How the ‘K’ became the most destructive letter in Major League Baseball

Editor’s note: From rising strikeout totals and unwritten rules debates to connecting with a new generation of fans and a looming labor battle, baseball is at a crossroads. As MLB faces these challenges, we are embarking on a season-long look at The State of Baseball, examining the storylines that will determine how the game looks in 2021 and far beyond.

The K is a handsome and sturdy letter. More than 12,000 words start with K, but it’s not our most popular or coolest letter. It’s just a hard consonant in the middle of the alphabet. And yet, in this 2021 baseball season, the K is the most important letter, even when written backwards, because K is the symbol for the strikeout, and strikeouts are almost all that we talk about these days.

It is indeed breathtaking to watch the mastery of our pitchers, the preposterous stuff we see from our stars, such as Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Shane Bieber, and from those relievers that come in firing every night. But the pitching now is too good, and the strikeout craze has become an epidemic that dominates too many games.

This is so fitting of this season: Days after the Phillies became the first team since 1996 to score two runs on a strikeout, the Orioles’ John Means became the first pitcher to ever throw a no-hitter without a walk, hit batter or error. The only baserunner came on a strikeout/wild pitch.

“It’s unbelievable,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “I’ve talked to Theo (Epstein, who is a consultant for Major League Baseball regarding on-field issues) about it. I’ve talked to other managers about it. I watched a game the other night, the first three innings, the ball wasn’t put in play by either team. Everyone struck out. I’ve never seen that.”

“It’s embarrassing,” said Reggie Jackson, who struck out more times than anyone in history.

“It’s worrisome,” said Nolan Ryan, who struck out more batters than any pitcher in history.

“It’s alarming,” Diamondbacks catcher Stephen Vogt said. “It’s weird.”

“It’s wild,” said Jason Ochart, the director of hitting at Driveline and minor league hitting instructor for the Phillies.

“It’s crazy,” said Scott Bradley, the baseball coach at Princeton who is a former major league catcher. “And it’s not just in the big leagues. I saw some minor league statistics and some team in low-A ball struck out like 70 times in a three-game series. It’s mind-boggling.”

The strikeout dilemma has MLB officials deeply concerned given it is the primary reason for the game’s sluggish pace of play and its troublesome lack of action on certain nights. All sorts of remedies are the focus of experiments on the minor league level, including moving the pitching mound back one foot. But those are just bandages. This is the game’s biggest ailment. So, when did this strikeout phenomenon begin and, more importantly, what is the solution to stop this K train — or at least slow it down?

The beginnings of the K zone

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In the 1980s, there were, on average, nine strikeouts per game. Now there are twice that many. In baseball history, there have been four games in which the teams combined for six or fewer hits and at least 30 strikeouts. One of those games happened in 2015, one in 2018 and two in April 2021.

In Game 7 of the 1960 World Series in which the Pirates beat the Yankees, 10-9, there were no strikeouts. But in Game 1 of the Reds-Braves Wild Card series last year, a game that went 13 innings, there were a combined 37 strikeouts.

“I struck out more times than anyone in the history of the game, almost 2,600 times, but I did it over 20 years,” Jackson said. “That’s 125 strikeouts per year … a leadoff guy today strikes out 125 times. It’s not productive. The game has changed so much, and for the worse.”

Strikeout records fall daily. Bieber struck out more batters (68) through April than any pitcher in history. He set a major league record for the most consecutive starts (20) with at least eight strikeouts in a game. DeGrom set a record for the most strikeouts (48) through the first four starts of a season and tied Ryan’s record for the most strikeouts (59) through the first five starts.

The Brewers’ Corbin Burnes’ record for 58 strikeouts between walks was broken four days later by Gerrit Cole, who, on May 17, made it 61 strikeouts between walks. Burnes still holds the major league record for most strikeouts (56) to start a season before issuing his first walk. Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman struck out 29 in his first 12 innings. He struck out nine batters for every hit allowed, but it still wasn’t the best strikeout-to-hit ratio in the game. Indians reliever James Karinchak struck out 34 and allowed three hits in his first 18 1/3 innings. The season record is six K’s for every hit, set by Milwaukee’s Devin Williams in 2020.

