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Three True Outcome changes over time

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Looking at some historical data on how many plate appearances end with a strikeout, walk or home run

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Texas Rangers Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

It was announced last week that there will be rule changes implemented in the minor leagues this year, with different rule changes being implemented at different levels. MLB is implementing these rule changes to see how they impact the games, as they work to address various issues that have dogged the league for some time now — issues that can broadly be put under the “lack of action” category.

Pace of play issues have been prominent in that regard, and thus we are seeing the use of play clocks in the lower levels to ensure pitchers deliver their pitches in a timely manner and pitching changes and inning turnovers happen quickly. We are also seeing in AA, however, the implementation of a rule that will require infielders to be in front of the outfield grass when a pitch is released, and the possibility that, in the second half of the season, teams will have to have two infielders on either side of second base.

Limiting the shift appears motivated by aesthetic concerns — that the shift reduces balls in play that go for hits, which reduces the entertainment value of the game, and so limiting the shift will make baseball more fun to watch. The initial reaction most have had — including me, for a long time — in regards to combating the shift was that the rules shouldn’t be changed. Instead, batters should adjust and figure out how to beat the shift.

I’m not so sure that’s the best plan at this point.

One of the things that you hear folks talk about is how the game has evolved into much more of a “Three True Outcomes” game — that there is a much greater prevalence of strikeouts, walks and home runs in recent years, and fewer balls in play. Fewer balls in play means fewer non-HR hits, fewer stolen bases, less action in general. That means both less variety, which makes for a less enjoyable experience, and pace of play issues, since strikeouts and walks generally require more pitches, and thus longer at bats, than other results.

I went to B-R and pulled the MLB data for strikeouts, walks and home runs for five year intervals from 1970 to 2020, and also included 2019, since that was the last “full” year of MLB play. Here are the results:

PAs HRs Ks BBs % HRs % Ks % BBs % TTOs
2020 66506 2304 15586 6092 3.46% 23.44% 9.16% 36.06%
2019 186517 6776 42823 15895 3.63% 22.96% 8.52% 35.11%
2015 183628 4909 37446 14073 2.67% 20.39% 7.66% 30.73%
2010 185553 4613 34306 15778 2.49% 18.49% 8.50% 29.48%
2005 186293 5017 30644 15207 2.69% 16.45% 8.16% 27.31%
2000 190261 5693 31356 18237 2.99% 16.48% 9.59% 29.06%
1995 156704 4081 25425 14240 2.60% 16.22% 9.09% 27.92%
1990 160316 3317 23853 13852 2.07% 14.88% 8.64% 25.59%
1985 160320 3602 22451 13838 2.25% 14.00% 8.63% 24.88%
1980 161210 3087 20212 13190 1.91% 12.54% 8.18% 22.63%
1975 148623 2698 19280 13402 1.82% 12.97% 9.02% 23.81%
1970 149343 3429 22374 13727 2.30% 14.98% 9.19% 26.47%

After a slight decline from 1970 to 1980, we see a gradual trend upwards in TTOs into the mid-90s, after which TTOs are largely stable for a couple of decades, through the total creeps up over 30% in 2015. Over the past two seasons, however, we see a spike in TTOs, with 36% of plate appearances ending in a strikeout, walk and home run in 2020.

Some of this is due to an increase in home runs — 3.5% of plate appearances the past two years have ended in home runs, higher than even the time period we think of as being the “steroid era,” when offense was off the charts and Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were setting records. The impact of walks appears slight — walks in 2019 occurred at around the same rate as they have for most of the past 50 years, while the walk rate in 2020 was a little more towards the upper end of that range, though not an outlier.

But what is the primary factor in the rise of TTOs is strikeouts. After a drop from 1970 to 1975 — which I suspect can be explained in part by the DH being adopted in the A.L. in 1973, meaning fewer pitchers hitting and fewer strikeouts — we have seen the percentage of plate appearances that end in strikeouts steadily grow, with that growth accelerating over the past fifteen years. In 2005, 16% of plate appearances ended in a strikeout. In 2020, almost a quarter of plate appearances ended in a strikeout.

In retrospect, this is something that seems like an obvious evolution of the game as analytics became universally adopted. In my pre-blog days, back at the turn of the century when I was haunting the ESPN and NMLR message boards, I remember arguing with people when I would posit that Ks weren’t any worse than any other out, and a hitter having a lot of Ks wasn’t a bad thing in and of itself. The rejoinder would be, well, if strikeouts for pitchers are a good thing, why aren’t strikeouts for batters a bad thing?

