The Pittsburgh Pirates struck out 185 times in April to tie for the highest mark in the National League with Washington and Chicago. They posted the second-highest strikeout rate, going down swinging (or looking) in 23.3 percent of their at-bats–the NL’s second-worst rate.
Anyone who has watched the Pirates in recent seasons knows their offense starts slow every year. Last year’s team hit .211 in April, posted a league-worst .296 on-base percentage and scored 3.7 runs per game before going on to finish as one of the National League’s best offenses.
Manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington are quick to remind that pitching is often ahead of hitting at this point in the season, which the Pirates have been an excellent case study of in recent seasons. Pittsburgh finishes this April above .500 at 12-10, scoring a tick over four runs per game, but an unsightly .280 OBP that is only ahead of the hapless Brewers.
While the April stats of Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison and others certainly won’t transpose over to an entire season, watching the first month of Pirates baseball underscores the negative impact of so many empty at-bats on the offense so far.
Offense overall is down across the league and the .251 average of last season was the lowest since major-leagues batted .253 in 1954. The strikeout aren’t helping anything.
“We’ve not done a good job managing at-bats to this point in the season,” Huntington said. “We have guys that will strike out. We also have a group of guys that struggled a little bit in April and for the next five months were one of the best offenses in baseball.”
In a relative sense, the Pirates finished 2014 as one of the National League’s better teams when it came to avoiding strikeouts. Pittsburgh finished with 20 percent strikeout rate and 1,244 punchouts total, the fourth-lowest marks in the league. To boot, the Pirates trended in the opposition direction of the collective as they struck out less last year than in each of the three seasons prior.
The strikeout woes are not unique to the Pirates. The number of punchouts has risen each season since 2006 and the 37,441 strikeouts recorded last season were the highest total among 106 seasons tracked by FanGraphs.
Eight of the top 10 seasons containing Major League Baseball’s highest strikeout totals are every year from 2007 on. After 2014, the next six highest spots are held by the 2007-13 seasons with each year surpassing the last’s number of strikeouts.
Obviously, the effects of the Steroid Era’s bubble bursting have positively impacted pitchers’ numbers but the overall phenomena of this increase in strikeouts can’t be only be explained in that manner. Prior to 2007, there were only seven years in which major-league hitters struck out 30,000 times or more. That’s happened in each of the last eight years, with each year’s total topping the one before.
As one can guess, the strikeout rates match the totals as last year’s 20.4 percent mark was the first to top 20 percent in major-league history. 2015 is on pace to make that two seasons in which hitters struck out in at least one-fifth of their at-bats with a 20.1% strikeout rate.
If the Pirates hope to replicate their work of swimming against the rising tide of strikeouts as they did a year ago, the at-bats must begin to clean up. Ideally, as the rates at which players like McCutchen and others get on base increase, those at which they strike out will decrease.
“Sometimes we lose sight of how hard this game is and it is a great game of adjustments,” Huntington said. “We believe our guys will make the adjustments and get back on track.”