Swinging for fences isn't what it used to be
Updated 8/9/2006 3:59 PM ET
By Paul White, USA TODAY
JIM THOME DUG IN against Orioles lefty Erik Bedard, who already had struck out the White Sox slugger once in the game. Bedard had two strikes on him again and figured he could bend a curveball from just in front of the left-handed Thome's body and across the plate.
Bedard did that. Thome lined a single into center field and, when he reached first base, realized he was as pleased as he has been after bashing most of his 33 home runs this year. This satisfied feeling is part of what separates Thome and a select few other power hitters in an era enamored with home runs and almost as enthralled with the swings that produce them.
Power hitters like Thome, the Reds' Adam Dunn, the Braves' Andruw Jones and the Phillies' Ryan Howard go deep into counts. They make pitchers work. They're willing to take a walk. They swing only at strikes.
"If you hit strikes, good things will happen," Thome says. "I truly believe that."
Thome and these other elite sluggers are such efficient hitters that it's easy to forget about their high strikeout numbers.
FROM 1996-2004 (he missed most of 2005 with injuries), Thome averaged 41 home runs a season and 158 strikeouts. This year is no different: He's healthy again and on pace for 51 homers and 160 strikeouts. Neither would be personal records.
Dunn set the single-season strikeout record with 195 in 2004. He is on pace this year to finish a dozen or so short of the record. Jones regularly spins to the ground after one of his big swings. Howard, the National League Rookie of the Year last season, is battling with Dunn for the major league strikeout lead.
But Thome is a four-time All-Star and former American League home run champ. Dunn is in the NL's top five in homers for the third year in a row and also among the league leaders in walks for the third time in four seasons. Jones led the majors last season with 51 homers. Howard leads the NL in homers this season.
"Look at baseball nowadays, we accept strikeouts more," says Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who was coaching in the Indians system in 1990 when he saw a 19-year-old Thome walk into the minor league spring training camp.
"As the home run has come into play more and more, teams want to see the production."
What he left unsaid is that teams are willing to make a tradeoff for that production.
Thome's swing against Bedard was hardly memorable to the more than 35,000 fans watching in Baltimore that night. It didn't leave a lasting impression like so many Thome swings — ones that result in the ball landing 400-and-some feet away or ones that produce an even louder gasp from the stands as the force of his bat seems to suck the air out of the infield as the ball plops into the catcher's mitt.
The swing is familiar, beginning with Thome's timing mechanism of pointing his bat directly at the pitcher before bringing the bat back into attack position behind his shoulder and culminating with the bat out in front of the plate again at the end of the vicious uppercut, Thome's bulging arms outstretched and his tree-trunk thighs spread across the batter's box.
Like Thome's, some of the swings from this generation of sluggers are nearly as eye-popping as the homers they hit.
"Most of them like to just let it rip," says Bobby Cox, Jones' manager in Atlanta. "I think the game has totally changed to that approach."
Two strikes? No matter. Decades ago, players were expected to shorten their swings and put the ball in play. Baseball's big boppers of today have been brought up to accept that strikeouts are part of the deal.
"It used to be an embarrassment to strike out," says Mariners broadcaster Ron Fairly, who spent 21 seasons in the major leagues, including some as teammate of one of the game's all-time big swingers, 6-7 Frank Howard. "It's not an embarrassment to them just as long as they swing hard. I've actually seen a guy strike out and somebody shakes their hand in the dugout. Why would you do that?"
"It's amazing some of these guys walk so much," Cox says.
Thome is on pace to walk 104 times this season. He has led his league in walks three times, including in 1999 when he also led the AL in strikeouts. The other two times that he was the strikeout king — in 2001 with Cleveland and in 2003 with Philadelphia — he also finished second in walks.
Dunn is on pace to walk more than 100 times. Ryan Howard is on pace for 81, Jones for 74. That's a far cry from the typical seasons of legendary all-or-nothing swingers such as Rob Deer, Dave Kingman and Dave Nicholson, none of whom ever walked 100 times in a season.
Kingman and Nicholson never came close.
DAVE "SWISH" NICHOLSON set the major league strikeout record with 175 in 1963, a year after Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew set it with 142. (The record had nudged up from 134 by Vince DiMaggio in 1938 to Killebrew in '62.) Nicholson hit .229 that year for the White Sox with 22 homers. His major league career lasted 538 games. He had a .212 average.
Kingman hit 442 homers between 1971-86, but his .236 career average and three times as many strikeouts as walks left him as a Hall of Fame afterthought. Deer averaged 27 homers a year with the Brewers, Tigers and Red Sox from 1986-93 but also averaged 162 strikeouts a season and never hit better than .252.
The difference between today's more refined sluggers and those all-or-nothing hitters of the past is the swing. Big swings might all look the same, but coaches and scouts divide them into two categories: long swings and powerful swings.
"I want hitters to have a better-balanced approach," says Manuel, who was hitting coach for some of the Indians' prolific offensive teams of the 1990s. "I want them to have a shorter, quicker swing."
"It's all in your approach," Howard says. "Different swings work for different players. The ideal is if you can have that short swing. People have the misconception that you have to swing real hard to hit the ball out of the park. It's really the opposite. You need to be relaxed, not tensed up, try to wait as long as you can, to see the ball as long as you can."
That's how Thome describes that single against Bedard.
"Bedard strikes me out the first time," Thome says. "The second time, he has me 1-2 and throws a breaking ball, and I get a hit to center field. Now, you can't overswing and hit that ball, not against a guy who throws up in the 90s and has a good breaking ball and a changeup."
