Sporting Charts

Where Are All of the Strikeouts Coming From?

Whether we like it or not we are living in the era of the strikeout.  Already in 2013 we have Chris Carter of the Houston Astros on pace for 250 strikeouts.  Rick Ankiel, also of the Astros (at least early in the season), struck out 35 times in his 65 plate appearances before he was mercifully designated for assignment.  Adam Dunn has struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances, though that is merely double his career strikeout rate.

While these statistics are of course cherry-picked and early season statistics can be somewhat misleading (to say nothing of it not really being fair to pick on the Houston Astros), the point remains that strikeouts are continuing their upward trend in 2013.  It is a trend that has been in place for a number of years but has recently accelerated.  For example, throughout all of baseball in 1980 12.5% of all plate appearances ended in a strikeout.  By 2010 that number had jumped to 18.5%.  But a mere three years later the strikeout rate has climbed further to 20.2% in 2013 as of early May.

The chart below shows that the increase in strikeouts over the past three decades has been a trend for all positional players.  As of 1990 three types of positional players (second basemen, shortstops, and third basemen) were still striking out less than 14% of the time.  But by 2012 the lowest strikeout rate was 16.4% for shortstops (compared to a high of 20.5% for center fielders).

 Strikeouts1


Aside from some year-to-year fluctuation, the trend for all positional players is clearly upward in the past two decades.  But for all the noise in the chart above, where are the greatest increases in strikeouts coming from?

Pos 

1990

2012

Change

C

14.3%

19.8%

39.1%

1B

14.6%

19.3%

32.4%

2B

11.4%

16.5%

44.6%

3B

13.7%

18.5%

35.4%

SS

11.9%

16.4%

37.5%

LF

14.2%

20.0%

40.5%

CF

14.6%

20.5%

40.0%

RF

16.9%

20.1%

18.8%

DH

17.1%

21.0%

22.9%

P*

30.2%

37.0%

22.5%

*Pitchers are not included in the graph above

Surprisingly, the highest increase in strikeouts from 1990 to 2012 came from second basemen, who had a whopping 44.6% increase.  The lowest increase came from right fielders at 18.8%, though they were still the third most likely group of players to strike out.  Somewhat surprisingly, the increase in strikeouts for pitchers was not nearly as high as most of the positional players, though of course their strikeout rate was already much higher than all other players.

Another clear trend from the graph is the clumping of strikeout rates.  Relatively speaking, in 1990 the strikeout rates among positional players were all over the place, ranging from 11.9% to 17.1%.  However, over time the general trend for all nine lines was to collapse together.  The strikeout rates for second basemen and shortstops are still clearly behind all other positional players, however the rates for the other positions are clumped very tightly together, ranging from 18.5% to 21.0%.  There is very little variability in strikeouts, particularly when middle infielders are excluded.

What is especially interesting about the increase in strikeouts, in particular in the last couple of years, is that the home run rate has not necessarily followed the same trend.  Again beginning in 1990 the general trend was an increase in home runs, indicated below by the number of plate appearances per home run for each positional player.  Since 1990 the home runs hit have clearly gone down, though the even more rapid increase in strikeouts in the past couple of years has not coincided with a rapid increase in home runs over the same time period.  In fact, total home runs hit have increased somewhat but not nearly as much as the increase in strikeouts (one every 36.5 plate appearances so far in 2013 compared to 38.5 in 2008)

Strikeouts2

One similarity between the two charts, however, is that there was a greater disparity in both strikeout and home run rates in 1990 than there was in 2012.  The increase in home runs (and more recently the stability in home run rates) is true among all positional players as there is less and less distinction among positional players.

In any case, baseball is shifting to more of a “three true outcomes” kind of game.  In 1990 25.6% of plate appearances ended in a walk, strikeout, or home run, compared to 28.8% in 2008 and 31.1% so far in 2013.  The Adam Dunns of the baseball world are taking over the game.

 

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