6 Possible Solutions to Solve MLB's Increasingly Alarming Strikeout Problem

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2020

6 Possible Solutions to Solve MLB's Increasingly Alarming Strikeout Problem

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Major League Baseball has a strikeout problem. Or, at least, it has a serious strikeout situation.

    Prior to 1998, total leaguewide strikeouts had never eclipsed 30,000. Since '98, they've done so every season. In 2008, MLB set an all-time record with 32,884 strikeouts. That record has been broken every year since.

    In 2019, big league hitters reached a new high-water whiff mark with 42,823 Ks. Entering play Monday, the 2020 campaign had already featured 2,294 whiffs. The record won't be broken in a 60-game season, but that's a lot considering every team had played 10 games or fewer.

    The '19 strikeout binge coincided with a record-breaking 6,776 home runs. Indeed, dingers have risen steadily along with strikeouts, representing the all-or-nothing hitting approach that has become the norm.

    Is this a good thing? Sure, homers are fun. But, as Crash Davis famously opined in Bull Durham, "Strikeouts are boring."

    OK, that's not always true. A well-timed punch-out at a key moment can be thrilling. But when one hitter after the other flails in futility, the action grinds to a halt. We get fewer defensive gems and less action on the basepaths.

    As Tom Verducci noted for Sports Illustrated in 2018, "The average game in 1988 took two hours, 45 minutes and gave you 57 balls in play and 11 strikeouts. The average game today takes 19 minutes longer and gives you 49 balls in play and 17 strikeouts."

    With all the talk about pace of play, this might be the single biggest area in which MLB could increase the speed and quality of the game.

    We live in the era of specialty relievers. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever. Batters are swinging for the fencesand missing a lot in the process. What can be done?

    There is no easy answer, but here are six possible solutions to baseball's strikeout explosion. Each comes with a potential downside. Yet in a strange season during which baseball is defying norms and testing all sorts of rule changes, they're at least worth considering.

Make the Three-Batter Minimum Permanent

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Among the many rule tweaks implemented for 2020, the universal designated hitter and the expanded 16-team playoff format have gotten the most attention.

    But the three-batter minimum for pitchers has been quietly impactful.

    Before, managers could mix and match their bullpens at will, playing lefty-righty matchups and bringing in specialty relievers, sometimes to throw just a pitch or two. Now, guys must face at least three hitters, barring injury.

    We'll need more data to see how this rule affects stats, but logic dictates it favors the offense. And really, who loves watching an endless parade of mound visits and pitching changes?

    Like any rule change, this one likely won't become permanent until after the current collective bargaining agreement expires following the 2021 season. But it seems like a reasonable tweak that should improve pace of play and could cut down on Ks.

Implement and Enforce the Pitch Clock

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    This is another pace-of-play rule that could also reduce strikeouts.

    MLB experimented with a 20-second pitch clock during spring training in 2019. Enforcement was loose, with warnings issued rather than penalties, but it was the first step toward implementing the idea in games that count.

    Purists may balk. Part of the appeal of baseball is and always has been the lack of a clock. Unlike other sports, the game isn't rigidly timed. It ends when it ends.

    But who among us hasn't grown weary of watching a pitcher hem and haw, pace around the mound, rub his hat, run through the signs, step off, step on and step off again?

    A pitch clock wouldn't always favor the hitter. Sometimes a quick pitch is as effective as a long delay between offerings. And plenty of hitters like to step out of the box for endless batting-glove adjustments.

    But overall, forcing pitchers to keep throwing with minimal pauses seems like it would help batters stay in rhythm and keep their timing sharp.

Lower the Mound

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    In 1969, MLB lowered the regulation height of the pitcher's mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. For the next seven years, strikeouts steadily decreased.

    Should the league consider lowering it again to produce a similar result?

    Pitchers wouldn't like it. In 2008, St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was still voicing anger about the '69 lowering.

    "Why should they take away the pitcher's livelihood because he becomes proficient at it?" Gibson asked at the time, per the Associated Press. "That, to me, seems like what they did. The hitters weren't doing very well against you so they say, 'Well, we're going to fix that.' I still might sue baseball for that."

    As with any change, the grumbling would eventually stop. Players would adjust. That said, this would be a drastic move—though not as drastic as the next notion.

Move the Mound Back

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

    In 2019, in partnership with the Atlantic League, MLB proposed moving the pitcher's mound back two feet.

    The idea was ultimately pushed back to 2020 and now, obviously, has been delayed indefinitely. But it shows you baseball is serious about trying basically anything.

    If lowering the mound is a significant tweak, moving it back to 62'6" would be a seismic alteration. Twenty-four inches might not seem like much, but for pitchers who've spent their entire careers throwing from the old distance, this could have major ramifications.

    On the one hand, it would give hitters more time to react to triple-digit fastballs. But it could also make breaking balls even more devastating.

    Mostly, it might make pitchers throw even harder and increase the risk of injury.

    It will be interesting to see what happens if and when the Atlantic League returns to action and implements this change. Whether it will ever make its way to MLB is another matter.

Adopt an Automated Strike Zone

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    We've written about an automated strike zone multiple times. As pitch-tracking technology continues to improve, it simply makes sense for umpires to have the same information the rest of us have in real-time.

    An automated "robot" zone wouldn't always favor the hitter. But according to a 2018 Boston University study, batters are unfairly impacted by umps' capricious calls, especially with two strikes.

    According to the study, which analyzed data from Baseball Savant, Pitch F/X and Statcast between 2008-2018, umpires called a rulebook ball a strike nearly 30 percent of the time in two-strike at-bats.

    Eliminating human error could go a long way toward cutting down on strikeouts—or at least making the strike zone consistent and fair.

Don't Juice the Baseballs

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    It's unclear exactly when, how and how much MLB has altered its baseballs in recent years. But multiple independent investigations have concluded there is something different about the balls, and that difference may be making them fly farther. 

    The home run bonanza, in other words, might be about more than hitting philosophy and launch angle.

    It's impossible to quantify, but it's easy to imagine this has made pitchers less willing to pitch to contact. When a hit ball is more likely to sail over the fence, the goal will increasingly become to miss bats altogether.

    Again, we don't know exactly what the league has and hasn't done. Commissioner Rob Manfred has denied the balls have been doctored in any way.

    But if he's being less than truthful, MLB could reverse course and go back to a less juicy ball. And perhaps, in turn, pitchers would become less laser-focused on strikeouts.