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BASEBALL NEVER HAS been so fascist as it is today. Pitchers are exerting their ruthless totalitarianism with no sign of abatement. Strikeouts have increased in the major leagues for seven consecutive seasons, including what amounts to a giant statistical leap last year: a 5.6% increase to 36,426 strikeouts, a record total for a fifth consecutive year.
Strikeouts have become so common that they've lost their stigma. In 1970, for instance, Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who had started 81 consecutive games, asked not to play in the final game of the season for the Cardinals because he was sitting on 99 strikeouts. Manager Red Schoendienst used Brock as a pinch hitter in the meaningless game. Brock singled. With that, and with great relief, Brock ended his streak of five straight 100-strikeout seasons.
Today, though, there is no shame in striking out 100 times. White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn reached that mark last season by June 15. Dunn finished with 222 whiffs, one short of the record set by Mark Reynolds, then of the Diamondbacks, in 2009. More players struck out 100 times last year (111) than did from 1901 through 1967 combined (110). Every one of the alltime top 10 strikeout seasons by hitters has occurred since 2007.
"Philosophically, from the offensive side, we're generally okay with it," says Texas general manager Jon Daniels, "especially when you have guys who are going to hit for power. Strikeouts were more taboo 15 to 20 years ago, but now nobody complains about strikeouts when a guy is doing damage."
Says Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (who struck out a career-high 140 times in 2009, when he also hit 33 homers), "I don't have a two-strike approach. I mean, I could decide to shorten up [my swing] and roll over and hit a ground ball. But on this level, if you roll over something because you were just trying to put the ball in play, you're going to be out more than 95 percent of the time. It's more about, what can I do to help the team? For me, it's getting three healthy hacks and using them."
As hitters accept strikeouts as a necessary cost of their search for power, pitchers are better equipped than ever to exploit that concession. They throw harder and with more late movement. They have access to more precise analytics and video to attack hitters' weaknesses. And they flourish under the specialized bullpen, which places premiums on fresh power arms and platoon advantages. The past few seasons have launched a cycle, if not another era, of pitching dominance.
In the 25 years since Crash Davis made his observation about K's, they've increased 35%, to nearly 15 per game. And if you were to go back to 1908, when Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer wrote the game's unofficial anthem, you'd see just 7.8 per game.
So what in the name of Franco are we to make of all this fascism? (And not Julio Franco, he of the 23 major league seasons, only one with 100 strikeouts.) Well, it doesn't appear to be good for the commerce of baseball. In this age of technology, as people expect entertainment everywhere and quickly, strikeouts, especially when viewed with their fraternal twins, walks, are sucking the action out of baseball games. Last season, for instance, 27.8% of plate appearances ended without the ball being put in play, an alltime high. Thirty years ago that percentage was 21.5. By the nature of those outcomes, and by today's style of passive-aggressive hitting that encourages hitters to try to work counts deeper, more and more at bats are requiring more and more pitches. The effect is a dramatic increase in downtime, especially in late innings. The game often resembles a still life: In the eighth and ninth innings last year 31% of plate appearances ended with a strikeout or a walk.
Think about that again: In the last two innings of a baseball game nearly one of every three batters fails to put the ball in play.
"Why don't we have more fans?" asks one team executive. "Maybe because the most exciting part of the game is when balls are in play. And we don't have enough balls in play. It is ridiculous."