Major League Baseball is set to smash through a previously untouched barrier Sunday: Some batter likely will walk back to his dugout after becoming the 40,000 strikeout of the season.
There were 30,801 strikeouts in 2005. At the current rate, this year’s total will be about 40,060.
“It kills me. I can’t watch the game. It’s not baseball,” Hall of Fame pitcher Goose Gossage said Thursday. “The only thing that’s the same in the game is the bases are 90 feet and the mound is 60 feet, 6 inches. That’s it.”
The strikeout record has been broken for 10 consecutive seasons, and this year’s total will be well above the 38,982 who whiffed in 2016. There were 39,334 through Thursday, with three full days remaining.
More batters are swinging for the fences, part of the computer revolution that transformed nearly every aspect of the game, from defensive shifts to shorter outings by starting pitchers, to more relief pitchers on each team’s roster. The season home run record of 5,694, which had stood since 2000 at the height of the Steroids Era, was shattered with nearly two weeks left. Cleveland’s Roberto Perez hit No. 6,000 on Thursday as the total rose to 6,022.
“If you’re striking out, you’re not hitting into a lot of double plays. It was like 10 years ago when I think the analytical people started saying that strikeouts aren’t really that bad,” Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost said. “They would much rather have one out than the chance for two.”
Boston’s Chris Sale has 308 strikeouts, the most by a big league pitcher since Arizona’s Randy Johnson had 334 in 2002 and Diamondbacks teammate Curt Schilling fanned 316. Indians pitchers have reached double digits in strikeouts 90 times, the most since at least 1913.
In earlier eras, strikeouts were a smear on a slugger’s baseball card. Babe Ruth never struck out more than 93 times in a season. Joe DiMaggio fanned 369 times in his career, to go along with 361 home runs.
The Yankees’ Aaron Judge may have set a big league rookie record for home runs with 51 through Thursday, but he’s also fanned 205 times. Oakland’s Khris Davis was at 194 and Texas’ Joey Gallo at 193.
“They have determined the importance of hitting the ball in the air, the importance of hitting home runs, and I think players have bought into it,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “I think you can be extremely productive striking out 150 times a year. If you can drive 100 and you can score 100, there’s a lot of things that you can do. So I think the game has shifted gears a little bit.”
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and his staff are concerned about the decrease in action, especially in an era that had professional sports competing with screen time for the attention of youth.
Teams averaged 3 strikeouts per game when the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row ruled baseball in 1927. The average didn’t top 4 until 1952, 5 until 1959 and 6 until 1994. It passed 7 in 2010 and 8 last year.
“Everybody digs the long ball. If you struck out that many times back in the day, your (butt) would be back in the minor leagues,” said Gossage, who advocates small ball as a way of defeating both power pitchers and infield shifts. “I think these computers got these kids — they’re all like robots. You’re telling me that a guy, a professional hitter, can’t hit a ball the whole left or right side of an infield that’s gone? How about laying down five or six or 10 bunts, like Boog Powell would have done?”