These strikeouts have taken us to this critical point in baseball for three primary reasons.

1. Pitcher’s stuff is spectacular. It is violent and, when located properly, largely unhittable.

2. Many pitchers hunt strikeouts; hitters don’t care if they strike out as long as they hit homers.

3. The baseball industry has taught, encouraged and incentivized players to play this style.

“I love baseball,” Bradley said, “but there are times I won’t watch it because it’s a little dull.”

And then there is Ryan, who made a career and reputation of this very thing.

“It has turned me off to the game,” he said

Velocity and what comes next

Ryan Zimmerman, 36, in his 15th season, agreed that today’s stuff is sensational, but wondered if pitchers know how to use it and if hitters know how to combat it.

“They throw a lot harder today,” he said. “I say this jokingly, but I’m an old man and I can still hit velocity because a lot of these guys don’t know how to pitch. So it doesn’t matter if you throw 85 or 100. If I have a 3-0 or a 3-1 or a 2-0 count, and I’m looking for a fastball and you throw me a fastball in the middle of the plate, there’s a good chance that me and a lot of other big league hitters are going to hit it. I don’t want to say that the baseball IQ has gone down, but the baseball IQ has gone down. I’m not going to be this old guy on a soap box that says these young guys don’t know how to play baseball, but you have to know situations, you have to study and do some work on the pitcher that night.”

So does the count even matter anymore?

“There’s no such thing as a fastball count now,” Zimmerman said. “Two years ago, they got mad at (Padres shortstop Fernando) Tatis for swinging at a 3-0 pitch. Ten years ago, you used to take on 3-0 because you’d get a fastball as well on 3-1 and 3-2. Now, you’re not guaranteed a fastball in any count. I’ve seen 3-0 sliders. It’s all changed with starting pitchers. I’m not going to take a first pitch fastball now to get a guy’s pitch count up when I will get behind 0-1. That might be the only fastball that I see in that at-bat. Velocity has gone through the roof, but that doesn’t mean it’s harder to hit. If you make mistakes in the middle of the plate, your fastball is going to get hit.

“I don’t think velocity is the problem.”

The bigger problem for hitters is the secondary stuff: slider, curveball, cutter, change-up and split.

“The breaking ball has changed everything,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “The fastball used to be the primary pitch, but our hitters have learned to time it up no matter how hard it is thrown — and they hit it. But everyone is talking about the breaking ball now.”

That is where the real trouble comes in for the hitters.

“The secondary stuff is so ridiculous, and they can throw it at any time; that’s what makes it so hard to hit,” Zimmerman said. “These guys throw 95, 98 mph, but they only throw their fastball 40 percent of the time. It’s the combination of them throwing all their pitches in any count from the beginning. You used to have guys try to go through the lineup first time through throwing only a fastball. But now, from the first batter on, you might get the whole arsenal because if they get to 100 pitches, they are lucky. They might as well use everything they got from the beginning. That’s what makes it so hard.”

This year, some hitters claim, it is even harder to hit because the sticky substance that Major League Baseball has allowed a pitcher to legally put on the baseball (Bullfrog, etc.) to give the pitcher a better grip, especially in cold weather, has also given the pitcher another added advantage. Now they have the ability to spin a ball faster than ever, so fast it will cut your shirt.

“I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but the secondary stuff has gotten nastier and nastier,” Seitzer said. “It’s unbelievable. We’ve had hitters this season come back to the dugout saying, ‘There’s no way the ball can move that way without help. I’ve never seen a pitch do that before.’ And it was a slider.”

“I’ve never seen sliders and cutters like I’ve seen this year,” Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter said.

Cubs manager David Ross just shook his head.

“The Brewers have a guy (Burnes) throwing a cutter at 97,” Ross said. “He makes Mariano’s (Rivera, the greatest closer ever, with the greatest cutter ever) look like a child’s.”

The remarkable amount of analytic data and the stunning technological advances have greatly helped pitchers improve arm speed, velocity, spin rate, etc.

“The analytics have identified what truly is a strength for a pitcher,” Boone said. “And now you can match up those numbers with a hitter. A lot of times, it is strength against weakness.”

Jason Ochart is the minor league hitting coordinator for the Phillies. He is deep in analytics.

