"Pitchers today throw harder with better breaking balls and changeups," said Maddux, now a special instructor with Texas. "Why? It's evolution. We get better in all sports. Football is probably faster now than it was 10 years ago. It's no different with pitching."
The best hitting prospect in baseball, Wil Myers of the Rays, struck out 140 times in 134 minor league games last year. Josh Hamilton struck out 162 times last year and signed a $125 million, five-year deal with the Angels. Michael Bourn signed a four-year, $48 million deal with Cleveland after he struck out 155 times. B.J. Upton signed a five-year, $75.25 million deal with Atlanta after a career-worst 169 strikeouts. The Braves will start a lineup with six hitters who struck out more than 120 times last year.
"Hey, go ask Davey Johnson about strikeouts," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez says, referring to the Washington manager. "[The Nationals] strike out more than we do. It's like the stat people say, 'An out is an out.' You don't want to be grounding into double plays. It's not a big deal."
The acceptance of strikeouts isn't always balanced by power. Last year a record 14 players whiffed 100 times without hitting 10 home runs—four more than did so from 1900 to '62 combined. The old-school two-strike approach, which places a premium on contact, is dying, even though the free-swinging new-school approach isn't working.
Two-strike hitting has declined six straight years, down from .194 in 2006 to .178, the lowest average in 25 years of available data. One might expect the decrease in batting average to be offset by an increase in slugging, given all the hitters such as Longoria who don't compromise their power stroke with two strikes. But slugging percentage with two strikes is worsening—from .300 in '06 to .273 last year.
"I guess you could say the game changed during the steroid era," says Tigers ace Justin Verlander, the major league leader in strikeouts three of the past four years. "It was about home runs, home runs, home runs. Now that most of the game is clean, it's still that same mind-set, but without the same, I guess, ability."
As pitchers throw more strikes and hitters continue their passive-aggressive approach, traditional hitters' counts have become less common. For instance, the number of 2-and-0 counts has declined for three straight seasons, and there were about two fewer per game in 2012 than in '00.
And hitters are doing less and less when they get ahead 2 and 0, often choosing to take a pitch and prolong their at bat. The number of plate appearances decided on a 2-and-0 count has gone down six straight years, and the number of 2-and-0 home runs has decreased 33% since 2000, from 384 to 259.
The finesse pitcher with the 88-mph sinker is being driven out of the game, especially out of bullpens, where managers don't want to see the ball put into play. "It used to be that every team had one or two guys they'd bring in and you'd go, All right, I'm going to get my hits," says veteran outfielder Vernon Wells. "Now? I swear you can't even be a reliever on some teams unless you throw 95. It's just one hard thrower after another."
Velocity is the single greatest factor in a pitcher's getting noticed, especially in the amateur ranks, which assures the trend will continue. Scouts talk about 90 being the magic number in Latin America; young teenagers train specifically to be able to hit 90 mph in a tryout—the baseball equivalent to prepping for the SATs. High school players know velocity alone will get them noticed by college coaches and scouts. Youth league parents carry pocket radar devices the size of a smartphone to know how hard little Jimmy is throwing. In every step of the pipeline, velocity is rewarded.