Feel that cool summer breeze? Good chance it's coming from a ballpark near you. Big leaguers are whiffing at a record pace. As of mid-July's All-Star break, 19.6% of trips to the plate this season ended in a U-turn. The previous highest K rate on record, 18.6%, was last season's; according to the statistics site FanGraphs.com that's the biggest increase in 27 years. Strikeouts per nine innings have risen 14.9% in the past decade and more than a third over the past 20 years.
Steeeeeriiiike threeeee! In Little League and in life, we've all stepped up to bat only to trudge back to the dugout with our head down. It's comforting to see those bazillionaire ballplayers swing and miss too. Washington Nationals rookie phenom Bryce Harper whiffed five times in a recent game against the New York Yankees. Welcome to the bigs, kid.
What explains this golden age of K's? In the poststeroid era, because of stricter testing, you might expect strikeouts to decline. (Oversize boppers tend to whiff more.) Maybe strikeouts are rising because now-juiceless hitters have less confidence at the plate. It could be physical too. Some steroid users report that drugs boost bat speed, says Charles Yesalis, an emeritus professor of health policy and administration at Penn State and the author of The Steroids Game.
Pitchers are gaining partly because of legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. He helped popularize the cutter, a wicked pitch that combines the fire of a fastball with the late-breaking movement of a sharp slider. Since 2004, the cutter rate has risen sixfold. According to Bloomberg Sports, batters whiff on 19.9% of cutters they swing at, vs. 14.7% of straight fastballs. And when pitchers deliver those fastballs, they're throwing more heat. FanGraphs says average velocity is up, from 89.9 m.p.h. in 2002 to 91.5 m.p.h. in 2012, thanks to 100-m.p.h. flamethrowers like the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander. That might not seem like much of a bump. But the difference between making home-run contact and fanning like a fool can be measured in microseconds.
The umps aren't helping batters either. One baseball exec crunched some data and found that the strike zone has increased in each of the past two years. Advantage: pitchers. In fact, the overall explosion of baseball analytics, lionized in the best-selling book and Oscar-nominated film Moneyball, also helps hurlers. When stat dorks prove that a batter is vulnerable to a certain pitch in a certain area of the strike zone on a certain count in the at bat, the pitcher enjoys an edge. After all, he can make the first move in the pitcher-hitter chess match. "If a pitcher executes his game plan," says Rick Peterson, director of pitching development for the Baltimore Orioles, "good pitching beats good hitting." It's a baseball truism that's never been more true.
Baseball intelligence will continue to favor pitchers. Execs are more aware than ever of an insight that Bill James, the godfather of brainy baseball, shared on his website in April: from 2009 to 2011, high-strikeout pitchers gave up significantly fewer runs than low-strikeout pitchers. So strikeout pitchers are gold. When he's evaluating an arm, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says, he now looks first at strikeouts per nine innings. His pitchers just happen to rank second in the majors, behind the Milwaukee Brewers, in this category.