Strikeouts are A-OK if production is there
Higher whiff totals have become acceptable in exchange for positive contributions
We are witnessing a revolution in thought, a material modification in mindset. What once was a source of guilt and shame and sleepless nights is now, well, whatever.
Strikeouts. That's what we're talking about here. And we've talked about them often thus far in a 2013 season with a wealth of whiffs.
But while those of us who don't suit up in uniform and play baseball for a living bask in amazement at the rising tide of Ks at the Major League level, those on the inside largely shrug off the strikeouts as an accepted element of a changing sport.
"It's a big difference," said Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez, a 16-year veteran. "I don't think it's a big deal now if you strike out 120, 130, 150 times a year."
|"Striking out is not a bad thing sometimes. It is [bad] when you need a productive out. But it makes the pitcher log more pitches."|
|-- Giants manager
There was a time when strikeouts were humiliating, to the point that the mere notion worked its way into other elements of our culture. If you asked a girl to the prom and she denied you, what happened? You "struck out," in the parlance of
your peers. Worse yet, in many states, habitual offenders became subjected to "three-strike laws," the slang of a sport directly impacting the particulars of imprisonment.
But pimply-faced teens and convicted felons don't have other data to offset their version of striking out. In the Major Leagues, teams have embraced the higher strikeout totals, provided they are accompanied by some other form of run-production positivity. In an environment in which high-velocity arms and bullpen specialization, among other factors, have placed production at a premium, strikeouts are shrugged off like never before.
"Striking out is not a bad thing sometimes," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "It is [bad] when you need a productive out. But it makes the pitcher log more pitches."
This is the reasoning that has wound its way into many a Major League clubhouse, and the results are simply stunning. Consider the following:
• The eight highest monthly strikeouts-per-game rates in MLB history have all taken place in the last eight full months of play, dating back to September 2011.
• In Major League history, 81 teams have logged 1,200 or more strikeouts in a season. Only one of those teams did that before 1996, and 68 percent of them have done so in the past five years.
• Last season, six teams struck out at least 1,300 times. The previous high was three teams in a season.
• The Astros and Braves are both on pace to strike out more than 1,500 times this year.
• Ten years ago, no qualifying batters averaged fewer than three plate appearances between strikeouts. Entering this week, five players -- Colby Rasmus (2.41), Chris Carter (2.67), Adam Dunn (2.93), Dan Uggla (2.94) and J.P. Arencibia (2.96) -- were on such a pace.
• Ten years ago, 59 hitters struck out 100 times or more. In 2012, 111 hitters reached that tally. (To put that in further perspective, there were 143 hitters who qualified for the batting title last season.)
• The Major League strikeout rate has risen six percent -- from 14 to 20 -- over the past 30 years, according to FanGraphs.com, with roughly half of that increase occurring in the last six years alone.
Given this environment, it is little wonder that players don't fret about the strikeout anywhere near as much as they once did. Joe DiMaggio famously struck out just 369 times in his entire career, but, for the sake of perspective, it's also worth remembering that Joltin' Joe faced just 53 pitchers during his 56-game hitting streak in 1941.
All the more reason why that streak is unrepeatable today.
"I'm not going to pretend I know what it was like back then," Indians slugger Mark Reynolds said. "But I'm going to guess they didn't have six guys in the bullpen throwing 100 [mph]."
|"I think I focused on it so much early in my career that I let it get to me. Now I'm to the point where I don't care what people write or what people say. I just try to go out and contribute in a positive way."|
|-- Indians infielder
Reynolds led his league in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons from 2008-11. That he is striking out in "only" 26.3 percent of his plate appearances this season is viewed as progress. But with an American League-leading 11 home
runs entering the week, Reynolds is putting himself in fine position for a major free-agent payday at year's end, and
he's helped his club considerably.
So pardon Reynolds if he's not all that wrapped up in the
"I think I focused on it so much early in my career that I let it get to me," he said. "Now I'm to the point where I don't care what people write or what people say. I just try to go out and contribute in a positive way."
Aided by sabermetric insight, the industry has largely redefined what constitutes "positive" contribution. And some believe an increased appreciation for on-base percentage and working the opposing pitcher has contributed to the strikeout rise, as hitters have been more willing to get to two-strike counts.
The numbers show it. In only five full seasons in history has the Major League average for pitches per plate appearance reached or exceeded 3.80. Those five seasons? The last five: 2008-12. This year, hitters are seeing 3.86 pitches per plate appearance, which would be the highest such rate in history, if it holds.
Batters are seeing more and swinging less. They are swinging at 64.4 percent of strikes, 4.1 percent fewer than they swung at 10 years ago, according to FanGraphs data. The first-pitch swing percentage has dropped two points.
"Guys are more patient, seeing more pitches, getting behind in the count more," said Cubs pitcher Scott Feldman. "And then, when they get behind in the count, you can try to strike them out. If you're in a 1-2 count, you can try to strike them out. But if you're in a 1-0, 0-0 early in the count and they're swinging and aggressive and trying to hit home runs, then it's different."
The statistical facts are accompanied by an anecdotal opinion that two-strike approaches have all but been abandoned.
"I just know that you don't have a lot of the guys who really walk up with a definite two-strike approach anymore," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "The game is about still trying to be aggressive, still trying to get a ball [to drive]. The power is so dominant now that everybody's kind of got over-swings. So when you're locating, that's where the strikeouts are going to come."
They come so frequently that perspective is bound to evolve. Certain organizations try to buck the trend. The D-backs, for instance, have jettisoned Reynolds, Justin Upton and Chris Young in recent years in an effort to become more contact-oriented. But a common perspective in today's game is that as long as the strikeout doesn't happen with a runner on third and fewer than two outs, it's no worse than any other kind of out.
"Those are the ones that put a dagger in your gut," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez's Braves can accept their profound strikeout pace because it is accompanied by the best home run total in the National League and a first-place standing in the NL East. For the A's -- a sabermetrically inclined organization that tolerates strikeouts -- the equation is a little skewed right now. The A's are among the AL leaders in strikeouts but are middle-of-the-pack in homers.
"It's not as noticeable when you're hitting home runs," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "We're not hitting homers right now. We had some success last year and broke a record for strikeouts, but when you're not swinging well, you'd like to have some productive outs too in situational at-bats. We have to be a little better about that."
In today's climate, it's difficult to envision the strikeout percentages improving dramatically, because what we have now is a new norm. The Rangers are the most difficult team to strike out right now, with one K every 6.20 plate appearances. Twenty years ago, that rate would have placed them fifth from the bottom.
The game is fundamentally different than it once was.
"I'm not surprised at what I'm seeing," Collins said. "The arms today are so much better. There are so many more guys who throw hard and have plus stuff than there were 15 years ago."
And whether we, as fans, can embrace it or not, the general mindset in the game today is that Ks are OK.