On a recent episode of the Jonah Keri Podcast, host Jonah Keri and guest Rob Neyer spoke about the rising strikeout rate in baseball and what teams may do to combat the soaring number of punchouts. One theory tossed around was the return on emphasis given to contact-driven hitters like Mark Grace and Brett Butler; a new, old market inefficiency?
The Moneyball Oakland A's of the late '90s-slash-early 2000s were made famous for targeting high on-base percentage players with little regard to defense or athletic ability. Their star eventually faded only to give way to Ball Street Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, who implemented a slightly inverse philosophy, putting the focus back on defense in search of the extra two percent. The Rays are still proponents of a strong defense -- and the result byproduct of a stronger pitching staff -- and helped usher in the "shift era." Meanwhile, they have already begun work on getting ahead of the contact curve as well.
The league-wide strikeout rate in 2011 was 18.6 percent. That season the Rays were slightly above the norm at 19.4 percent. In the offseason the club let Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon walk in favor of Luke Scott and a reunion with Carlos Pena. Pena, along with B.J. Upton, combined to strikeout 351 times as Tampa Bay's strikeout rate jumped to 21.7 percent. The league jumped with them, up to 19.8 percent.
Like gas prices, the league has been in a steady climb in regards to strikeout rates. We are now at the point where nearly 21 percent of plate appearances are ending in strikeouts. However, since reaching their apex in 2012, the Rays have reversed course. In 2013, Pena and Upton were allowed to leave as free agents. Contact hitters James Loney and Yunel Escobar were acquired. Later in the 2013 season the team traded for another ball-in-play mercenary, David DeJesus. This winter they added Ryan Hanigan. All four players have since signed contracts with the club through the 2016 season.
The Rays' roster reconstruction resulted in a drop in strikeout rate of nearly 4 percent from 2012 (21.7 percent) to 2014 (17.7 percent). Tampa Bay went from leading the American League in empty swings in 2012 to the bottom third of Major League Baseball this year.
Andrew Friedman's club is not the only team to see a significant drop in strikeout rate. Billy Beane's Oakland A's have actually seen a slightly steeper drop (4.4 percent) than the Rays (4.0 precent). Gone from Oakland are free-swingers Chris Carter and Jonny Gomes and in are Jed Lowrie and Alberto Callaspo. Even holdovers like Brandon Moss and Derek Norris have reformed. In any event, it should not come has much of a surprise to see these two teams at the head any potential trend.
Joining the two bayside clubs in a cumulative decline in strikeout rate since 2012 are: Colorado Rockies, Baltimore Orioles, Toronto Blue Jays, Pittsburgh Pirates, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cleveland Indians. That said, of the clubs mentioned, only the Rays, A's, Tigers, Reds, and Pirates have dropped in consecutive seasons. Meanwhile, teams like the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves have seen an uptick in punchouts but it has done little to curb their success on the field; and the Royals have the lowest strikeout rate since 2012 but haven't been among the leaders in runs scored.
At last check pitchers are still throwing harder than ever and chicks still dig the long ball. However, some clubs are finding contact hitters can be sexy, too. Putting the ball in play may not sweep the league back to the 1980s, but if you see teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland getting in bidding wars for players like Norichika Aoki or Chris Denorfia in the near future it is likely a continued attempt to swing back at the punchout.