Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 10: The Strikeout Epidemic Continues Unabated

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Baseball has experienced an all-time home run surge over the past two and a half seasons. That’s a lot of fun in a lot of ways and we’ll talk more about that later in the countdown. The flipside of that, however, is that baseball is also facing a strikeout epidemic.

There were 40,105 strikeouts in 2017, surpassing the record of 38,982 set in 2016. This is nothing approaching a fluke, by the way, as the strikeout record has now been broken for 10 consecutive seasons. By way of comparison, there were only 30,801 strikeouts in 2005. From the 1920s through the 1940s, teams struck out around three times a game. The average didn’t top 4 until 1952, 5 until 1959 and 6 until 1994. In 2010 the rate passed 7. It topped eight per game in 2016 and the increase shows no sign of letting up.

The strikeout epidemic may be most visible in individual feats, some of which are quirky or unique. For example:

  • Chris Sale struck out 308 batters, becoming the first pitcher to strike out 300 hitters in 18 years and the most since Randy Johnson struck out 334 hitters in 2002;
  • The New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs set a Major League record for most strikeouts in a game with 48 on May 7 in a game that lasted 18 innings. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers set a National League record for most strikeouts in a game with 42 on June 2 in a game that lasted 12 innings;
  • Joe Gallo of the Rangers set the record for the most plate appearances ending without the ball being put in play, either because he struck out, walked or hit a homer (58.65%!);
  • The Diamondbacks set a Major League record by recording nine consecutive games where Arizona pitchers recorded ten or more strikeouts; and
  • The daily “wow, look at that stuff” of guys getting golden or platinum sombreros. Weird stat lines in which dudes hit a ton of homers but strike out a lot while batting, like, .204. The sort of stuff the Jayson Starks of the world highlight in notes and factoid columns.

Those feats don’t reflect the real impact of the strikeout epidemic. That can be seen only piecemeal, in the lack of balls in play game-by-game, inning-by-inning over the course of a six month season. Indeed, never in history has the sport seen so few balls put in play, as more than a third of all plate appearances in 2017 ended in either a strikeout, a home run or a walk.  The game is turning into a drama involving only the pitcher, catcher, batter and home plate umpire. The other ten men on the field might as well be lampposts much of the time.

There are a lot of reasons for this change. Pitchers throw much harder now and have nastier breaking stuff. Batters are taught to swing for the fences with violent uppercuts, fearing not of striking out because home runs are great and double plays are worse than the single out occasioned by a whiff. The bottom of the strike zone seems to extend to the shoelaces these days. For what it’s worth, even the most old school managers — the sorts of guys who came up in the game when striking out was the worst thing a batter could do — are fine with it all, and are seemingly on the same page as the analytics departments who tell them it’s all OK.

And, sure, it is all OK from that point of view. You certainly want your pitcher striking out guys. That’s the best thing he can do in most situations, full stop. I likewise have no doubt that, once one runs the numbers, there is a clear advantage to uppercut swings, home run-first strategies and approaches that maximize putting the ball in the air, not on the ground, thereby making strikeouts just the cost of doing business. In no way am I suggesting that the analysts have it wrong in that regard. They know what they’re doing and I’m not qualified to question it.

But I am as qualified to make aesthetic judgments about the game as anyone, and I can tell you this: all these strikeouts are as boring as hell.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today

ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.