13.86 — that’s the average number of strikeouts in a Major League baseball game this year, 6.93 strikeouts per side. It’s the highest strikeout rate in the history of baseball. The previous high, 13.82 strikeouts per game, was set in 2009, the high before that was set in 2008, and all seventeen of the highest strikeout seasons have come in the past seventeen years, 1994-2010. It’s not a sudden occurrence solely attributable to Jason Bay; strikeouts generally move upwards throughout all of baseball history. Recent years are only continuing the trend. Bill James looked at this in his 2010 Gold Mine, and Tom Verducci did the same for Sports Illustrated back in April. Strikeouts are on the rise and are unlikely to stop rising anytime soon.
But while strikeouts are rising, scoring is also down across baseball and has been dropping for five consecutive seasons. More strikeouts, less scoring over the past five seasons; that’s the pattern.
But despite runs per game going down, the average time it takes to play a baseball game is remaining steady (2 hours and 52 minutes last season), and may still be slightly increasing. So we have long games, but with less scoring and less balls being put in play. In other words, three hour long games where everyone mostly just stands around.
There are thousands of reasons why this is happening, and I’m not going to pretend to know them all, or even most of them. But think about this:
- Ryan Howard is listed at 6‘4“, weighs 255 pounds, and generally hits cleanup. He swings the bat with his bottom hand all the way down over the knob.
- Corey Patterson is 5’10”, weighs 180 pounds, and sometimes hit leadoff for the Orioles this season. Patterson also swings the bat with his bottom hand down by the knob.
Just about everyone, leadoff hitters, cleanup hitters, eighth-place hitters, swings with their bottom hand on or just above the knob of the bat. You could probably count the exceptions on two hands: Jason Kendall, Placido Polanco, David Eckstein, Luis Castillo . . . there are more that regularly choke up, I’m sure. But outside of that select group, every player in baseball holds the bat like a home run hitter, whips the bat through the zone like a home run hitter, and strikes out more or less like a home run hitter. 2010 is not the year of the pitcher; it’s the year of “every player just strikes out a lot.”
But for obvious reasons, players today are smaller than they were even seven years ago. They still swing the same way — because this generation of players grew up watching baseball in the 90s, I would guess that even more of them swing like this — but they’re all a bit smaller and don’t hit the ball as far. So you have baseball in 2010, where smaller players put the ball in play less, don’t hit it as far when they do, score less runs, but the games still take the same amount of time. If you believe that runs, home runs, and balls in play are exciting, and that it’s better when the games take less time, then you might think that baseball could use some tweaks.
Which brings us to the Mets young catcher, Josh Thole. Back in 2007, Thole was a first baseman slugging .311 for single-A Savannah. He caught a little bit too, but he wasn’t a real catcher. It was going to take a lot for him to get the major leagues. A lot happened. Thole is now a catcher, chokes up on the bat, pretends that there are perpetually two strikes against him, and just slaps the ball around. I guess that makes him the guy who is unrecognizable at minor league team reunions, if those even exist . . . I don’t think that they do. Thole is the willing antithesis to the trends in modern baseball. He’s an oddity, and there are thousands of reasons why he never should have gotten to where he is now. But he exists.
Anyway, if you look at the guys in the major leagues who choke up like Thole, you’ll see that most of them:
- are annoying.
- have little power.
- are tough to strikeout.
- hit around .300 for their career.
Basically if you can make decent contact and just put the ball in play, you can hit .300, .290, something like that, even if you’re fat or slow or both. You won’t slug much above .400 and it will just be doubles power, but if you walk more than you strikeout, you can make up for it in on-base abilities.
And Thole walks enough to be useful. He has 109 walks against 97 strikeouts over his past three minor league seasons, and a .381 OBP. Stick Thole in the lineup in front of Wright and Beltran, and he’ll score 80 runs every season. He’s Jason Kendall 2.0 . . . that’s a good thing, by the way. Kendall ran a .805 OPS during his Pittsburgh years, didn’t play great defense, but hit enough to make up for it.
On a local level, the Mets need Thole. The Mets have scored fifteen runs in their past eight games. Their team on-base percentage is .318, behind every team but the Pirates and the Astros in the National League. Repeated: The Mets are behind every team in the league except for the Pirates and Astros in a meaningful offensive category. Main culprit Rod Barajas has a .265 OBP out of the catcher’s spot, which would be the lowest OBP in the majors if Barajas had enough plate appearances to qualify (thankfully, he’s about 30 PA short). You can’t score runs if no one is getting on base, and the Mets aren’t scoring any runs because no one is getting on base. The Mets need Thole’s skill set in the lineup right now, if only to get Barajas’ out of it.
But on a baseball-as-a-whole level, a few more players like Thole could be good for the game. Thole is a baseball science experiment gone right; he was basically molded in a minor league lab out of spare parts. So maybe the Mets play him, he gets on a decent amount and scores some runs. Maybe some other teams see that and say to themselves, “Hey, let’s see if we can create our own Thole out of some guy playing A ball.” Soon, there’s a few more Josh Tholes in the Major Leagues, a few more balls in play, the fielders run around a bit more, maybe the game is a bit more exciting. Kids today grow up watching the legion of Josh Tholes, imitate their batting styles, and start to appear in the majors in 2025.
It probably won’t happen, and even if it did, the games would still be three hours long. But in the age of strikeouts, it might be nice to see some more variance in batting styles and a few more balls in play. At the very least, seeing one Josh Thole in the Mets lineup might be enough for right now.
Image via slgckgc’s Flickr.