On March 29, 2013, as MLB prepared to break spring training and embark on another summer of swings, the New York Times ran an article about the upcoming season and league wide trends. The gist of it is summarized by the headline, “Strikeouts on the Rise,” but just in case you weren’t sure where they were going with it, they also provided this helpful subheadline:
There were more strikeouts in 2012 than at any other time in major league history.
The Times, of course, wasn’t breaking news with that article. The meteoric rise in K’s had been explored for some time on the sabremetric webs. Multiple theories had already been bounced around as to the drivers and causes of the steady increase in strikeouts, including but not limited to such ideas as “hitters just don’t care because we’ve stopped shaming them for swinging and missing” all the way to “the rise of specialty relief roles sends fresher arms throwing harder into the games where tiring starters once remained for at least another inning or so.” By 2013 we were not only to the point where the Grey Lady was picking up the previous work and running it as a spiffy little interactive graph, but to where MLB itself was convening committees to look at the “problem” of too many strike outs and the resulting drop in offense.
Since then, the trend has not let up. In 2012, the season prior to this article, the league K’d a total of 36,426 times. The raw totals for the next three seasons (2013-15): 36,710; 37,441; and 37,446, an increase of roughly 1% a year. No matter how you slice the numbers, the trend is still obvious, notable, and increasing. More and more Major League at bats end with the hitter making a U-turn back to his dugout and the catcher tossing the ball around the horn while the next guy digs in.
The direct impact of this trend has been done to death. Offense is down, as is power. Teams are looking for new hitter profiles that might be more successful in a low offense environment, including the much ballyhooed return of Joe Simpson’s “contact hitter.” But one thing that hasn’t been fully fleshed out is how the rise in K’s impacts the rest of the game. One thing we can be certain of is that as the number of at bats ending with contact decreases (i.e. K’s rise), so too decreases the number of plays a defense has to make behind the pitcher(s.) An increase in strikeouts directly reduces the value of defense. And thus, the value of defenders.
The worst reading imaginable of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is that “slugging and on base win baseball games.” First, that’s been known for years; it was a maxim of Branch Rickey back in the 40s, at the very least. The more proper reading of Moneyball is rather, “teams with limited payroll flexibility must find and exploit market inefficiencies.” That is to say, a club that can’t simply buy its way into contention like the Yankees (and now Dodgers and perhaps Angels and Cubs) must be smarter than the competition. They must find undervalued assets and acquire them, preferably at the cost of overvalued assets.
In the 1990s, the undervalued assets were unathletic looking sluggers who controlled the plate and walked a lot. The overvalued assets were “RBI men” and fast guys with low OBP’s that “just look like a leadoff hitter.”
In 2015, it is quite possible that the undervalued assets are those relievers averaging 2 K’s per inning out of the pen any time after the 6th. And the overvalued asset? Quite possibly, it’s the wizards with the gloves, who are no better than anyone else at milling around and waiting for the catcher to start the ’round the horn throw as the batter walks back to his dugout in what used to be shame.
Sabermetrics is the search for new truths and ways of thinking about baseball. I don’t know if the Braves’ current plans and theories will pan out. It’s a brutally difficult game to succeed at, at any level. But I do think they have a plan, and I think that plan is backed up with something more than John Hart’s gut instinct and John Coppolella’s Magic 8-Ball. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. As for me, I’ll continue to breathe and see where it goes from here.