Way back in the early 80's, when I first became affiliated with the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), the thing that triggered my interest was strikeouts.
I am not sure how or why this happened, or why I was drawn to whiffs, but what prompted that curiosity was the change in the all-time strikeout leaders. What I saw was that the all-time leaders, the greats I had always thought of as the greatest strikeout men of all time, such as Walter Johnson, Cy Young, and Tim Keefe, were rapidly being displaced.
Some of this change is likely due to roster expansion in that with the leagues growing, the quality of the teams starting batters went from 16 between both leagues, to the present 30, diluting the hitter's pool. While it is true that the new lions of strikeouts, like Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton and Bert Blyleven had long careers, they certainly did not log the number of innings per year that Johnson, Young, and Keefe did.
But, hitters did swing the bat more than the hitters of yesteryear, and with the promotions of hitters like Joey Gallo and Kris Bryant, surely the acceptance of young hitters who make big swings, mash big homers, and create big masses of whiffs is more than just acceptable. It is the norm.
To be sure, I like both Bryant and Gallo a lot, and think they both are ready and will have fine careers, but if you look at their numbers, there should be something disturbing about Bryant whiffing 162 times last year, meaning one-third of his 492 at-bats finished with a strikeout, while Gallo whiffed 179 times, or 41% of his 439 at-bats.
One of the reasons I do think Gallo and Bryant will succeed is that both do walk a reasonable amount of the time, but most up-and-coming hitters do not have the combination of power and strike zone command that this pair of great young batters do.
And, while it is true that the all-time strikeout leaders started to become displaced in the 80's, since that time the list at the top has remained pretty stable, for CC Sabathia, who ranks #31, is the highest active player on the list, with only five pitchers actually pitching the bulk of their careers before 1950 out of all those top 31, but with just Johnson and Javier Vazquez the only pair to have thrown within the last five years.
However, among the top 30 single-season strikeout leaders, only Ryan and Johnson are on the list with the remainder largely being pitchers from the dead ball era and just after.
If we look at career strikeouts, the only batter among the top 30 all-time who is active is Alex Rodriguez, while the only player active in the 50's is Mickey Mantle at #26, but we have to go all the way to #113, for Babe Ruth, in order to find a player from a really by-gone era.
Equally interesting, we have to go back to Don Lock, who is tied at #217 on the all-time single-season strikeout mark for hitters with 151, which he garnered in 1963, in order to find a name not familiar to those of us who have followed ball and hitters over the past 20 years or so.
Meaning the number of individual strikeouts batters accumulate these days is way greater than in the past, while the number of whiffs starting pitchers are recording are way down.
I am guessing with specialization and relievers and situational hitters, that is where the balance of whiffs that are charged to hitters but not logged by starters lives, but on this Saturday morning, I have to wonder, just where did all those whiffs go?
I do think strikeouts and walks are the key to everything pitchers and hitters do, and they are indeed the stats that truly bind the offense and the defense, being commonly tracked to the success of each.
But, again I ask: just who is logging all these whiffs?