Just about the same time I filed my Friday Baseball Post last week, I saw this tweet from the great Rany Jazayerli:
It was too late for me to write about it then but the idea stuck with me. And I love this idea. The big caveat, though, is that baseball is more popular than ever. So, presumably fans like lots of strikeouts (and lots of home runs) even at the price of more pitches-per-plate-appearance and fewer balls in play.
That said, I’d be happy with a reduced number of strikeouts-per-plate-appearance (K/PA) and pitches-per-plate-appearance (P/PA). Just looking at the National League: In 2013, the number of strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched (K/9) was 7.5, which is just under the record of 7.7 set in 2012. That’s about one strikeout more than in 2007. Before the hitting surge of the 1990s, K/9 was less than 6. In the early 1970s, when I started paying attention to baseball, the average K/9 was slightly more than 5.
Why are strikeouts increasing? It could that pitchers are more talented and throwing the ball harder (pitch velocity is up); or that hitters are increasingly willing to risk strikeouts to get hits (rather than taking walks); it could even be the umpires.
So, if we wanted to do something to decrease the number of strikeouts in a game, what could we do? Rany suggests moving the pitcher's rubber back. That’s a pitcher-affecting solution. I came up with some more. Mostly just for fun (I’d be very hesitant to implement any of them for fear of unintended consequences).
Here are my ideas:
• Increase the weight of the baseball. That should make it more difficult to throw hard, right?
• Make the ball slightly…bigger. And therefore presumably easier to make contact with.
(I really wouldn’t want to implement either of these change-the-ball ideas. I’m just throwing stuff out there.)
• Reduce the size of the strike zone. This would only work if pitchers continued throwing as many strikes as they do now (presumably at the cost of either velocity or pitch selection) as no one wants to simply increase the number of walks in a game. Anyway, this is an umpire-affecting solution.
• Want something more dramatic? How about this: Three balls for a walk and two strikes for a strikeout. That might not increase the number of balls in play, but it certainly would reduce number of pitches each batter sees, which has its own set of advantages.
• Make home runs more difficult by changing the dimensions and structure of the ballparks. Build bigger outfields with higher walls. This reduces the advantage of a wait-for-your-pitch-and-drive-it approach. We may see hitters trying to be more like Ichiro or Tony Gwynn.
• Along the same lines: deaden the ball. Again, we'd have fewer home runs, fewer big swings, fewer strikeouts (and fewer pitches seen because hitters would have an advantage).
If you don’t like any of those, maybe we could find a way to penalize strikeouts more:
• A strikeout costs the hitting team an open base. Meaning that a runner on third base would have to go back to second (if it was open) or a runner on second would have to go back to first. Striking out with the bases loaded is penalty enough.
• Or we could really penalize strikeouts. Any batter who strikes out gets only two strikes for the rest of the game.
• Maybe we could say, if a player strikes out, each batter on his team only gets two strikes for the rest of the inning.
Is that enough to consider?
I’m fairly confident that over time the big driver of change will be batter strategies. But who knows? I’m open to evidence -- and to suggestions.
To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org