“A pitcher’s development, the ability to leverage information and technology, has out-raced the hitters significantly,” Ochart said. “Pitchers are able to train and replicate game conditions. With hitters, it’s a lot harder to do that. Hitting inside (in a cage, not on a field) is a problem, especially if you don’t have HitTrax or batted ball feedback. On a field, you learn to use the whole field. In a cage, you get literal tunnel vision. Your bat speed goes down and your launch angle gets lower. Working out inside hurts a pitcher far less. For a hitter, it can be hard to replicate game conditions without a pitcher throwing to you. Pitchers are using all this information to optimize an arsenal and a strategy against hitters. In the hitter’s world, we can’t even agree if hitting a ball harder is better.”

It’s OK to K

Joey Gallo and the Reds’ Eugenio Saurez struck out 40 times in April.

Babe Ruth never struck out 100 times in a season. Hall of Famer Lou Brock sat out the final day of the 1970 season because he had 99 strikeouts and didn’t want to strike out 100 times. Frank Robinson said the worst season of his career was 1965 because, even though he hit 33 homers with 113 RBIs, it was the only season that he struck out 100 times. And yet, the Orioles’ Chris Davis, in 2014, set a record for the fewest games needed — 64 — to get to 100 strikeouts. There were 94 100-strikeout seasons from 1900 to 1963. But in 2019, the last full, 162-game season before COVID-19 shortened the 2020 season, a sobering 171 players struck out 100 times.

Gwynn had one three-strikeout game in his career. So did Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. Bill Buckner and Mike Scioscia never struck out three times in a game. But through May 17, an individual player has struck out four (or five) times in a game 56 times. (In 1955, there were 12 such times. No season before 1956 had more than 17).

From 1900 to 1990, only two Yankees ever struck out five times in a game, and they were both pitchers — Bob Turley and Stan Bahnsen. But Giancalo Stanton and Aaron Judge each have two five-strikeout games in their Yankee careers. In 2017, Judge struck out in 37 consecutive games, a major league record.

“I struck out almost 2,600 times, and I was embarrassed to strike out,” Jackson said. “Look, I know today you can run into a [Justin] Verlander or a [Gerrit] Cole or a [Clayton] Kershaw with all their fabulous stuff. They strike you out, you take it like a man and you acknowledge that he was better than you were that day. I went up to the plate many times trying to hit a home run — until I got two strikes. But with the bases loaded, and all you have to do is touch the ball, put the ball in play, we have lost track of that.”

Ryan thinks it comes down to what motivates the hitter.

“I watch the hitter’s approach, and I see that they think it’s about them, not the team winning, it drives me up a wall,” Ryan said. “They don’t change with the count. You don’t see them go the other way, they don’t put a ball in play. These are the [number] eight hitters, the leadoff guys, the cleanup guys. Back when I played, only the real power guys – [Willie] McCovey, [Willie] Mays and [Willie] Stargell — didn’t adjust when they had two strikes.”

Back then, hitters wanted to put the ball in play as much as the pitcher wanted him to put it in play. Today, hitters wait and wait and wait for that one pitch they can drive. In 2004, Adam Dunn struck out looking 66 times, which was more times than Ted Williams struck out in any season, looking or swinging. In 2018, the White Sox’s Yoan Moncada struck out looking 85 times. In 2018, the Nationals’ Kurt Suzuki went 113 straight plate appearances without swinging at the first pitch.

Pitchers recognize this. They get ahead. They get to two strikes, and they have three swing-and-miss pitches in their bag. Consequently, the walk rate has gone done slightly this year as the strikeout rate soars. In 1989, no pitcher had a start of 12 strikeouts and no walks. In 1990, there was one. It happened 24 times in 2019. There have already been seven 12-strikeout, no-walk starts this year.

It might not matter to the hitter if he strikes out. But it really matters to the pitcher.

“Pitchers aren’t pitching to contact,” Vogt said. “They are trying to make you swing-and-miss from pitch one of the at-bat.”

The whole mindset has changed.

“When I came up, people wanted action within three pitches,” Zimmerman said. “Now, you get to 0-2 and they think, ‘Now I’ve got three pitches to try to strike someone out,’ and all of a sudden it’s 3-2. A lot of these guys that really throw hard, they really don’t know how to pitch.”

