The Way of the K: Strikeout Trends Over the Last Five Years

Bryan CurleyCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - NOVEMBER 02:  A.J. Burnett #34 of the New York Yankees walks back to the dugout after he was taken out of the game in the bottom of the third inning against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game Five of the 2009 MLB World Series at Citizens Bank Park on November 2, 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

For a team sport, baseball sure does place a premium on individual accomplishments. That's the nature of the game. It’s the only major sport that plays itself out one person at a time.

In basketball, football, and hockey, all players need to work in unison, and an athlete’s individual statistics are heavily influenced by the team they are on.

Baseball doesn’t have much of that. Sure, defensively there are a lot of moving parts when a ball is put into play, and when pitching you need both a catcher and a pitcher, but for the most part it is a highly individualized game.

Despite this, most of a player’s statistics are still dependent on the people around him, and the environment in which he plays.

It’s well documented that Chase Field in Arizona is more conducive to high batting totals than Safeco Field in Seattle, and pitchers often see their ERAs fluctuate depending on what league or division they play in, and who’s fielding behind them...and that’s only two examples.

However, there are a few statistics that more accurately represent individual performance. Batting average is largely an independent statistic.

Sure, there are a couple external factors. For example, Orioles batters face higher quality pitching in their division (CC Sabathia, Javier Vazquez, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, James Shields, Matt Garza, etc.) than Athletics batters (Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir, Rich Harden, Scott Feldman, etc.), and the rest of a hitter’s lineup affects how he is pitched to.

Strikeouts are another one of these largely independent statistics. While pitcher-catcher rapport is important, as well as overall quality of team defense (pitchers on better defensive teams can pitch to contact more often), it is one of the most individualistic statistics out there.

Because it relies almost solely on the abilities of the pitcher, it is also one of the most stable categories in your standard 5×5 league.

So what am I getting at? Come draft day, when you are trying to assemble your team and maximize your output in each category, it’s important to know statistical trends.

How many 200 K pitchers were there in 2009? How many can we expect in 2010? Will I be able to find reliable K totals in later rounds?


Strikeout Totals Are On The Rise

To help answer these questions, I went back and looked at individual K totals for the last five years. The graph below shows the direction the statistic has gone by illustrating how many pitchers have achieved certain K total milestones each season.

As you can see, there has been a steady rise in the number of well-above average (180-199) and elite (200+) K totals over the last five years.

This means that if one of your goals for 2010 is to be a league powerhouse in Ks (as I try to do every season because of the category’s stability), you don’t necessarily need to grab an elite K pitcher early.

In 2008 there were 20 pitchers that totaled 180+ K (or two per team in a 10-team league), and 21 such pitchers in 2009.

Because of the steady rise over the five-year period, the stable plateau we have seen recently, and the lack of any major retirements or injuries to last season’s top K pitchers (sorry Randy Johnson, but we’ll still miss you), we can say with confidence that this trend should continue.


What About Innings Pitched?

To see if this steady rise in K totals was simply due to pitchers throwing more innings, I looked back at innings pitched totals for the last five years as well.

Interestingly, as K totals are rising, IP totals have been falling. This means more pitchers are reaching higher K milestones in fewer innings.

There are three possible explanations for this:

(1) By striking out more batters, pitch counts are on the rise, and pitchers are being less efficient.

(2) The new wave of starters such as Tim Lincecum, Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Lester are better at striking out batters than Jake Peavy, Johnson, Brett Myers, Chris Carpenter, etc. were five years ago at their respective stages of their careers.

(3) Batters these days just strike out more often.


So How Can We Use This?

As I mentioned before, this analysis gives us good insight into the trends of the statistic. With upwards of 20 to 25 pitchers who should accumulate 180 or more Ks, players who are K specialists (I’m looking at you, Burnett) have less value than they did in years past. Don’t reach on them.

This doesn’t really affect the value of all-around great pitchers like Lincecum or Johan Santana, though. You won’t be drafting them largely for their strikeout ability, because they do it all.

As always, this analysis is meant solely to give you, the diligent fantasy owner, as much information as possible so you can make the most informed choices possible. Go ahead and get Burnett if he fits your team’s makeup. He’s all yours.


For the original article and more fantasy baseball analysis, check out Baseball Professor.