A’s embody modern baseball’s strikeout-for-power trend

With exactly five weeks left on the 2017 MLB slate, the league has struck out a total of 32,107 times — 8.24 times per game. In 1987, it whiffed 25,099 times the entire season –5.96 times per game.

Thirty years ago, eight teams combined to strike out more than 1,000 times, none more than the Phillies’ 1,109. This season, 22 teams have done so, with 10 teams, including the Oakland Athletics who are quickly approaching their franchise record of 1,226, topping the ’87 Phillies.

Power numbers have similarly risen, with the league combining to hit 4,458 home runs in 2,210 games in 1987 and 4,957 through 3,898 games this year. Those two numbers go hand in hand, according to current Red Sox analyst and A’s Hall-of-Fame closer Dennis Eckersley.

Eckersley was traded to the A’s in 1987, a season in which he struck out 113 batters in 115-2/3 innings (8.3 strikeouts per nine). Through his first 15 seasons — 1975-90 — “Eck” averaged 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, In 1991, as he said, the current trend of power over contact began:

“Everybody started chasing. Just like now, everybody was punching out. … If you punch out 200 guys now, it’s not a big deal, everybody is striking out a guy an inning.”

Through 1990, Eckersley’s single-season high for strikeouts per nine was 9.0. He topped that in each of the next four seasons, including a career-high 10.7, when, as a reliever, he won both the Cy Young and MVP Awards.

This season, five hurlers boast a ratio better than the 10.7 that was good enough to make Eckersley one of just three relief pitchers to win both individual awards. Why? The approach has drastically changed, said Eckersley at the risk of sounding like a “geezer”:

“These 2-2 swings are crazy. If you don’t have a strikeout an inning, you stink, and it used to be something special.”

While power hitters in the 80’s were looking to go deep, in two-strike counts in became a matter of putting the ball in play and avoiding the embarrassment of walking from the batter’s box to the dugout. That long walk has lost at least some of the embarrassment factor, becoming a fair trade for the opportunity to flip their bat, and “pimp” their way around the base paths.

The 2017 A’s epitomize this league-wide shift. They compiled the third-fewest team whiffs in 2016 (1,145) while their total has ballooned to the league’s fourth-highest this year — 1,202 with 32 games left on the schedule. And the same can be said of their home run totals, which have jumped from 169 a year ago to 182 this year.

By comparison, the last time Oakland rounded out a Major League Baseball season bound by the glory of a world title, the A’s were a middle-of-the-pack power team with 127 team homers, and struck out just 855 times (5.3 per game).

This aggressive approach has culminated in a dubious mark — a franchise record 62 times being struck out 10 or more times in a single game. A club on the verge of finishing dead-last in their division for its franchise-worst third straight season is also on pace to finish within 15 of its franchise single-season team record 243 homers.

Among the league’s most productive power bats over the past two seasons, Khris Davis embodies the trend in Oakland, having homered 36 times this year — a league-best 78 since the beginning of 2016 — while striking out a team-worst 170 times. Second-year slugger Ryon Healy is second on the team in both homers (23) and punchouts (119).

With five weeks and 32 games left on the docket this season, the 2017 A’s are an average of two homers per game from becoming the most powerful team in franchise history, and 0.75 strikeouts per game from becoming its most contact-incapable.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.