Are passive hitters leading to strikeouts?

A couple of pieces worth checking out. Last week, Tom Verducci had a column on SI.com arguing that ... well, hitters are getting it all wrong. He writes:

Welcome to the state of the art in hitting these days, where aggressiveness is disdained and passivity is exalted. The modern hitter is guided by the accepted wisdom in catchphrases such as "driving up pitch counts," "taking pitches" and "quality at-bats." There is one serious flaw in this groupthink strategy.

It isn't working.

Hitters are striking out more than ever before in baseball history while runs, walks, hits and home runs have been on the decline for years. And while teams still preach the religion of driving up pitch counts to "get into the bullpen" of the other team, they may be pushing an outdated agenda.

Verducci then presents data showing hitters are swinging at fewer first pitches (from 33 percent in 1988 to 26 percent when the article was published) and swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone (70.1 percent in 2002, 64.7 percent last year). He concludes: "Pitchers are four years into a run of dominance and there are no signs that their run is abating, especially when the modern passive aggressive approach to hitting has become so ingrained."

OK, that's part one of your reading assignment. Part two comes from Russell A. Carleton at Baseball Prospectus, who responded to Verducci's article by examing some of the pitch and swing data at an even deeper level. On one point, Carleton sort of agrees with Verducci that grinding out at-bats isn't always the best approach:

Mr. Verducci is correct. High pitch counts are neither a harbinger of success, nor of failure at the macro level. It's not the length of the at-bat that matters. It's what you do with it.

This actually cuts against sabermetric orthodoxy at the micro level. One common-sense reason to try to drive up a starter's pitch count is that because teams generally pull their starters after 100 pitches, but are loathe to pitch their good relievers more than an inning at a time, evicting the starter after five innings means that the other team will have to put in a few of their less-than-stellar relievers to cover the extra innings. In fact, a study done by BP's Colin Wyers shows that the earlier a starter exits, the higher the bullpen ERA is for the rest of that game. Teams can try to get at the soft underbelly of the other team's bullpen if they force the starter out early. Assuming that the underbelly remains soft.

I think the one argument that Verducci's column misses -- or at least fails to properly acknowledge -- is that maybe the pitching is just a whole better than it was even a decade ago. His argument hinges on the idea the pitchers (and hitters) are the same, but only that the approach to hitting has changed.

But the pitcher-batter matchup is a complex thing. Batters hit .333/.340/.545 last season when putting the first pitch in play (or getting hit by a pitch). Does that mean hitters should always swing at the first pitch? Of course not. If that happened, pitchers would adjust and start batters off with more pitches out of the strike zone and hitting results would suffer. Then batters would re-adjust and so on. It's also worth noting in 1988, when batters swung at the first pitch more often, the league-wide OPS was .696. In 1992, the last year before offense began exploding, it was .700. Right now, the league-wide OPS is .714 and the 4.20 runs per game is slightly higher than the 4.12 runs per game in 1992.

There are more strikeouts than ever. That might not be a good thing aesthetically, which Verducci suggests, and I understand the belief that you want more variety in the game, and not just strikeouts and a lot of home runs. But it could be that the best way for hitters to adjust to better pitching is to be more selective, even if that leads to more strikeouts. The game evolves.

As Carleton writes, "It's not that our theories are wrong in the sense that when we came up with them, they didn’t accurately reflect the state of the game. It's that the game may have changed under our feet, and we might still be peddling strategy fit for a different set of assumptions. Mr. Verducci's piece has a lot of value in that regard. It's a reminder that the game can evolve, maybe faster than we would like it to, and we have to evolve with it."