Much is being made of the likelihood that Braves’ hitters will rack up the strikeouts in 2013. AJC beat writer David O’Brien wrote, “no World Series champion has ever struck out as many as 1,200 times, and of the last eight teams to reach the World Series, seven have ranked fifth or better in fewest strikeouts in their respective league, including four that were first or second.”
First of all, it’s not all that telling that no recent World Series winner has struck out 1,200 times. Strikeouts have basically been rising since the advent of Major League Baseball. There are relatively few teams in the history of the game that struck out 1,200 times in a season, because the 1,200 strikeout season is a relatively new phenomenon.
It is not unheard of for teams to win the World Series and have a lot of strikeouts. But if we look at total number of strikeouts, that is going to cloud our view, since even the best teams at avoiding strikeouts these days strikeout a lot more than teams of yesteryear. The reason is because of changes in the game more than merely an acceptance of the strikeout and hitters not caring.
In today’s game we are more likely to see pitchers pitching in short spurts and going all out instead of pacing themselves. It’s easier for a pitcher to strike batters out if he doesn’t have to pace himself as much as pitchers have in the past.
Another factor is player strength. The mound distance hasn’t changed since pretty much baseball as we know it was invented. The mound has been lowered and raised but essentially pitchers have been pitching at the same distance forever. But human beings obviously get bigger, stronger, faster, quicker over time. Bigger, stronger, faster, quicker humans mean faster pitches and faster pitches mean more strikeouts. Another factor in players’ strength is better nutrition and better knowledge of medicine and the human body.
Along with player strength, there is also better pitches and more knowledge of the physics of pitching. Through trail and error, pitchers have learned to throw pitches that twist, dart, sink and move more.
So strikeouts are more common just because the nature of the game has changed over time, not because of anything hitters are or aren’t doing differently. In fact, one could argue that hitters are vastly more skilled, more fit, more trained, more athletic now than they were in, say, 1950. But pitchers have more than kept up, at least in the ability to miss bats.
Another thing about DOB’s statement is that a few of the recent World Series champions weren’t all that impressive offensively. They won because of pitching or because they played well over the stretch of a few weeks and those few weeks just happened to be in October/November. What good is building a team that can make contact if the team can’t score enough runs to get them to the postseason? Some of those teams with low strikeout totals were good offensive clubs and some of them were not. There isn’t really a strong correlation. The stronger correlation to scoring runs and overall offensive production is getting on base and slugging, regardless of how many times those teams made a particular type of out.
The point where DOB stops is 2005. In 2004 the Boston Red Sox won the World Series with a great offense that led the league in strikeouts and strikeout rate. The were first in runs scored, first in batting average, first in on-base percentage, first in slugging and third in OPS+ (with a 110 OPS+ to Cleveland and New York’s 111). It’s clear that the Braves are trying to somewhat follow the Red Sox model for building offense.
The Braves probably won’t have a hitter the caliber of Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz but Frank Wren clearly has on-base and slugging in mind, strikeouts be damned. This is a good thing. Not necessarily that he doesn’t care at all about strikeouts. Of course given a choice between two equally productive hitters of equal age and same position, you’ll take the one that strikes out less. But the key is production. Production in baseball is getting on base or avoiding outs, slugging and gaining bases. The Braves aren’t the ’04 Red Sox but they should be solid at getting on base, slugging and also running the bases.
The 1927 Yankees are another great team and great offensive team, maybe the best team ever, and they struck out a lot for their time. They led the majors in strikeouts and strikeout rate. They struck out 610 times, which seems like very few in today’s game. But the Cardinals were next with 511 strikeouts.
The ’27 Yankees struck out in 9.8 percent of their plate appearances. The Cardinals were next at 8.7 percent, which is a fairly big margin. In many ways the ’27 Yankees were the first great team that were built upon out-avoidance and power. Some great teams strike out, some don’t. But every great team that had a good offense was good at getting on base, slugging and gaining bases, regardless of how often or how many times they struck out or made any particular kind of out, for that matter. It’s about how often a team makes outs, not how.
The 2013 Braves obviously aren’t the 1927 Yankees. There probably isn’t another 1927 Yankees. But contrary to the views of those who think the strikeout potential of this team is a big deal, we should take comfort in history showing that it is not. It’s not a big deal, that is, as long as the Braves live up to their potential in getting on base, slugging and baserunning, and if the pitching staff does its part.