College Strikeouts Drop by 30%

Are NCAA Pitchers Getting Worse?

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD When I first started following pro softball seriously there were three super pitchers in the game: Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman, and Monica Abbott.  These three pitchers were absolutely electric and could singlehandedly shut down opposing offenses.  What made them so great was their ability to consistently strike out lots and lots of batters.  If batters never leave the box, they cannot score any runs!

Because softball is so popular in America and is only getting more popular, especially at the college level, I naturally thought that we would have a never-ending parade of super pitchers similar to Finch, Osterman and Abbott.  As soon as one moved on from college, another would just take her place.  And there have been many contenders in NCAA softball: names like Katie Burkhart, Danielle Lawrie, Dallas Escobedo, and Keilani Ricketts have come up, but none have really matched the level of Finch, Osterman, and Abbott.

So I have to wonder.  Is NCAA pitching getting worse?  I decided to pull some numbers and see if I could find any support for my hypothesis.  What I found at least partially confirmed my expectations.

I decided to measure (mostly out of convenience) both the strikeouts and ERA for the top 30 pitchers in the NCAA over the last 7 years.

2010 Average Strikeouts: 353

2011 Average Strikeouts: 338

2012 Average Strikeouts: 312

2013 Average Strikeouts: 299

2014 Average Strikeouts: 277

2015 Average Strikeouts: 285

2016 Average Strikeouts: 254

2010 Average ERA: 1.34

2011 Average ERA: 1.29

2012 Average ERA:  1.35

2013 Average ERA: 1.37

2014 Average ERA: 1.39

2015 Average ERA: 1.50

2016 Average ERA: 1.39

I was totally blown away at the rapid decline of strikeout totals amongst the nation's top pitchers.  Strikeouts have dropped 30% in 7 years!!  Cat Osterman threw 590 strikeouts her senior year. The closest anyone has come to that number was in 2010 at 556.  In what used to be a league dominated by strikeout-heavy power-pitchers, the strikeout numbers are WAY down.

But while strikeout numbers are down, average ERA amongst the top NCAA pitchers have remained relatively consistent.  So scoring has remained the same even as strikeouts have bottomed out.  Pitchers are not getting worse, but they are definitely throwing fewer strikeouts.

Perhaps batters are getting better at making contact? Or maybe pitchers are being told to pitch to contact more, relying on the defense to record the out?  Pitching to contact would certainly save wear and tear on a pitchers arm—they can exit the inning much earlier if they aren't trying to strike each batter out.  But it is risky to let the batter put the ball in play, even with a top defense behind you.

Whether on purpose or not, pitchers are allowing batters to make more contact and put more balls in play.  And so far the strategy has worked, as ERA has not increased significantly even as strikeouts have dropped.

So are pitchers getting worse?  No, but there are fewer and fewer pitchers who can be counted on to consistently strike out batters.  Because ERA has remained the same, you cannot say pitchers are getting worse, but they are finding different ways to get batters out rather than just "ringing them up."  Pitching is not getting worse, but it is changing. Read more.