks are at their highest point since 2000, but there were 0.62 fewer hits and 0.49 fewer runs scored per game in 2017 than in 2000, and the league’s on-base percentage dropped 21 points over that span.
Wait.. Despite hitting 500 more home runs in 2017 than 2000, the league actually had 248 fewer extra-base hits overall in 2017. How is it that there can be so much home run power being generated, but that power isn’t translating into more doubles as well?
I’ve got an answer for ya: Launch angle.
Advanced Stats: Blessing or Curse?
Following a league-wide drop-off in offensive performance, hitters have been looking for a way to combat their struggles. With a recent surge in analytics and such a heavy emphasis on launch angle, it’s easy to see that hitters are working towards the one outcome that guarantees a run is scored no matter the situation, and they may have finally cracked the secret to the longball — and it’s not just beefing up in the weight room.
With the click of a button, even the most casual of baseball fans can pull up a chart that highlights every batted ball and the result of said batted ball hit at any given exit velocity and launch angle, and players and coaches have access to an infinity of film to help visualize what causes any given launch angle to occur.
Obviously, the exit velocity has more to do with being physically stronger or having a quicker bat, but a hitter can adjust his launch angle to compensate for not having as much power and still be an effective MLB hitter.
What hitters haven’t figured out, though, is how to achieve the most basic of all successful batted-ball outcomes at a higher rate — singles. The league’s batting average has dropped almost every year since 2007, and the league’s current .244 mark would be tied for the fifth-worst league batting average in MLB history.
But they’re hitting more home runs and walking more often, so that’s okay, right?
Baseball is slowly evolving into a sport where less contact is being encouraged, and there’s evidence to prove it.
The number of fielding chances around the league has dropped every year since 2013, and while the change seems small over time, think about this: There were over 3,750 fewer balls put in play in 2017 than in 2013. That’s 125 fewer balls put into play per team, which, based on the league’s BABip of .300, is approximately 38 hits any given team is missing out on throughout the season. That may not seem like a lot, but the fourth and tenth-ranked teams were separated by just 33 hits.
Don’t get me wrong, launch angle has some great uses in the game, but coaches don’t need to try and incorporate launch angle into just any player’s swing in an effort to generate more power. There’s a right and a wrong time to use it, and I’m worried it’ll become an over-exaggerated aspect of the game at some point.
There are flaws to almost every stat, and there are ways to misuse most of them, but it’s unfair to say that one flawed stat is any better than another flawed stat.
Some traditional fans have issues with advanced metrics just as sabermetricians have issues with traditional stats, but none of it has any real impact on the game. People are just getting their feelings hurt because someone else is being open-minded.
So… What does all of this have to do with the Atlanta Braves?
The Atlanta Braves have the most hits, most runs, fewest strikeouts, and highest slugging percentage in the National League, and they’re leading Major League Baseball in batting average and on-base percentage.
The key ingredient in that recipe to success is having the fewest strikeouts in the NL. The Braves are taking walks at a moderate rate, and they’re putting a ton of balls in play, and by the law of BABip, they’re getting more hits.
Does it not make sense that the team that puts the ball in play the most will have the most hits and score the most runs? This entire team is built around everyone in the lineup being an excellent contact hitter when the need arises.
With runners in scoring position, the Braves are batting .316 with a .534 slugging percentage, 23 doubles, and 11 home runs. All of those are either first place or tied for first place in all of baseball. They’ve also got the third-most walks and fifth-fewest strikeouts with runners in scoring position.
Simply put, these Atlanta Braves are playing at the level of the 2017 Houston Astros.
There’s a “wannabe steroid era” going on through part of this analytics revolution, and the Braves are playing right through it all by playing baseball the way baseball is supposed to be played — by putting the dang bat on the ball and running around the bases.
Everyone wants the longball, and while Atlanta has hit its fair share of dingers this year, they’re also excelling in other offensive categories. That’s something a lot of these high-power teams aren’t doing.
For example, the Yankees, Angels, Indians, Blue Jays, and Rockies are the top five home run-hitting teams in baseball, and none of them are hitting better than .253 as a team (Yankees), with the worst being Colorado (.226).
What could this mean for the future?
If trends continue as they are and teams continue to hit more home runs but hit for lower averages, front offices will put a stop to this all-or-nothing strategy at the plate, and these “three outcome” guys like Joey Gallo will become as obsolete as Chris Davis already is.
It’s time for teams to shift their focus to building rosters full of speedy, multi-faceted players, rather than gamble on the longball taking them deep in the playoffs every other year. The Braves, Astros, Red Sox, and even Cubs are showing signs of shifting into this mindset, and it’s worked well for Houston so far.
MLB thinks that more home runs make games more exciting, but that’s not true if the effort towards hitting home runs puts a hamper on other areas of a team’s offense. Fans don’t want to see a Home Run Derby every night. They want the outfielder to get a chance to make a nice play on a ball in the gap, and they want to see close plays at the plate when a runner’s trying to score from first on a double.
In the next five-to-ten years, there will be several teams that follow the blueprint the Braves or Astros used to built a championship contender, and this game is going to get a lot more exciting because of it.
Hopefully teams built like the Yankees will falter in the postseason so that the trend of building teams that way will die out, but if not, they can just live with spending $200 million to miss the postseason every few years.