Strikeouts have reached an all-time high in Major League Baseball for an amazing 9th straight season. It was not even limited to the playing field, the players took a big swing and a miss on the new CBA too (I kid, I kid). This was not exactly hard to see coming. Here is what I wrote in my Top 25 Starting Pitcher Rankings back in March:
“Strikeouts have absolutely exploded around baseball. MLB averaged 7.8 K/9 in 2015, setting a new all-time record. That broke the previous record of 7.7 K/9 set in 2014, which broke the previous record of 7.6 K/9 set in 2013. In fact, MLB has broken its own all-time K/9 and total strikeout record every season since 2008. You can find those all-time stats here. It’s actually pretty cool to look at. And the 2016 top 25 starting pitchers have all contributed more than their fair share into ushering in this new era of the strikeout. Will we see 7.9 K/9 in 2016?”
We did not see 7.9 K/9 in 2016. It rocketed straight through that to 8.1 K/9. Assuming you watched every at-bat of every game, like any good fan should, you saw 1,536 more strikeouts than you did in 2015. There was a total of 38,982 strikeouts this season. For comparisons sake, there were 175 strikeouts (0.7 K/9) in 1871, 20,212 strikeouts (4.8 K/9) in 1980, and 30,644 strikeouts (6.4 K/9) in 2005.
Coinciding with the spike in strikeouts, and probably the main reason for it, average fastball velocity has risen every year since 2008, as well, going from 90.9 MPH to an all-time high of 92.6 MPH in 2016. Higher velocity leads to more strikeouts which should lead to less offense. This mostly held true during the recent strikeout boom, with runs per game reaching lows in 2014 that we have not seen since the pre-steroid era. But 2016 was the year hitters started to fight fire with fire. They ripped the second most homeruns in baseball history, trailing only the steroid infused 2000 season by 83 homers, or .01 per game. Maybe batters started to realize that they better do damage when they do actually make contact. That means hitting the ball harder and in the air. Or maybe MLB executives took matters into their own hands, and juiced the balls. Either way, baseball has finally proven the old adage, “the harder they come in, the farther they go out.”
The only thing that could stop this current strikeout epidemic, or even hope to contain it, are injuries. Higher pitch velocities have been loosely linked to a greater chance of needing Tommy John surgery. Some pitchers like Masahiro Tanaka, who have already had an elbow scare, have transitioned into throwing their sinking 2-seamer more than their 4-seamer, sacrificing velocity for movement. Other than that, there does not seem to be an end in sight to this strikeout surge, especially with starters not being allowed to see a lineup a 3rd time through and the continued rise of bullpen specialization.
We are firmly entrenched in the era of the K, but luckily for fans of offense, hitters have started to adjust. After over 100 years of baseball, the game is being whittled down to its two most efficient outcomes, the strikeout and the homer. The only question left is, will we ever see 9.0 K/9?