Last year Major League Baseball set a record for home runs hit. The common narrative is that players embracing the idea of a higher launch angle did so and though they missed more – when they did connect the ball went a lot farther.
That launch angle has continued to rise so far in 2018, and along with cold weather and faster pitches has brought along with it a lot of strikeouts.
Average strikeouts per 9 inning game is up to 8.74 as written here in the Wall Street Journal, which resulted in over 7,200 strikeouts and just under 7,000 hits. No season where records exist going back to 1871 has a season ended with more strikeouts than hits. The closes it came was last year with a 2,111 delta.
For a sport trying to speed things up with more action and less dead time, this is bad news. Commissioner Rob Manfred said this last summer about the situation: “Where it gets troubling from a fan perspective is tons and tons of strikeouts, no action, lots of pitching changes. That combination is troubling to me.”
That makes sense of course. The “one true outcome” of a walk, home run, or strikeout is up to 35% this season. Ten years ago that number was only at 29%.
Of course it is not just the launch angle leading to this. As teams play around with defenses that take away “seeing eye singles” or even just normal hits through the hole that now get trapped right into the shift, hitters just don’t see the need to play around with that and swing for the fences.
Pirates pitcher Trevor Williams offered this explanation to the Pittsburgh Gazette:
“Guys are just trying to hit more homers,” Williams said. “Guys are trying to do damage. No one really plays for three hits to score a run anymore. Everyone’s trying to play for the big inning and string together a few homers and whatnot.”
The game is also a series of punches and counter-punches and it is too early for the detailed Statcast analytics to even tell us too much just yet. It appears that many pitchers are pitching higher in the strike zone, which especially against more launch-angle prone hitters just misses more bats. Take Josh Hader as example A. How hitters will respond remains to be seen. Interestingly, run production to this point hasn’t slowed down much. It does make sense that even with more strikeouts – when hitters do connect they hit more home runs overall. Perhaps that equilibrium just hasn’t struck back yet?
As the weather heats up, perhaps hitters will turn those swings and misses into singles, doubles, and of course even more home runs. Perhaps we will see more hitters choke up and hit the ball the opposite way with two strikes. If this off-season taught us nothing else, it is that teams see all of the home runs being hit and that actually HURTS the market for home run hitters some. What is the dollar difference between a guy who hits 30 home runs and 40 home runs? Not much, actually, especially if you are Logan Morrison or Corey Dickerson and that is a career high by far. Teams assume they can get the same or close to the same production from a similar player for much less money.