What Caused the Death of the Cleveland Indians’ Strikeout Machine?

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Cleveland Indians Pitchers Whiffing a Surprisingly Low Amount of Batters

It’s a strange truth: the Cleveland Indians are now striking out batters at a below-average rate. For a team that set the record for the most strikeouts last season, it seems strange to think that the power has vanished. After all, the pitching rotation is pretty much the same as last season.

So, what is the cause of this sudden decline? Pinpointing the exact cause of struggles in baseball is quite tricky; it’s why Andrew Friedman is paid seven million dollars each year. This said it’s still possible to poke around and look at some underlying causes of strikeouts.

One such cause is velocity, and it’s no secret that the Cleveland Indians pack heat. On the season, the team has the second highest average fastball velocity in the American League, and it’s possible that they could be the hardest throwing if one removes Cody Anderson, Shaun Marcum, and T.J. House.

Another factor for generating strikeouts is the ability to miss bats, as it’s a lot easier to punch out a batter if he swings and misses more often. As one might expect, the opposing batters have the worst contact rate in the American League against the Tribe. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers, armed with Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke, have a better rate than the Indians. For the sake of clarity and thoroughness, the author separated contact rates on pitches outside the strike zone (O-Contact %) from contact rates on pitches inside the strike zone (Z-Contact %).

Before we look at some graphs and tables, let’s establish a few terms and the rationality behind using them. First, “Stan Dev” stands for standard deviation, which more or less measures the density of the data. A higher standard deviation means that the data are more spread out, and a lower standard deviation means that the data are more condensed.

Secondly, Z-Score measures the distance from a specific datum – the Tribe’s value, in this case – from the average, or mean, value. The units of a Z-Score measurement are in standard deviations. Using Z-Score instead of something like percent above or below average is a better way to analyze the trends in the Cleveland Indians’ strikeout rate. In this case, a higher Z-Score is always better than a lower one.

With no further delay, here are some data tables for the Cleveland Indians’ strikeout rate, average fastball velocity, and contact rates. There is a graph after the tables for those who find them intimidating.

Interestingly enough, the trend of the Tribe’s strikeouts and contact on balls are eerily similar. Aside from May, whenever one rose or fell, so did the other. This is a perfect example of the importance in having a so-called “strikeout pitch” that fools batters into swinging at air. In the month of July, Tribe pitchers had the best zone-contact rates and average velocity of the season, but strikeouts and outside contact only rebounded slightly.

Another interesting takeaway from the graph is that the contact rates dropping in the month of May, when compared to the average team, had a very little effect on the strikeout rate. While it may seem that the slight increase in velocity managed to sustain the strikeout rate, Corey Kluber’s 18-strikeout game a bigger reason for the continuation of a high strikeout rate.

It’s pretty clear to see that a decline in the ability to miss bats combined with a bit of a velocity drop has caused the Cleveland Indians’ strikeout machine to come to a screeching halt. The reason for this increase in contact rates could be nearly anything: the pitches could be moving less, the pitches could be located poorly, or batter could be learning something. It’s even possible that the pitchers are tipping their pitches.

What does this mean for the future?

It means that the Indians will be even more reliant on their defense. It means that opposing teams will have more opportunities to score runs. It means that the offense needs to get better. Hopefully, it does not mean that the pitching staff that is the core of any playoff dream is falling apart.

Next: Cleveland Indians' Fifth Starter Won't Be Solved Soon

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