Strikeouts have been on the rise. But outs are just outs, right? Does it really matter how often a team strikes out in terms of wins and losses?
The best baseball players in the world are more and more often missing the baseball when swinging at it. Strikeout rates have consistently risen through the end of the 20th century, with a slam on the gas pedal in the 21st century. Analytically-minded folks puff out their chests to insist that outs are outs, and the trade-off is worth the whiffs. More power, more run production. Traditionalists groan about pace of play, lack of action and the death of smallball.
Before digging up the data below I wondered if there was any correlation between not striking out and winning. Do teams that don’t strike out win more often? And I mean literally: do teams that never strike out do more winning or losing?
That’s a winning percentage of 57.3%.
So the odds of winning when the team doesn’t strike out does tip in their favor, but it’s no slam dunk. But it’s not as big of a number as I expected, even as someone who’s typically in the who-cares-about-strikeouts camp. Not striking out should typically correlate to making more contact, and making more contact should correlate to more balls in play, which should correlate to more hits, which should correlate to more runs, which should correlate to more wins. The data confirms the obnoxious logical chain, but not overwhelmingly.
Turns out that’s not a well-nourished, healthy and full story. That winning percentage has developed an interesting trend over the years. First of all, let’s count up the number of games in which a team has actually completed a game without striking out once:
We know strikeouts have gotten really popular, and this data really exaggerates the effect.
There actually hasn’t been a single team to get through a whole game without striking out since the Kansas City Royals pulled it off on September 7th, 2017 against the Minnesota Twins. They lost 2-4.
Turns out 2018 was the first full season in MLB history in which no team ever went a whole game without striking out.
Then it happened again in 2019. Then again in a shortened 2020 season.
You can’t win, or lose, a game that never happens.
The likelihood of winning when a team never strikes out has gradually increased, up until the point where the sample size becomes so small the winning percentage drops to zero. Because you can’t divide by zero.
Winning percentage in never-K games slowly begins rising in the 1990s, right around the time strikeouts really started to trend upwards.
As strikeouts balloon, teams that go cold turkey and refrain from striking out altogether have a greater likelihood of winning.
But that basically never happens anymore, so what’s the point of talking about it any further?
Big thank you to Stathead Baseball for all data in this article.