Lately everybody's been writing about strikeouts. In the time-tested format, baseball writer a) lists shocking statistics, and b) asks a bunch of baseball people what in the hell's going on. As FanGraphs' Dave Cameron notes, there's been a lot of that lately with strikeouts, and supposedly one of the things that's been going on is hitters -- thanks to sabermetrics -- have been taking a lot more pitches.
Oh, except they haven't been doing that. While hitters haven't been swinging at first pitches as often, their overall swing percentage has held steady for the last 20 years. So maybe there's another explanation for all the strikeouts? Cameron:
I think it’s worth noting the years in which the dramatic shift has taken place. While strikeout rate has been going up for a long time, it’s impossible to ignore that it was basically stagnant from 1996 to 2007, but has shot up dramatically since 2008, the first year after the PITCHF/x cameras were installed in Major League ballparks. During the PITCHF/x era, both called strikes and strikeouts have increased at an advancing pace, while swing rate and contact rate have remained unchanged.
While we might not have historical data on pitches in the strike zone versus out of the strike zone, we do have PITCHF/x data that shows that, at least over the last five years, the rate of pitches in the rulebook strike zone has not increased. In fact, Zone% in 2012 was at its lowest point since the cameras started tracking pitches, and the downward trend has continued through the first six weeks of 2013. And yet, despite the reduced number of pitches in the strike zone, the rate of called strikes has continued to escalate.
Here is essentially what we know: hitters are swinging at and making contact at about the same rates they have for a long time, umpires are calling more strikes, and during the era in which we have the most technology, there do not appear to be an increasing number of pitches actually thrown in the strike zone. That’s what the data shows.
Here's what I think.
I think that hitters are less worried about strikeouts, and pitchers are throwing harder than they used to. But those factors pale next to umpires simply calling more high strikes, and they're calling more high strikes because Major League Baseball has used PITCHf/x as a training tool, and it's worked. As Cameron notes, "despite the reduced number of pitches in the strike zone, the rate of called strikes has continued to escalate."
Ah, the Law of Unintended Consequences. Everybody wanted the umpires to call more strikes, because the strike zone was designed for a reason. But did everybody want all these strikeouts? I sorta doubt it.
Should the strike zone be smaller? No, I don't think so. I do think maybe the mound should be an inch or two lower. The pitchers and the umpires are just too good, and the result is a slightly less interesting game.