It takes an innate ability, Thome believes, to wait and react to a pitch. The longer you can wait, still react and do something productive with the pitch, the better off you're going to be.
"A lot of that's natural," Thome says. "I have a lot of opposite-field power. I think guys who hit opposite-field home runs are good natural hitters."
Thome says he's especially impressed with Angels outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who's such an extreme case of a strong opposite-field hitter that he can react to a pitch that's about to bounce and still makes good contact. This ability to adjust and react to pitches is what separates these guys from the big-swing hackers of the past.
"It's not a thought process," Thome says. "There isn't any time for that."
Therefore, the big swings remain intact.
"Nobody cuts down their swing unless it's a real crucial situation," Jones says. "I might choke up, but I take the same swing."
The one that often brings his back knee to the ground?
"Sometimes it's slippery at home plate," Jones says. "Sometimes I lose my balance. I don't make it happen. It doesn't make your head bigger because people say 'Ooh.' "
But home runs elicit the "oohs," too.
"Fans come to see pitchers pitch no-hitters and guys hit home runs," Jones says.
"I never say it's OK to strike out," Manuel says. "You don't necessarily have to strike out a lot to be a power hitter. (Joe) DiMaggio didn't strike out. Ted Williams would choke up and spread out in certain situations."
More homers than strikeouts was the norm among elite hitters. DiMaggio, who hit 361 homers, had a one-season high of 39 strikeouts as a rookie in 1936. Five years in a row (1937-41) and seven times in his 13-year career, he had more home runs than strikeouts.
Dunn's 39th strikeout this season came on May 7. Howard had 35 last month alone.
As prodigious a swinger as Ted Kluszewski hit 40, 49, 37 and 35 homers from 1953-56 with fewer strikeouts each year. George Brett had 24 homers and 22 strikeouts in 1980.
Guerrero and Albert Pujols are as close to such sluggers as we have today. Guerrero has never struck out 100 times in a season. Three times he has walked more than he has struck out. Pujols also never has reached 100 strikeouts and this year he has more home runs (34) than strikeouts (32).
"It's almost like the hit-and-run is on all the time with Vladdy," Fairly says. "He's swinging until he's absolutely sure he can't reach it. And with his long arms, he can reach just about anything."
DON'T THINK THE HEAVY HITTERS of the last few generations didn't swing big.
"(Frank) Howard, Willie Stargell," Fairly says. "There was a ton of dust when Willie Mays swung sometimes. (Mickey) Mantle was another one. Duke Snider did. How about Rico Carty? But it was when the count was in their favor, and their swings were all pretty compact. I loved to watch (Hank) Aaron hit, Mays hit, Stargell hit. They had good strokes. They were exciting to watch play — and I didn't like pitchers much anyway."
And don't think Fairly's era wasn't enamored with the long ball, either.
"When I played for Montreal (from 1969-74)," he says, "some of those times when the Pirates had a two- or three-touchdown lead on us, I would try to talk our catcher, John Boccabella, into calling for a low fastball to Stargell and to tell him it was coming. I would say, 'John, let's just see how far he could hit it.' I never convinced him. I think I almost had him once, though."
Fairly blames pitchers for the all-count big swings of today's slugger.
"Pitchers intimidated the hitters," he says. "Now, it's the other way around. Guys who swung hard, pitchers were liable to throw at. Smaller guys never dared to swing that hard. That's a huge difference. A way you could do that was take one of those big swings. If you were 0-for-10 or 0-for-15, you could stand on home plate and they wouldn't throw at you. But if you were getting big cuts and hitting the ball ..."
Manuel also invokes pitching, but with compliments.
"Pitchers have changed," he says. "It used to be you could expect them to throw a 3-0 fastball or a 3-1 fastball. Now, they'll throw more splits, changes, curves on any count."
And his swing is shorter with two strikes, Thome says, even if it doesn't look like it.
"With two strikes, now it's about 60-40 you're going to see a heater," Thome says. "If there's a guy on third with less than two outs, I have a different program. I might widen out my stance a little bit.
"But I'm definitely trying to put the ball in play. Over the years, I've definitely cut back on my swings. I guess as you get older, you get smarter."
Thome says that intelligence has as much to do with confidence as with knowledge.
"Confidence is an extraordinary teacher," he says. "Until you have a good year, you don't really believe it. I call it 'arrived.' Once you turn that corner, it all changes."
Manuel sees Howard growing much like Thome did, despite the almost instant success his numbers suggest.
"It took a lot of time, a lot of talking until Thome was real comfortable," Manuel says. "There a lot of similarities (with Howard). When they make contact, they get a lot of hits. When I look at Ryan, I want him to be selective. But I want him to be relaxed, too."
Howard already has joined the elite list of players who face special defensive shifts.
Thome has become used to seeing three infielders stacked up between first and second bases. That's a familiar look for Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays even treated Howard as they did the Red Sox's David Ortiz this season, with only two players besides the pitcher and catcher standing in the infield.
These guys are paid to hit the ball over the wall, which means over any defense a manager can devise.
"You're facing guys like Bedard, (Johan) Santana, (Francisco) Liriano," Thome says. "That's the battle. You're in the middle of the ocean trying to find your way."
To find that way, you have to at least know your way around the strike zone.
"The key is trying to hit good pitches," Cox says. "With the QuesTec system (a precise umpire evaluation) in place now, there's no reason to swing at bad pitches as much."
And an elite group of today's power hitters often doesn't.