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You Can’t Have Home Runs Without Strikeouts

The defining characteristics of baseball in 2019 are the home run and the strikeout. Both are at all-time highs as of Tuesday. Make no mistake, the two statistics are closely related — and have been throughout baseball history.

This season, as of Tuesday, there are 6.4 strikeouts per homer. The average in the Live Ball Era, which began in 1920, is 6.5. So when adjusting homers in relation to strikeouts, 2019 is nearly a perfectly average year, ranking 45th out of the last 100 seasons in terms of most strikeouts per homer leaguewide. And note that just four of the top 20 seasons with the fewest strikeouts per homer have occurred after the Expansion Era began in 1961: 1961 (5.51 strikeouts per home run), 2000 (5.51), 1987 (5.62) and 1999 (5.62), according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Home run milestones are cited frequently this season, led by the 18 players who already have blasted 20 or more through Sunday’s games. This dwarfs the numbers in recent seasons by that date. But 37 hitters who have qualified for the batting title have at least as many or more strikeouts than games to date. Three decades ago, in 1989, there were just six such hitters by this date. If you go back just 10 years, that figure is only 11.

Much of this shift can be traced to a general philosophical change in the dugouts and front offices. Mickey Mantle was demoted as a rookie for strikeouts after a three-strikeout game and a whiff rate at the time of 18.7 percent that would have led the majors by far, had he qualified for the batting title. Today, 99 of the 163 qualifying hitters have a strikeout rate equal to or greater than Mantle’s 18.7 percent mark. Free from the shame of slinking back to the dugout, heads bowed and the bats still on their shoulders, today’s hitters are in constant attack mode, even with two strikes in the count.

A generation ago, Eric Davis yo-yoed back and forth between the minors and majors, despite being widely viewed as one of baseball’s most talented players, because of a then-absurd strikeout rate of 24 percent (the average that year was 14 percent). This season, Pete Alonso just broke a Mets rookie home run record, and his strikeout rate on Monday stood at 26.1 percent. Not even the Mets would demote Alonso for his strikeouts.

There was a time when players felt the sting of hitting strikeout milestones. Future Hall of Famer Lou Brock once sat out the last game of the season because he didn’t want the shame of a 100-strikeout season. Frank Robinson described his only 100-strikeout season in 1965 as “the worst year of my life.” That was despite hitting .296 with 33 homers and 113 RBIs. With two strikes, making contact was the top priority, even for the mighty Ted Williams. “I didn’t always swing for the fences,” Williams said. “With two strikes I always told myself, ‘Meet the ball. Don’t try to pull.’ I wanted to be a good hitter. If I had gone for more home runs, I wouldn’t have hit .344 lifetime.” Williams even proposed penalizing hitters an extra half a point of batting average for every strikeout, never imagining that hitters would hardly care about their batting average, either.

Hitters today, far from choking up on the bat and just “meeting the ball” with two strikes, are swinging from their heels. This year, the rate of homers with two strikes is at an all-time high since ESPN’s Stats & Information Group began recording that information in 2009. It’s 50 percent greater than in 2014. Entering play Tuesday, the 2019 rate of homers per fly ball with two strikes was 12.1 percent, actually higher than the rate at any strike count of 11.9 percent.

When will the feedback loop of strikeouts begetting homers end? Never, if we’re to believe the sport’s preeminent sage, Bill James, who predicted these changes many years ago. He referred to it as “the push/pull effect.” Baseball now knows that getting more strikeouts has come to define being a better pitcher. But decision-makers are well beyond the point in which they believe the best hitters strike out less. In fact, teams now seem to be acknowledging what James has long contended — “strikeout-prone hitters are slightly better.” Simply put, hitters don’t care a whit about whiffing.

“So you have upward push on the strikeout column from pitcher selection, but no downward push from batter selection,” James wrote. “The result of this is that strikeouts go up over time.” And, apparently, so do homers.

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Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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