NEW YORK — The most-heard sound at major league ballparks this year was “Strike three!”
A whiff of offense would be nice rather than all those nights filled with nonstop whiffs.
Strikeouts are likely to exceed hits over a full season for the first time in major league history. The overall batting average has dropped to its lowest level since 1972, the year before the designated hitter. Lefty hitters — facing smothering defensive shifts — have fared even worse, with their lowest average since 1968, before the pitcher's mound was lowered.
Starters throw fewer pitches and hard-throwing relievers are changed more frequently. The game has transformed at a dizzying pace.
“We need to thoughtfully review the trends,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said Wednesday.
Manfred looks ahead to a postseason featuring 20-year-old Atlanta star Ronald Acuna Jr., Boston and the New York Yankees, and possibly the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, too.
But much of the offseason will be spent analyzing historic changes.
There were 39,902 strikeouts and 39,833 hits through Tuesday, and Ks exceeded hits over a full month for the first time in April, then again in June and September. Before this year, the previous low differential for a full month was in April 2017, when there were 138 more hits than strikeouts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Strikeouts are on track by the season's end on Sunday to set a record for the 11th consecutive season, surpassing last year's 40,104.
The .248 big league batting average is down seven percentage points from last year and a Steroids Era high of .271 in 1999, part of an all-or-nothing approach at the plate. And the .244 average for left-handed hitters is the lowest since .242 in 1968, according to Elias, diminished by defensive shifts placing three infielders on the right side.
No wonder batters swing for the fences.
“Years ago, if a player had more strikeouts than hits, they didn't get out of Class A ball,” said Dan Duquette, the Baltimore Orioles’ executive vice president of baseball operations, who went on to suggest his solution.
“Ted Williams had some good ideas: three balls and you go to first base; make home plate smaller so you don't have to defend as much territory,” Duquette said.
“It's something to consider, because, really, it's an entertainment business, right? That's what the fans want to see. It's a good place to start the discussion. Who am I to argue with the greatest hitter that ever lived?”
The analytics revolution has metamorphosed this most traditional of sports. Innings per starting pitcher dropped from 5.89 in 2012 to 5.38 this year and pitches per start from 95 to 88 over the same period, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Pitchers per game for both teams rose from 7.68 to 8.34 over that span, according to Major League Baseball, with average fastball velocity increasing from 91.6 mph to 92.8 mph over the past six years, according to Sports Info.
“The players have been forced to adapt a lot over the last few years based on the changes that are being recommended to them, that are being guided by those not on the field. So the game has changed quite a bit,” said players’ association head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman. “The question that I believe we all need to ask is based on where the game is, where the game appears to be going, if the current baseball fans find it appealing, if they are interested in the way the game is being played.”
No big league team had fewer than 50 sacrifice bunts in 1972 and no club dropped below double digits until Texas had nine in 2005. This year, Toronto has five, Oakland six, and Boston and the Los Angeles Angels seven each.
No pitcher has thrown more than two complete games. The previous low for a leader was four.
James Shields with 11 in 2011 has been the only pitcher to reach double digits since Randy Johnson in 1999. The game was far different when Fernando Valenzuela had 20 in 1986; this year's major league total is 41.
“You see the bullpen earlier,” said Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez, the 2010 NL batting champion. “Back in the day, the biggest thing for a pitcher was going the distance. You don't see a lot of complete games anymore. I feel like as a hitter, you have a better chance if you face a guy more than two or three times. Nowadays, you might face a starter twice and then get a lot of matchups: lefties on lefties, righties on righties.”
Scoring at 4.45 runs per team per game is down only slightly from last year's 4.65 and up from its recent low of 4.07 in 2014, with home runs averaging 1.15 per club per game, a decrease from last year's 1.26 record.
The “Three True Outcomes” have become the talk of dugouts, front offices and fans: walks, strikeouts and home runs.
“People get locked into one type of swing, and they're going to stick with it no matter what you do on the defensive side,” said Minnesota manager Paul Molitor, a Hall of Famer. “I think that's why the effectiveness continues on the shift.”
Manfred says changes are understandable.
“I am not one to wail about the use of analytics,” he said. “You can't stop really competitive, smart people.”
MLB and the union already have been talking. Their challenge is to decide whether narrowly tailored rules changes will counter changes, such as the use of minor league options and the disabled list to expand pitching staffs from 12-13 to what in effect is 17-18 for many clubs. The sides had an agreement in the last round of bargaining to expand the active roster from 25 to 26 from the start of the season through Aug. 31 and to lower it from 40 to 28 from Sept. 1 on, but the players backed out. Most teams would have carried another reliever.
“I think it would have solved an even bigger problem, which is playing games differently in the month of September,” Manfred said. “It was a trade that I was prepared to make at the time I was doing the Basic Agreement. It was a trade I'm prepared to make now.”
One trend players and management like: the average time of a nine-inning game has dropped to 3:00:35 from a record 3:05:11 last year, helped by new restrictions on mound visits. Trips to the mound without a pitching change have dropped from 7.41 to 4.00.
“I don't know if that's necessarily the criteria as much as has it adversely affected the guys on the mound?” Clark said. “And the commentary that we've heard is no.”