With just a handful of games remaining in the season, the Dodgers are on track to set a pair of all-time strikeout records. Somehow, that's both extremely impressive and far less impressive than you'd think. Given how much baseball has changed over the decades, it's always complicated to make comparisons
With just a handful of games remaining in the season, the Dodgers are on track to set a pair of all-time strikeout records. Somehow, that's both extremely impressive and far less impressive than you'd think. Given how much baseball has changed over the decades, it's always complicated to make comparisons between today's teams and those that played a generation or two before the American flag even had 50 stars.
Still, let's run down the top-line facts before we get into some explanations. This year's Dodgers have indeed done better than any pitching staff ever at two important strikeout numbers:
1. The 2016 Dodgers have struck out 25.2 percent of the hitters they've faced, the best mark of the 2,196 team seasons dating back to 1916, when reliable records were first kept. (Strikeout percentage is a far more reliable metric than strikeouts per nine inning, though the Dodgers have that record, too.)
2. The 2016 Dodgers have struck out 1,459 hitters, also the most of any team in the past century, breaking the record of 1,450 by the Indians in 2014.
Those are big numbers, and they're even more impressive when you realize that Clayton Kershaw missed more than two months, and that due to a record-setting number of trips to the disabled list, they've used 31 pitchers and 15 starters -- both also team records. Of the 46 other teams in the divisional play era (since 1969) to use at least 15 starters, 45 failed to make the playoffs, with the only exception being last year's Dodgers. By all rights, this staff should have collapsed in a sea of Nick Tepesches and Brock Stewarts. Instead, they set a strikeout record and won the National League West for the fourth straight year.
Now, for the obvious caveat here: Everyone is striking out more. You already knew this, of course, but it's an important point. Major League Baseball set a record by striking out 17.5 percent of the time in 2008, and it's gone up (or stayed steady) every year since, to this year's high of 21.1 percent. At some point it seems like there has to be a tipping point, but we haven't reached it yet.
So the 2016 Dodgers have struck out more hitters more often than any pitching staff ever, but they're also pitching in an extremely strikeout-friendly climate. If we really want to see what they've done compared to their historic peers, we need to see how their whiff performance rates compared to the MLB average for that season. That is, their 25.2 percent strikeout rate looks a lot different compared to 2016's overall average of 21.1 percent than it does compared to 1946's 9.3 percent.
That being the case, let's look back at all of those 2,196 seasons and see which teams had the largest differences, in percentage points, over the MLB average for that year.
(For simplicity, we're treating the American League and the NL as the same, despite the presence of the designated hitter. Both leagues had pitchers batting through 1972, and daily Interleague Play has smoothed out some of the differences between the leagues, so we'll live with that minor flaw for now.)
A huge majority of teams, just over 82 percent, fall within two percentage points either way of the Major League strikeout average for that season. The lowest team was the 2012 Twins, who had a 15.2 percent strikeout rate in a season where the bigs whiffed 19.8 percent of batters, and that makes sense given Minnesota's annual issues finding pitchers who can miss bats.
As for this year's Dodgers, that ranking of 20th may not be as exciting as "first," but it's still in the top one percent of every team for more than a century, and some of those other clubs on the list are extremely impressive company. Those 2001-'04 Cubs, for example, had at various points some of the the best years that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior ever put up, along with underrated great relief seasons from Tom Gordon and Kyle Farnsworth. The 2002-03 D-backs had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, plus better bullpens than you remember. Some of the other Dodgers teams on this list prominently featured Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, or Eric Gagne's historic 2003.
It's all the more impressive considering the doom-and-gloom atmosphere that seemed to surround the rotation last offseason when Zack Greinke departed for Arizona, David Price landed in Boston rather than Los Angeles, and Hisashi Iwakuma's deal was voided after he failed a physical. Then Brett Anderson hurt his back, Alex Wood hurt his elbow, Hyun-Jin Ryu never really made it back, Brandon McCarthy is still struggling to do so, Kershaw missed so much time, and… well, you know the litany of issues by now.
Gif: Julio Urías strikeout
All of which is to say, it's been a team effort. There have been 24 Dodgers pitchers to throw at least 10 innings, headed into Tuesday night's game, and 19 of them have a strikeout rate that's above the 21.1 percent Major League average. There's Kershaw, of course, but also Kenley Jansen (41.6 percent), having the best season of an already great career, and whiffing more hitters than even Aroldis Chapman (39.7 percent). There's rookie Grant Dayton (38.3 percent), acquired from Miami in a little-noticed trade for Chris Reed last July, who has whiffed 36 in 24 2/3 innings, and Adam Liberatore (27.1 percent), acquired himself as what looked like a small part of 2014's Joel Peralta / José Domínguez trade. There's Joe Blanton (25.7 percent), who had actually retired in 2014.
And of course there's Rich Hill (33.8 percent), Pedro Báez (28.3), Kenta Maeda (25.1), Julio Urias (24.4) and others too. Without context, the Dodgers have the all-time strikeout record. With it, they're still in the top one percent of teams over the past century. It might not sound as exciting; it still matters, a lot. Even among a strikeout-friendly climate, this team racks up the whiffs.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.