Baseball fans of the late 1970s and early 1980s used to think of Dave Kingman as a home run-or-strikeout kind of guy. It certainly seemed that way in 1979, when he led the National League with 48 home runs and 131 strikeouts for the Cubs while the Brewers’ Gorman Thomas led the American League with 45 and 175.
Last year, 58 major-leaguers struck out more than Kingman’s 1979 total, including the White Sox’ Todd Frazier (163) and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant (154) and Addison Russell (135). Six players, topped by the Orioles’ Chris Davis with 219 Ks, exceeded Thomas’ total.
The way baseball is played is continually evolving, and the current game is showing upward movement in the three true outcomes that are not affected by defense — strikeouts, walks and home runs.
Contributing factors include hitters’ approach, composition of pitching staffs and bullpen use. Not to be overlooked is team preference. If execs wanted teams that put the ball in play and cut strikeouts, the lineups and the numbers would look much different. But the Cubs won the 2016 World Series with a team that exceeded MLB averages in all three true outcomes.
The last time strikeouts dropped was 2005, when teams struck out 6.30 times per game after 6.55 in 2004. A record of 6.77 was set in 2008, and every season since has been a record-setter.
In 2016, strikeouts cracked eight per team per game for the first time, averaging 8.03. So far in 2017, that rate is up to 8.22.
Last season, when the Cubs were third in MLB with 808 runs, they struck out 8.26 times per game. The White Sox, who tied for 20th in scoring with 686 runs, struck out 7.93 times per game.
At 3.25 bases on balls per team per game, walks in 2017 are up from 3.11 last year. After a drop from 3.01 in 2013 to 2.88 in 2014, walks crept up to 2.90 in 2015 before again surpassing three per game last year. The Cubs led MLB at 4.05 walks per game last year; the Sox were at 2.81.
The 2017 rate is the same as in 2010 and 1992, with a higher-walk period in between. A dip to 3.09 in 2011 started a downward trend, but the arrow may be pointing up again.
Teams homered 5,610 times last year, 1.16 times per team per game, including 1.23 by the Cubs and 1.04 by the Sox. The MLB figures were the second highest of all time, after 5,693 and 1.17 in 2000.
The 2017 home run pace of 1.13 per game may look like a slight drop, but it isn’t. That’s running ahead of last season, when home runs for March/April were at 1.04 per game. Home runs picked up as the weather warmed.
From 1994 to 2009, the average was 1.0 per game or more in every season. A drop afterward reached a low of 0.86 in 2014. Now the big bats are booming once again.
Follow me on Twitter @GrochowskiJ.