A bear market for batters

MLB batters don’t make contact with the ball as much as they used to, making for a game that emphasizes strikeouts and walks instead of hits and defense.

The long-term decline in contact rate ((AB-K)/AB) has accompanied a trend toward fewer home runs, fewer runs scores and lower batting averages. Contact rates have been steadily falling since they reached a peak in 1981 unseen since 1956.

Many fans, myself included, would prefer a game with more balls put in play, but baseball has changed in the statistically oriented, post-steroids era. Batters understand the value of a walk, and they’re not afraid to strike out, setting K records in nine straight seasons.

When will this pattern end, leading to more contact and more run scoring? There’s no way of knowing.

MLB strikeouts reach all-time high (again)

Stronger arms and quicker bats led to Major League Baseball players striking out more than ever before last season — the ninth straight season in which a new high has been set.

Both strikeout rates and the total number of strikeouts reached previously unseen peaks, with pitchers fanning an average of 7.57 batters per nine innings and 36,710 batters overall during the course of the 2013 season, according to Fangraphs.



A combination of factors have contributed to the rise in strikeouts, according to an CBSsports.com article published last May.

Pitchers throw harder, with average fastball velocities reaching all-time highs in 2013 at 92 mph, according to Fangraphs data.¬†Batters now know that strikeouts aren’t much worse than other kinds of outs, reducing the stigma of whiffing, with contact percentages at their lowest rate since 2003. When starters get tired, fireballing relievers come in at a moment’s notice with fresh arms.

As a result, batters go deeper into the count, fewer balls are put in play and games take longer.

Game change

Major League Baseball has entered a new era of pitching dominance, in large part because of an unprecedented jump in strikeouts over the last 35 years. One result is an increasing likelihood of no-hitters in a season, with pitchers already having thrown five of them so far in the 2012 season.

Strikeout rates, measured in K/9, have set record highs every year since 2005. The long-term trend dates all the way back to baseball’s beginnings, according to data from 1871 to 2012 compiled from¬†FanGraphs.com.

 

Strikeout rates surged in the pitchers’ era of the 1960s, peaking at 5.99 K/9 in 1967. That rate stood as the all-time high for 20 years.

But strikeouts today far exceed those rates of nearly 50 years ago.

Pitchers are on pace to reach a new K/9 record this season. So far in 2012, they’ve been fanning 7.51 batters per game.