We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.
Baseball has experienced an all-time home run surge over the past two and a half seasons. That’s a lot of fun in a lot of ways and we’ll talk more about that later in the countdown. The flipside of that, however, is that baseball is also facing a strikeout epidemic.
There were 40,105 strikeouts in 2017, surpassing the record of 38,982 set in 2016. This is nothing approaching a fluke, by the way, as the strikeout record has now been broken for 10 consecutive seasons. By way of comparison, there were only 30,801 strikeouts in 2005. From the 1920s through the 1940s, teams struck out around three times a game. The average didn’t top 4 until 1952, 5 until 1959 and 6 until 1994. In 2010 the rate passed 7. It topped eight per game in 2016 and the increase shows no sign of letting up.
The strikeout epidemic may be most visible in individual feats, some of which are quirky or unique. For example:
Chris Sale struck out 308 batters, becoming the first pitcher to strike out 300 hitters in 18 years and the most since Randy Johnson struck out 334 hitters in 2002;
The New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs set a Major League record for most strikeouts in a game with 48 on May 7 in a game that lasted 18 innings. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers set a National League record for most strikeouts in a game with 42 on June 2 in a game that lasted 12 innings;
Joe Gallo of the Rangers set the record for the most plate appearances ending without the ball being put in play, either because he struck out, walked or hit a homer (58.65%!);
The Diamondbacks set a Major League record by recording nine consecutive games where Arizona pitchers recorded ten or more strikeouts; and
The daily “wow, look at that stuff” of guys getting golden or platinum sombreros. Weird stat lines in which dudes hit a ton of homers but strike out a lot while batting, like, .204. The sort of stuff the Jayson Starks of the world highlight in notes and factoid columns.
Those feats don’t reflect the real impact of the strikeout epidemic. That can be seen only piecemeal, in the lack of balls in play game-by-game, inning-by-inning over the course of a six month season. Indeed, never in history has the sport seen so few balls put in play, as more than a third of all plate appearances in 2017 ended in either a strikeout, a home run or a walk. The game is turning into a drama involving only the pitcher, catcher, batter and home plate umpire. The other ten men on the field might as well be lampposts much of the time.
There are a lot of reasons for this change. Pitchers throw much harder now and have nastier breaking stuff. Batters are taught to swing for the fences with violent uppercuts, fearing not of striking out because home runs are great and double plays are worse than the single out occasioned by a whiff. The bottom of the strike zone seems to extend to the shoelaces these days. For what it’s worth, even the most old school managers — the sorts of guys who came up in the game when striking out was the worst thing a batter could do — are fine with it all, and are seemingly on the same page as the analytics departments who tell them it’s all OK.
And, sure, it is all OK from that point of view. You certainly want your pitcher striking out guys. That’s the best thing he can do in most situations, full stop. I likewise have no doubt that, once one runs the numbers, there is a clear advantage to uppercut swings, home run-first strategies and approaches that maximize putting the ball in the air, not on the ground, thereby making strikeouts just the cost of doing business. In no way am I suggesting that the analysts have it wrong in that regard. They know what they’re doing and I’m not qualified to question it.
But I am as qualified to make aesthetic judgments about the game as anyone, and I can tell you this: all these strikeouts are as boring as hell.