Home runs and strikeouts are up. Batting average is down.
The refrain is common across baseball as young players emulate the big league style of play.
The state of play in Major League Baseball—and the path it is on—has been a topic of frequent discussion.
Velocity and strikeouts are way up. So are walks. Batting averages keep falling, but in recent years, hitters have compensated by hitting for more power. Until the ball was tweaked for the 2021 season, home run rates had steadily risen.
Those who love the MLB product in 2021 say the game is never more exciting than when a pitcher and batter are battling, power versus power.
Those who hate it say that now innings can go by without anyone other than the pitcher, catcher and hitter getting involved in the game.
Like it or not, MLB in 2021 is seeing more strikeouts and nearly as many walks than ever. There are plenty of home runs and fewer balls in play, mixed in with some of the lowest batting averages in history.
But that’s only seeing one part of a much bigger story. Because everything said about MLB can also be said about college and minor league baseball.
Across the minor leagues, hitters were hitting .235 over the first two weeks of the season. While that number may climb as hitters regain their timing and the weather warms, minor league hitters collectively have not hit under .250 in a single season of the 21st century.
In college baseball, the 2021 season was on pace to finish with the lowest batting average across Division I that the NCAA had seen since it switched to metal bats in 1974.
This has been a developing trend. Brian Cartwright, data analyst for the Oliver player projections, first brought to our attention that the home run rate across all three levels of NCAA baseball was increasing dramatically. The strikeout and walk rates were also climbing quickly. This isn’t a trend for one level of baseball. It’s a baseball trend.
Look at walk rates.
Or strikeout rates:
Or batting averages:
These aren’t trends at any one level, they are trends at all of the highest levels of baseball in the U.S. Baseball as a game rarely stays static, and there have been plenty of times in the past when the run scoring, hitting or pitching environments have changed. Often, the game has been deliberately changed by adjustments in the rules, the bats or the balls.
MLB tweaked its baseball slightly this year, but in the minor league and college, the bats, balls and other equipment has not changed.
And what is happening now seems to be at a pace beyond what we have seen in the past. For instance, from 1970 to 2006, Major League Baseball’s strikeout rate waxed and waned, most every year finishing at roughly 15 or 16% of plate appearances would end in a strikeout.
But from 2007 to now, the MLB strikeout rate has risen steadily to rates that the game has never seen before. As pitchers throw progressively harder and learn how to better design and sequence their pitches, they are missing more and more bats. These days, MLB hitters are striking out in 24% of all plate appearances.
As hitters swing and miss more often, they also have learned that the optimal way to score runs is often to accept that strikeouts are part of today’s game, but when they do hit the ball, it’s best to hit it hard and high.
So home runs and strikeouts are up, and batting averages are way down. Many of the aspects of the game are changing, even if the runs scored per game aren’t drastically moving.
The same training programs and approaches that have taken over the major leagues have trickled down to the minors and college baseball as well.
In college baseball, the strikeout rate sat around 16% through the rise of offenses in the late 2000s. It remained around that same 16% level as recently as 2014.
While MLB’s strikeout rate has climbed eight percentage points in the past 16 seasons—going from 16.4% in 2005 to 24% in 2021—college baseball’s strikeout rate has climbed five percentage points in just seven years. It has gone from 16.3% in 2014 to 21.0% in 2021.
One of the main reasons for this is the steady improvement in velocity, as well as a corresponding improvement in secondary pitches. The average Southeast Conference pitcher in 2021 sits at 91 mph with his fastball. That’s equal to what the average MLB pitcher threw in 2007.
With pitchers throwing harder and spinning better breaking balls, batting averages are plunging around college baseball. With just a few weeks left in the college season, it seemed likely that the batting average for Division I baseball in 2021 will be the lowest since the NCAA switched to metal bats in 1974.
The .269 batting average at D-I as of late-May is slightly higher than it was in 1973, the final year that teams used wooden bats.
Hitters have responded by hitting for more power in the less frequent times they make contact. Home runs per game are on pace to be at the highest level since the BESR bats of the late 2000s. The percentage of batted balls that became home runs was 3.4%, which is higher than it was in 2010, the last year of the BESR bat era.
But there are significantly fewer balls in play. From 2008 to 2014, roughly three of every four plate appearances in college resulted in a ball put in play. Nowadays, it’s edging quite close to being two out of every three. A full 31% of 2021 Division I plate appearances have resulted in a walk or a strikeout.
That trend was even more exacerbated in 2021 in the minor leagues, where more 39% of plate appearances had resulted in a walk or strikeout through the first two weeks of the season.
If these trends continue, expect to see more no-hitters, more pitchers racking up double-digit strikeout games—but also more home run records and fewer balls put into play.
But the next time someone mentions these trends in Major League Baseball, tell them they can more accurately say this is the trend for baseball as a whole.