In every single season since 2008, the MLB average strikeout rate has climbed. Once taboo for batters, the strikeout has become evermore common in the modern game and has shown no indication of going away. 2017 set the high-water mark yet again, featuring a 21.6 percent clip which translated to 8.34 strikeouts per nine innings.
The reason for this rise includes a multitude of factors. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, and the use of relief aces and frequent bullpen changes further tilts the advantage to the mound. Additionally, the growing propensity for all-or-nothing at-bats and swinging for the fences has yielded an inordinate amount of both fly balls and whiffs.
A month into the 2018 season has seen this trend continue. Strikeouts are occurring in 22.9 percent of plate appearances and contact rate has fallen down to 76.5 percent. The sample size may be small, but given recent results and current attitudes, it appears strikeouts are here to stay.
Good eyes in Detroit
Though the rest of the league is seeing a rise in strikeouts at the plate, the same cannot be said for the Tigers. Their 18.7 percent strikeout rate shows that Detroit hitters are not completely immune from fruitless at-bats, but they do seem to be more patient than their peers.
It should be noted that this is not necessarily something new for the Tigers. They ranked 19th in strikeout percentage last year, and 24th over the past five seasons, showing an above-average discipline level at the plate. However, it is unusual to see a team drop their strikeout rate in the current environment, by 2.5 percentage points, no less.
Perhaps what is most impressive is that the Tigers have been aggressive with their at-bats without tallying many strikeouts. They currently lead the majors with a 47.9 swing rate and rank in the top ten with a 78.4 percent contact rate. While it would be nice to see a higher walk rate than 8.1 percent, the reduced strikeout percentage is an acceptable trade off.
Tigers hitters have been fairly disciplined across the board. Niko Goodrum and Jeimer Candelario are the only batters with a strikeout rate over 20 percent who see consistent playing time, and three hitters — Victor Martinez, James McCann, and Dixon Machado — all sit under 15 percent. This is a very encouraging sign from McCann in particular, who owns a career 23.6 percent strikeout rate.
Not missing bats
Unfortunately, Tigers hitters are not the only ones missing out on the strikeout wave. The Detroit pitching staff sits fourth-to-last in baseball with a rate of just 19.4 percent this season, which is nothing new for the team since deconstructing their dominant rotation in 2013. Walk rates are also down for the Tigers staff, while their 46.0 percent swing rate and 77.1 percent contact rate both rank 11th in baseball.
So far, not missing bats has yet to hurt Detroit pitchers too severely. They rank right around average in home runs per nine, ERA, and FIP, and a lack of strikeouts has not led to a lack of outs in general. Sure, strikeouts are a more efficient way to retire batters, and eventually it would be wise to take advantage of the league-wide trend, but it has yet to affect them in April.
There is not one single culprit for the Tigers, although the starters (17.9 percent) are weighing down the relievers (21.4 percent) as one might expect. Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, and Mike Fiers are all striking out batters less frequently than they did last season, but all are giving out fewer walks as well.
Just a trend
While it is interesting that both Tigers batters and pitchers are below the league average in strikeouts, it may not say a whole lot. There may be some correlation between the two, such as park factors or approach, but it does not seem significant enough to draw any real conclusions. Perhaps the hitters are simply being more aggressive, leading to more balls in play; the pitchers could be utilizing this strategy as well, giving into contact and relying on the defense.
Regardless of the philosophy on either side of the ball, it always is curious when a team is moving in the opposite direction of the league as a whole. If the trend continues, there may be a bigger picture to paint. Until then, strikeouts will just be something to watch going forward.