August 14, 2006
With All the Bombs Come All the Whiffs
By TIM MARCHMAN / The New York Sun
Here's a good one for a bar bet: Name the Hall of Famer who at one point held the modern single-season record for strikeouts.
Wager a pint on this and you'll be drinking free, because everyone who doesn't say Reggie Jackson will say Babe Ruth, except for the people who say Mickey Mantle, and none of them will be right. The answer is Harmon Killebrew; he struck out 142 times in 1962. The next year, Dave Nicholson whiffed 175 times, setting the mark that Bobby Bonds eventually broke.
One hundred forty-two strikeouts was a lot then, and it's still a lot today, but last year seven ballplayers struck out that many times or more. If you ask people who have watched baseball for decades, many if not most of them will say that the increased acceptance of the strikeout is the biggest change they've seen. For a time, people considered Reggie Jackson a worse hitter than any number of inferior players in the league because of his huge strikeout totals; now, Adam Dunn strikes out 195 times in a season and no one thinks much anything of it.
The reasons for this change are clear. Starters don't go as deep into games, so they throw harder when they are in and are followed by gas-throwing relievers; and in today's home run-friendly parks, with quick fielders wielding big gloves, the risk/reward ratio is in favor of swinging for the fences rather than in favor of trying to hit 'em where they ain't. If a raised mound, enlarged strike zone, and deadened ball were put into effect, contact hitting would increase in importance and strikeouts would go down quite a lot. What you might call the cultural argument, the idea that players now think it's alright to fail in a way old-time ballplayers didn't — doesn't really hold up against these more mundane factors.
Today, the increased acceptance of the strikeout may go too far. Most fans by now understand that it's really just an out like any other. You can't hit into a double play if you strike out, and that goes a fair way toward balancing out the fact that good things happen if you just put the ball in play — but that doesn't mean that strikeouts aren't a bad thing. Adam Dunn is an excellent ballplayer, but if he could strikeout 50 times less a year he'd be a great one. And as the strikeout has become less stigmatized, the ability to avoid it has become, curiously, somewhat undervalued. Many people didn't notice Jose Reyes's low strikeout rate last year, one of the big signals that he'd break out as a star this year.
People are still driven out of their minds by one thing, though — strikeouts with runners on base. We see our own example in New York, where Alex Rodriguez gets an absurd amount of grief for overswinging in the clutch. It's easy to forget about all the times a big slugger like Rodriguez, Jim Thome, or Ryan Howard hits a monster home run with ducks on the pond when you see them swinging right over some curveball with a mammoth hack and then walking back to the dugout, muttering. It makes people crazy. "If only that guy would tighten up his swing!" they say, as they did of Mickey Mantle.
Baseball doesn't work that way, though.With the exception of very rare bat-control artists, your swing and your approach are your swing and your approach; there are adjustments to make, but someone with an all-or-nothing swing like Dunn's can't decide to pop a ball over the shortstop's head just because that's what the team needs. The game's too hard for that.
Moreover, the strikeouts come out in the wash, even though they do have a real effect on RBI. For instance, take the top 15 in baseball in strikeouts right now — generally excellent hitters, like Dunn, Howard, Thome, and Jason Bay with some productive secondtier hitters like Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher. Baseball Prospectus's Web site has a statistical report sorting out how players do in RBI spots, and these guys, by one measure, tend not to do well — that is driving in runners other than themselves. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances this year, the median rate of non-solo home runs per opportunity is 15.3%. Of the top 15 air conditioners, just five are above that at all, and some are shockingly beneath it. That's no surprise — intuitively, you'd expect that hitters who make less contact will leave more men on, if you take the times they drive themselves in with the longball out of the equation. The question is whether those times make up for the baserunners left on.
In some extreme cases they may not, but it's easy to show why, generally, they do. Take Rodriguez. Let's say he changes his swing and cuts down his strikeouts 20%. Since those strikeouts are largely a byproduct of a power swing, we'll also have to cut down on his home runs — while it could end up as more or less, let's say by an equivalent 20%. And we'll presume as well that his batting average will rise, and thus his rate of driving in base runners will go up proportionately as well.
Rodriguez has seen 409 baserunners on this year and has driven in 58 of them — a mediocre 14.2% of the time. Increase that by 20% to 17.04%, and he'll have driven in 69 runs — a big increase of 11. But remember that he'll also have lost five home runs, making it a net increase of six.
If you assume every one of those shots would be a solo home run, this small difference might seem worth the trade off. If even two of them were two-run shots, though, the difference would be down to four, and so on. Really, at best you'd see a wash if Rodriguez were able to cut down on his strikeouts by that much, and at worst you'd see his whole offensive game tilt out of control as he got away from what's made his successful.
Certainly, it's frustrating to see any player strikeout in key spots all the time, but baseball is a harshly Darwinian game, and the reason players maintain their approach is because it works. If you don't like it, don't call in to talk radio ranting about A-Rod — write a letter to the commissioner advocating rule changes that would place a premium on placing the ball instead of trying to crush it. It's the only thing that will make a difference.