On its face that appeared to be a paradox, and my response would generally be, well, because. Now we know, of course, that pitchers have a limited amount of control over whether balls in place are converted into outs by the defense, and thus a K is preferable to a ball in play because it is a guaranteed out, while hitters can choose an approach that will result in more Ks, but also more walks (by virtue of working the count more) and more damage done when they hit the ball (by virtue of hitting the ball harder and in the air more).

The natural outcome from a general acceptance of 1) strikeouts being the optimal outcome for a pitcher, 2) strikeouts being no worse than any other out for a hitter, and 3) more strikeouts being the tradeoff for more power and more walks, is going to be that strikeouts are going to increase, because pitchers are incentivized to strike out more batters, and batters are less incentivized to not strikeout.

Another contributing factor, I believe, may be the adoption of efforts to preserve pitchers’ health — particularly starting pitchers — through limiting pitch counts, something that came to the fore in the early part of this century. Starting pitchers not being asked to throw 120-140 pitches per game is going to result in starting pitchers not working as deep into games, and being replaced by relief pitchers. A relief pitcher who is coming in to pitch one inning doesn’t have to pace himself and can instead offer a max effort for a handful of batters, increasing the likelihood of a strikeout.

And there are trickle down effects from there. Starting pitchers who aren’t expected to go deep don’t have to pace themselves as much, leading to more strikeouts. Starting pitchers who know strikeouts are preferable are going to try to strike out more batters, leading to longer at bats and the starter not going as deep into the game, leading to more relief pitchers being used. The increased use of relief pitchers leads to teams carrying more relief pitchers, and fewer bench players, which reduces the amount of platooning that can be done, and the amount of pinch hitters available to provide for a batter matchup, which will make strikeouts more common.

The Law of Unintended Consequences ends up reinforcing decisions that lead to more strikeouts, and as Crash Davis so artfully put it, “Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist.” And thus we are looking at MLB experimenting with rule changes that, along with improving pace of play, will also potentially reduce strikeouts.

A good example is the pitch clock — while the obvious consequence of the pitch clock is that there will be less dead time between pitches, there’s another potential trickle down effect. More time between pitches correlates to more velocity. More velocity means a better pitcher, and more strikeouts. And while the article linked only looks at velocity, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a correlation between more time between pitches are more break on a slider or curveball, which also is going to mean more strikeouts.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned the shift, and batters adjusting to the shift being a problem. Russell Carleton, who literally wrote the book on The Shift, has drilled down in the data and found that pitchers walk more batters when they are pitching in front of a shift, and that lefthanded batters, in particular, strike out more often when they are facing a shift. While Carleton found that shifting against righthanders was generally not effective, shifting against lefthanders was.

In 2020, per Statcast, teams shifted against righthanded hitters 21.7% of the time, allowing a .340 wOBA, and against lefthanded hitters 50.8% of the time, allowing a .320 wOBA.*

* In case you are curious, the Dodgers, Tigers, Reds and M’s shifted the most against lefties, while the Braves shifted against them the least, by far (10.9% — the next lowest was the Cardinals at 29.8%). Against righthanders, the Marlins (who shifted against righties more than lefties), Dodgers, and Pirates shifted the most, while the Padres, Rockies and Braves shifted the least. The Rangers shifted 20.7% of the time against righties and 53.4% of the time against lefties.

So how does eliminating the shift impact pace of play and the rise of TTOs? Lefthanded hitters face a shift half the time, and shifting against lefthanded batters results in an increase in walks and an increase in strikeouts, which are TTOs and slow the pace of play. The strategy for beating the shift, moreover, has been said to be to hit the ball over the shift — hit for more power, meaning more home runs (and consequently more strikeouts). And of course, not allowing the second baseman to be positioned in shallow right field means no more of the rocket line drives that have historically been singles getting caught for a routine out, resulting in more baserunners.

There’s a lot at work here, a lot of things that are interconnected, and the Law of Unintended Consequences is always at work. Thus, it makes sense to implement these changes individually at different levels in the minor leagues, so we can see how they play out in the real world and what unintended consequences develop and what may be tweaked or addressed. But I think the underlying goal is a worthwhile one, and I look forward to seeing how this plays out going forward.