Twins manager Paul Molitor could sense the day was coming, he just didn’t know when it would come.
For the first time, strikeouts outnumbered hits in Major League Baseball in a calendar month. April 2018 was the inevitable culmination of the various fronts pitchers and hitters have been advancing for the past few years.
“The nature of the game, lack of plate appearances where the ball is put in play — the strikeouts are growing, when they were going to actually pass the actual hits, I wasn’t sure when that was going to happen,” Molitor said. “But to have that over the stretch of 30 days, it speaks about where the game is at.”
In the never-ceasing battle between pitchers and hitters, hitters have conceded strikeouts to pitchers and have chosen to fight back in other areas, such as home runs. In April, hitters completed their retreat and pitchers planted their flag.
Teams are looking more for hard-throwing pitchers who tally up strikeouts. Front offices also have emphasized their hitters change their swings to increase the launch angle and hit more home runs at the expense of more frequent contact. The result? Hitters are more susceptible to strikeouts, but that’s the trade-off they are willing to make to crush the ball more. Through Tuesday, teams struck out an average of 8.75 times per game, on pace to eclipse last year’s record of 8.25. The Twins were striking out an average of 9.24 times per game.
“The only way those two [philosophies] are going to clash is by seeing more strikeouts,” Twins pitcher Phil Hughes said. “With all the advanced data we have now, guys are smarter about pitching and they’re also throwing the ball harder than ever. Hitters have more of an emphasis on launch angle, trying to elevate the ball. … I’m surely not surprised that that’s happening, but it’s still eye-opening to see strikeouts outnumber hits. That’s pretty crazy.”
This development raises a number of issues for baseball: Is this a permanent or reversible trend? And during a time when Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to make the game appeal to a younger generation through shortening game times, do skyrocketing strikeout totals create a more appetizing product?
The first question is hard to answer, but until the number of strikeouts reaches some sort of statistical tipping point, it’s not likely to change.
“Every team has a whole room of analytics guys who are trying to put values on runs vs. outs,” Hughes said. “If they’re finding guys are just striking out way too much to put themselves in a spot to score runs, then maybe you’ll see that back down a little bit.
“I don’t know if having more strikeouts [than] hits in a month is productive for hitters. I don’t know what the run production is like.”
That would be 4.45 runs per game, which is down from last season (4.65) — and down significantly from the steroid era of the late 1990s and early 2000s — but up from 2014 (4.07). Home runs are at 1.1 per game, down from 1.26 in 2017, but still running high when compared to most years this century.
“You have a guy who’s hitting .250 with 30 or 40 homers, he’s probably creating way more weighted runs created [than a contact hitter],” Twins starter Kyle Gibson said. “He’s creating more so he’s more valuable. I think that’s where the game is pushed a little bit, right or wrong.”
Off the field, the thinking of the game’s stewards might be more scoring equals more entertaining. But is the way teams are scoring — more home runs, many more strikeouts — really all that appealing? Or is the game more appealing when balls are put in play?
The number of plate appearances in which a hitter puts the ball in play is diminishing. Through Tuesday, the number of plate appearances that ended in a walk or strikeout was 31.7 percent. That was up from 26.2 percent in 2008 and nearly double what it was in 1944 (16.9 percent).
And if baseball is concerned with shortening the game, increased strikeouts aren’t helping. There are 301.6 pitches per game, up from 271.8 in 1988. The average game time is 3 hours, 7 minutes, down only one minute from 2017’s record high of 3:08.
“Everyone wants more action, so I can’t say it’s good for baseball unless you want to go out there and see pitchers’ duels with 25 strikeouts, which can be entertaining from time to time,” Molitor said. “I just don’t think that would be the choice day to day for most people to come out and watch.”
But whether they like it or not, that’s the game people are watching this season, and it doesn’t portend to change any time soon.