2012 was the year of the strikeout. Last season, more hitters slumped back to the dugout than at any point in the modern era, continuing a recent trend that has seen strikeout rates rise significantly over the past few years.
The rate of strikeouts has ebbed and flowed over baseball’s long history, usually reversing course after a significant rule change. Whether it was lowering the mound, increasing the distance from home plate, outlawing spitballs, or implementing comprehensive drug testing, each inflection point in the league-wide strikeout rate can usually be traced back to a series of events. However, as was recently noted in a post at High Heat Stats, there doesn’t seem to be a genesis for the precipitous decline in strikeouts that occurred in 1917 and 1918.
Historical Strikeouts Rates (Offense), Since 1913
Historical Strikeouts Rates (Pitching), Since 1901
The period from 1917 to 1918 should jump out to history buffs because it marks the United States’ involvement in World War I (declaration of war on April 6, 1917 until armistice on November 11, 1918). With hundreds of major leaguers taking part in the war effort, the resultant tumult seems to be the most likely explanation for the abrupt drop in the strikeout rate. However, there are a few problems with that theory. War wasn’t declared until just before the start of the 1917 season, but a diminished strikeout rate was evident immediately. Because there wasn’t a mass induction of baseball players into the military, the war alone does not explain the decline. Also, despite ticking up again in 1918, the strikeout rate never approached the pre-war levels and remained deflated for the next decade.
Run production was up in both leagues as the calendar turned to the 1910’s, but as the decade progressed, runs became more scarce, particularly in the National League. Believing that the game’s popularity, and profitability, was directly related to the amount of runs scored, some within the hierarchy of the sport began to express concern that pitching had become too dominant. So, in an effort to level the playing field, several proposed changes began to emerge, and many of the ideas came right from the top.
Runs Per Game, 1911-1920
While both leagues were preparing for the potential impact of WWI, National President John K. Tener was at the forefront of a whole different war effort: an assault on the dominance of pitching in baseball. Before the start of the 1917 season, Tener began to vociferously advocate several rule changes that he believed would increase offense, and, by extension, “mean more fun for the fans.” In a New York Times interview, Tener lamented the lack of offense, which he believed was the result of pitchers being reticent to throw strikes and hitters being too patient. So, in order to force the action, the N.L. president proposed eliminating the “moist ball” as well as several other more drastic changes. The two main pillars of his reform effort were adding one inch to the width of home plate and reducing the number of balls needed for a walk to three. According to the executive, widening the zone and lowering the threshold for a free pass would encourage pitchers to throw the ball over the plate and force hitters to swing the bat.
I do not believe that there is as much free swinging among the batsmen as there should be. There is too much of a tendency to stand up at the plate and wait and wait.” – National League President John K. Tener, quoted in the New York Times, February 4, 1917.
None of Tener’s recommendations were implemented in 1917, but the N.L. president continued to argue on their behalf. Over the next two seasons, Tener was repeatedly quoted in the press pushing his agenda, and, he wasn’t alone. Percy D. Haughton, President of the Boston Braves, offered even more dramatic changes, including moving first and third closer to home, shaving inches off (not expanding) the plate, and allowing for only one foul ball. Although there may not have been wide spread support for some of the specific ideas expressed by the two executives, a consensus about the need to boost offense did emerge. And, it wasn’t confined to the National League, which at its annual meeting in 1917 agreed to meet with its counterparts in the American League to discuss the potential changes.
Despite his efforts, Tener’s more revolutionary changes were never adopted, although the spitball was abolished in 1920. However, just because the outspoken executive did not get his way in writing doesn’t mean he wasn’t able to exert influence on how the game was officiated. It’s easy to imagine Tener and A.L. President Ban Johnson, with the support of their respective constituencies, realizing the need to increase baseball’s appeal by boosting run production, particularly in the face of a likely disruption because of the war, and deciding a modified strike zone would best do the trick. If so, what wasn’t achieved by a rule change could have been accomplished tacitly.
Would Tener and Johnson have really tried to influence how umpires called balls and strikes? It wouldn’t be the first or last time the league tried such an approach. As recently as 2001, there was a concerted effort to impose uniformity in the calling of balls and strikes, and since then, the league has used an automated system called QuesTec to bring its umpires in line. Perhaps, such a theory is a little too subtle to account for the significant decline in strike outs that occurred in 1917-1918, but nonetheless, below is summarized timeline of what might have transpired to bring it about.
Timeline of 1917-1918 Strikeout Decline Theory
1917: With war on the horizon and attendance inching back toward pre-Federal League levels, the league presidents decide it is in the best interest of the game to promote offense, which has declined in recent years. Without being able to reach a consensus on specific measures, a tacit strike zone refinement is implemented.
1918: The combination of an altered strike zone and exodus of players to the military depress strike out rates even further.
1919: With players back from war, strikeout rates return to 1917 levels, but remain well below those prior.
1920: The spitball and other deceptive deliveries are outlawed, beginning a period of rule changes and innovations that will favor offense and lead to historically low strike out rates.
Is the timeline above plausible? Perhaps, but there’s always room for more conspiracy theories, so feel free to make your own case in the comments below.