Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tigers Break Strikeout Mark, MLB Does Too

When starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez disposed of Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan in the first inning yesterday, the Tigers pitching staff broke the single-season Major League Baseball strikeout record.  The previous record of 1,404 strikeouts was held by the 2003 Chicago Cubs led by right handers Kerry Wood (266 strikeouts) and Mark Prior (245).  This year's Tigers finished with 1,428 punch outs paced by Max Scherzer (240), Justin Verlander (217) and Sanchez (210),

The Tigers strikeout feat is impressive, but it's important to consider that Major League Baseball also set a record for most strikeouts this year with 36,697.  The previous high was 36,426 set just last year.  So, it's not too surprising that this year's league leader would break the all-time mark. Last year's Brewers staff just missed the record recording 1,402 strikeouts.  

Figure 1 below shows the increase in strikeouts over the decades.  This year's strikeout rate of 7.6 per team per game nearly triples the all-time low of 2.7 strikeouts per game in 1925.  Some credit has to go to modern pitchers, who have more pitches and more information about opposing batters than ever before.  However, much of the change is likely due to the way batters approach the game.  In earlier decades, batters were more interested in making contact, whereas today there is more focus on swinging for the fences.

One does not have to go back that far to see a dramatic increase in strikeouts though.  They have increased 31% in the last twenty years (there were just 5.8 per game in 1993) and 21% in the last ten years (6.3 per game in 2003 when the Cubs set the record). The more recent increase is somewhat perplexing as it has occurred during a period when home runs have been on the decline.  Some of that may be the umpires calling bigger strike zones in an effort to suppress offense as MLB tries to separate itself from the so called steroid era.

 Data source:

In order to make fairer comparisons across history, I wanted to look at strikeout rates relative to league average.  The average American League team had 1,235 strikeouts in 2013, so the Tigers were 16% better than average.  In comparison, the Cubs staff struck out 32% more than the average National League staff in 2003. 

The all-time best relative strikeout rate was by the 1932 Yankees who struck out 56% more than league average (780 versus the AL  average of 502).  That staff was powered by future Hall of Famers Red Ruffing (190) and Lefty Gomez (176).

The top Tigers strikeout rate belongs to the 1946 staff which was 37% better than league average.  The great Hal Newhouser (275), Virgil Trucks (161), Dizzy Trout (151) and Fred Hutchinson (138) all finished in the top seven in the American League.

So, while the Tigers strikeout record this year is noteworthy, it does not quite rank among the most dominant strikeout seasons of all time. 


  1. Re: " In earlier decades, batters were more interested in making contact, whereas today there is more focus on swinging for the fences." I'm not sure I get this. I thought that one of the most significant realizations of the Sabremetric revolution, and a cornerstone of the A's "Moneyball" philosophy, is the crucial importance of OBA. If you are batting early in an inning, and maybe with men on base as well, isn't the most rational approach to put the ball in play? The league as a whole has a BABIP of around .300, right? So if you can walk a couple times a week and don't strike out very often, aren't you doing your team a lot more good than you are by swinging and missing and maybe hitting three or four dingers a month?

    1. I am sure a lot of people here know more than I do, but I think you have the "Moneyball" philosophy confused with Brad Pitt's version. If I remember correctly, the point of Moneyball wasn't that OBP was more important than slugging, or anything else. The point was at that specific time period, the OBP skill set could be acquired for much much much less money than a slugger. Teams were driving up the market price on sluggers, so for the same amount of money you could acquire the same amount (or more) of projected wins because OBP was undervalued and slugging was overvalued.

      In the same vein, I think statistics have shown the importance of power, and that is why we see more players starting to forgo average for an increase in power. I hope I helped make the distinction clear (and I hope I was right).

    2. yes, Alexander you got it right.

  2. What I mean by swinging for the fences is swinging for power - going for extra base hits (while risking more strikeouts) instead of swinging for contact and getting a lot of singles (with fewer strikeouts). Since ball fields are typically smaller than they used to be and players are generally stronger, it makes sense that you would have more players swinging hard today than in earlier decades. Even today, not every player should be swinging for power of course. If a player doesn't have much power, he is better off swinging for contact.

    As for walks, a player can still get walks with either approach and walk rates have actually been a lot more consistent than strikeouts throughout history.

    1. Lee,
      Thanks for this response. Just to clarify my comment: If you strike out, your OBA is essentially zero, unless the third strike gets by the catcher. If you put the ball in play, your OBA is a bit higher than your BABIP (hits plus home runs and errors). So if OBA is so important, are strikeouts really worth the gain in power? As you say, it probably depends on the hitter.

    2. OBP is important but, SLG is important too, so it's a matter of being able to add enough SLG to make up for the lost OBP.

    3. Plus there's massive street cred to blasting homers. And then a guy like A-Rod can get a contract with massive bonuses for crazy home run totals. The branding of the game is often perceived psychologically as "homers are cool, and everything else is boring or doesn't sell seats as well, nevermind all of this what does the computer say is most profitable for the bottom line and our mentality will mesh with that".

      And naturally he who can understand the relationships of the numbers in the best way is going to have an inherent advantage of being more likely to win games. Every team tries their best to be the best and they all disagree with each other about how to go about doing that.



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