The game has convinced our young pitchers to ramp up velocity and hunt for strikeouts. Imagine this: Two years ago, in a Triple-A game, a pitcher had a hitter in an 0-2 count with two out and no one on base in a regular-season game in June. The hitter hit a foul pop-up that was caught by the third baseman. The pitcher went to that third baseman after the play and asked him, “Why didn’t you drop that ball on purpose? I could have struck that guy out. I have to strike people out. That’s my only way to get to the big leagues.”

Former third baseman Buddy Bell shook his head.

“No, that didn’t happen,” he said. “You’re just telling me that to piss me off, aren’t you?”

No, Buddy, that happened.

Get the ball up in the air

Alec Bohm. Ochart played professionally, but only briefly.

“I totally understand that (criticism),” Ochart said. “I would have a hard time taking a golf lesson from someone who can’t break 100. But at the end of the day, I have climbed up in the game by becoming an expert at helping hitters using technology and batted-ball information and data. I think the window is small for guys like me. And I will never pretend to know what it’s like to hit every day in the big leagues or the minor leagues. But after working with guys, soon they discover that I can help them.”

Choke up and put the ball in play

Max Scherzer … well, good luck.

“My favorite thing is when I talk to people, maybe my buddies or even my dad, and they all say, ‘Back when I watched baseball, you would just choke up and hit it in the 4-hole,”’ Zimmerman said. “It’s not as easy as people think to just hit it where the players aren’t. You made it to the big leagues by being a certain type of player. A lot of these guys have power. They hit the ball hard. You can’t just get to the big leagues and all of a sudden become a contact hitter who just hits singles to the 4-hole.”

Bunting?

“We wait until September when it’s [crunch] time and they ask everyone to bunt and no one has bunted all year,” Zimmerman said. “No one believes in the bunt anymore. But the last 30 games and in the playoffs, everyone wants to bunt. And no one executes a bunt because no one ever does it and no one ever practices it. You can’t have it both ways.”

Shifting?

“They say, ‘put the ball in play, put the ball in play,’ but they (teams) simulate 100,000 at-bats,” Zimmerman said. “When you put the ball in play, there’s four people standing there. The balls that used to sneak up the middle, and sneak through the 6-hole, those don’t exist anymore. So why try to do that? So you try to hit it over the shift. You might as well try to get an extra base hit, but extra base hits lead to more strikeouts. The old ‘Put the ball in play and good things happen,’ … baseball players are really good, there aren’t many errors at this level.”

The ultimate solution perhaps has to begin with our 10- and 12-year-olds in the batting cage, teaching them another way to hit, not just emphasizing hitting every ball in the air. But that is what is being taught at every level. We have a home run derby at the Little League World Series.

“Kids try to emulate what they see the big leaguers doing,” Bradley said. “You see it happening in high school and college. Our 10- and 11-year-olds have their own swing coach. It’s up to the coaches to let them know what type of player they should be. It is so important. I have discussions with my players (at Princeton) when they come in. I’m watching them try to hit the ball in the air and I tell them, ‘You’re not capable of hitting the ball out of the ballpark, why are you trying to hit in the air?”’

The adjustment in hitting style to combat this overpowering velocity is going to take time.

“You can’t flip a switch,” Teixeira said. “Yes, the hitters do need to adjust. The hitters are behind the curve because of velocity and analytics. But it is going to take a generation to fix it. The 15-year-old from 10 years ago is now in the big leagues. They were not talking to him about choking up then.”

Can change happen? Well, money talks.

“It’s a difficult adjustment, but it’s not impossible,” Seitzer said. “I’m not saying we’re rewarding strikeouts, but if the game is going to keep rewarding all that comes with all the strikeouts, without having a penalty for all the strikeouts, if guys lose money in their arbitration deals because of all the strikeouts, that’s going to be the only way that it will change.”

Zimmerman agreed.

“I think when teams start to incentivize and pay players to get on base, steal bases, not strike out, you’ll see more players start to do that,” Zimmerman said. “I do believe it’ll come back.”

That will take years, maybe a decade or more.

In the meantime, the K will remain the most important letter in baseball.