I’m going to show you two graphs, and then another graph. But first, I’m going to tell you a story.
The 1941 season was a famous one in baseball. There are books written about it. Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games, a record that remains unassailable. Ted Williams hit .406, the last .400 season. (DiMaggio won the MVP over the irascible Williams even though Williams out-hit him by far, .406/.553/.735—I typed those correctly—compared to .357/.440/.643.)
More ominously, it was the last season before the U.S. entered World War II following the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7. Less well-remembered, 1941 was the first year in which the Brooklyn Dodgers met the New York Yankees in the World Series.
The Yankees were in the midst of their second dynasty. The first, from 1921–1932–the Ruth/Gehrig years–yielded seven American League pennants and four World Series. From DiMaggio’s rookie year, 1936, through 1941, the Yankees won five of six pennants and World Series. The Dodgers, by contrast, were making their first postseason appearance since 1920, when the team, then known as the Robins, lost the best-of-nine World Series to the Indians, 5-2, four years after falling to the Red Sox.
The 1941 World Series would set the tone for the Dodgers-Yankees contests, as the Dodgers lost five series to their American League rivals before finally winning in 1955 (before losing one last time the following season). The teams split two games in the Bronx, both by 3-2 scores, before the Yankees won the third game in Brooklyn 2-1. The next day, the Dodgers took a 4-3 lead in the fifth on a two-run Pete Reiser home run. It stood into the ninth inning.
Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey, who came on with two out and the bases loaded in the top of the fifth, inducing Joe Gordon to fly out, entered the ninth inning on a roll and retired the first two batters he faced on grounders. To that point, he’d faced 14 Yankees and allowed only two singles and four balls out of the infield. With two outs, he worked a full count on Tommy Henrich, one strike away from evening the series at two apiece. He threw a curve and Henrich swung at and missed for a strikeout, the third out of the inning.
Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen, however, missed the sharp-breaking pitch too, allowing Henrich to reach on a passed ball. A single, two doubles, and two walks later, the Yankees had a 7-4 lead that became the game’s final score, and they ended the series the next day, winning 3-1.
Google “batter reaches first on strikeout” and you’ll see entries that reference Owen and 1941’s Game 4. It is, without a doubt, the most famous dropped third strike (technically, uncaught third strike) in baseball history. But it’s not the only one, of course. And it came to mind for me last week after I wrote about some of the less-obvious trends in baseball in 2016. I noted my belief that record-high levels of wild pitches and near-record-high rates of hit batters, despite relatively few walks, are related to strikeouts. Rising rates of strikeouts mean pitchers are ahead of the count more, which results in them targeting the margins of the strike zone more, where a miss can become a wild pitch or hit batter.
Commenter jnossal asked,
"If there are more pitcher counts, more strikeouts and more wild pitches and they are all related…are there more batters reaching on a dropped third strike?"
Great question, jnossal!
I hadn’t thought of that. With research assistance from Rob McQuown (research assistance means he got the numbers for me), I discovered that batters reached first base after striking out (via passed ball or wild pitch) 114 times in 2016, just shy of the record (since 1980) of 115 in 1999, and just ahead of 113 in 2011 and 112 in 1995. The latter figure gets an asterisk, though: Due to the 1994-1995 strike, which didn’t end until April 2, there was an abbreviated spring training before the start of a 144-game 1995 season. Some of the third-strike wild pitches and passed balls that year are undoubtedly a result of batteries that weren’t fully ready for the season’s start.
So, here’s a graph of the frequency of batters reaching first base after striking out, excluding strike-shortened seasons:
Obviously, we’re not talking about big numbers here. Over the course of a 162-game season, the average team had 3.80 batters reach first after striking out, second only to the 3.84 high-water mark of 1999.
But is it related to strikeouts in general, as jnossal asked? To set the stage, let me start with a graph that is probably familiar:
This isn’t a surprise to any of you. Batters haven’t struck out in fewer than 15 percent of plate appearances since 1993. They haven’t struck out in fewer than 16 percent since 1994, nor fewer than 17 percent since 2006. Batters struck out in 17.1 percent of plate appearances in 2007, and they’ve set a new all-time record every year since–10 straight seasons. After a negligible increase from 20.35 percent of plate appearances in 2014 (the first year strikeouts crossed the 20 percent threshold) to 20.39 percent in 2015, the strikeout rate jumped to 21.1 percent this year.
So if batters reaching first after striking out is up, but strikeouts are up too, are strikeouts the driver? I combined the two charts above to derive this one:
I’d say the answer here is that the rise in batters reaching first after striking out is a direct consequence of batters striking out more, not a spike in two-strike wild pitches or passed balls. The percentage of batters striking out who nonetheless reach first base has been consistently around 0.3 percent (mean 0.29 percent, standard deviation 0.03 percent) every year since the last strike. As strikeouts have risen, they’ve carried batters reaching first after striking out along with them.
So yes, jnossal, batters reaching first after striking out is another, if infrequent, consequence of rising strikeout rates. If poor Mickey Owen were playing today, he’d have a much better excuse for letting Casey’s pitch get past him. But in 1941, the Dodgers struck out only 10.2 percent of the batters they faced, less than half of the 2016 major-league average and nearly 60 percent lower than the 2016 Dodgers’ best-in-the-majors 25.1 percent.
Thank you for reading
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