Jul 17, 2019

MLB's pitching paradox: Strikes are down, strikeouts are up

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
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Data: FanGraphs; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

While MLB is on pace to set a strikeout record for the 14th consecutive season, the rate of pitches actually thrown in the strike zone continues to plummet. Weird, right?

By the numbers: In 2002, 54.2% of all pitches were thrown for strikes (swings not included, just pitch location) … and batters struck out 16.8% of the time. In 2019, a record-low 42.1% of pitches have been thrown for strikes … and batters are striking out 22.8% of the time.

What's happening: With hitters increasingly swinging for the fences, pitchers are deliberately throwing outside the zone to avoid giving up home runs.

  • "Throws targeted for the inside and outside corners have been replaced by fastballs that rocket up above the zone or breaking balls that dive below it," notes NYT's Joe Lemire.
  • This has resulted in longer at-bats (batters are seeing a record-high 3.91 pitches per plate appearance this season); but again, almost one-fourth of them still end in a strikeout.

Meanwhile, pitchers have simply gotten better at enticing hitters to chase balls thanks to things like analytics and "pitch tunneling."

  • Analytics: The volume of advanced data available to pitchers gives them insight into exactly where each hitter is most likely to chase — and they're exploiting that.
  • Pitch tunneling: Pitchers have gotten extremely good at making two different pitches look identical for much of their flight toward the plate, allowing them to present balls as strikes for longer (example).

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