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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sam Miller: The beauty (in the eye of the beholder) of the Strikeout Era

Suspended in time and space of the noodle-hitting 60’s for a moment, your introduction to Mr. Sam Miller, who lives in a very private world of darkness, a baseball universe whose home plate dimensions are no longer the size, thickness, length of a swath of bandages that cover his face.

I would never presume that I could convince Rob Neyer that those things I find appealing should be appealing to him, too. Matters of taste are matters of taste. It won’t matter to him that I love to watch a 14-strikeout game the way others love to watch heavy waves crashing near a shoreline; or that the divinely inspired pitching lines of Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Dellin Betances are as awesome as the Velvet Underground’s discography or Benjamin Franklin’s curriculum vitae; or that I love the final moments of a strikeout—the terrible swings and the baffled takes, the pitcher’s circumnavigatory strut around the mound—more than any of baseball’s alternative denouements; or that I find the three-step progression toward a resolution to be far more satisfying than the sudden deus ex machina of a ball in play. These features of the strikeout please me, and if they don’t please Rob (or you) I accept that no volume of effusion will change that. Taste is just chemicals telling us what to like, after all, and rhetoric’s power over those chemicals is limited.

...We used to live in a world where games were tight. Then hitters started hitting everything hard, and before we knew it games were no longer tight. You’d turn a game on in the fourth inning and it was 14-2 or 17-1 or 10-2 or 11-5. If baseball games seem too long in general, imagine how long they seem when the last two hours are just an unnecessary ending for a premature conclusion. Andrelton Simmons can make all the plays in the world; if they are not actually for something (like preserving a two-run lead) then what good are they?

Fundamentally, then, baseball is better now. You might think that offense makes the game more exciting, that strikeouts make it more repetitive, but the fundamentals of the competition are strong. Just turn on the TV at any random moment, look at how close the score is, and you’ll see.

...Now, I will note one thing in favor of the strikeout era: You’re more likely to turn on a game and have the score be tied today. Ties are exciting, maybe the most exciting, so the pro-strikeouts crowd has that going for us. And maybe, just maybe, the relative closeness of the score doesn’t matter as much as the numbers themselves; maybe our brains are too simple to recognize that a two-run lead is larger now than it used to be, and we’re just happy to see more two-run games. To see more of what our simple brains categorize as “games.”

But that’s just a desperate hope on my part. More accurately, I can only conclude that strikeouts make it more likely that the game I turn on has already been decided. There it is, the objective and incontrovertible argument against the strikeout era. Siggggh. If you need me, I’ll be over here, clinging to the last defense of a losing argument: personal taste.

Repoz Posted: August 19, 2014 at 01:13 PM | 3 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history, sabermetrics

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   1. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: August 19, 2014 at 01:49 PM (#4774629)
More accurately, I can only conclude that strikeouts make it more likely that the game I turn on has already been decided.

And they're decided earlier now, when 95 MPH relievers grow on trees, than when few if any teams had more than one or two of them.

The sad part is that short of mass lobotomies on 10 HR hitters who insist on swinging from their heels with 2 strikes, there's not much we can do about it. It's a lot easier to find raw pitching talent than raw hitting talent, and it's hard to re-invent a Major League hitter's approach to the game.
   2. 6 - 4 - 3 Posted: August 19, 2014 at 06:06 PM (#4774873)
It's not just the 95mph relievers who are racking up strikeouts. For example, a few nights ago (08/17/14) the Giants bullpen accumulated 9 strikeouts against the Phillies in the last four innings:
- Javier Lopez (86mph fastball): 1.2 IP, 3 K
- Jean Machi (92mph fastball): 0.1 IP, 1 K
- Sergio Romo (88mph fastball) 1.0 IP, 3 K
- Santiago Casilla (94mph fastball): 1 IP, 2 K

The issue isn't just that relievers are better equipped to rack up strikeouts, it's the approach that batters are taking. Lopez and Romo are two of the softest throwing late-inning relievers in baseball; by all rights they shouldn't be racking up multiple strikeouts per inning. It wasn't their stuff that was necessarily getting those K's, it was how the Phillie batters approached their at bats.

For most of that game, the score was 3-2 (the Giants scored twice in bottom of the 8th to make it 5-2), so the Phillies were swinging for the fences in those four innings in order to tie the game. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley combined for 5 of those K's, guys who aren't prototypical sluggers in the way that Ryan Howard or Dominick Brown is. Also, the Giants were pretty aggressive with the shift too against Utley, so he presumably could have poked through a basehit or two with a different approach.

Twenty years ago, I don't think that a guy like Utley would be trying to tie a game on one swing of the bat. Particularly in a yard like AT&T where doubles and triples are relatively easier than homers. When batters are more aggressive in terms of swinging early in the count as well as more conservative in terms of just trying to make contact, we'll see a drop in strikeouts (and walks). The focus on three true outcomes that has overtaken the game is a relic of the steroid era, when homeruns were more prevalent. A different scoring environment requires adaptation and when we see that, we'll see a reduction in strikeouts--even if we still have a ton of relievers throwing 95+ mph.
   3. Hank G. Posted: August 19, 2014 at 09:33 PM (#4774989)
Sam Miller must love soccer. The scores are low and it’s often tied.

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