Monday, May 22, 2017

Striking Out

It could be argued that in baseball an out is an out is an out. Does it really matter whether the hometown heroes drive a grounder to short, loft a booming fly to center or swing in vain at a two-seam fastball? Either way, the inning's over, right? Who cares what kind of outs they make?

As a guy reared on pre-steroid baseball, I do.

Strike-outs reached an all-time high last season, with 38,983 at bats concluding thusly. That was fifteen-hundred more than the year before, and an increase of 21.3% since 2005. In a game where you can never have enough runs, I wonder at the widespread acceptance of this.

It wasn't always that way.

When Bobby Bonds struck-out 187 times in 1969 and 189 times the following year, he established himself as Mr. Strikeout. Besting the previous record by twelve, Bonds set a new standard for futility. That 1970 total remained a record no one wanted to break for thirty-three years.

When Reggie Jackson threatened Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1969, the celebration was tarnished by the frequency of his strike-outs. (To no one's surprise, Jackson ended-up as the game's all-time strike-out king.)

If the great Babe Ruth had an on-the-field weakness, it was for whiffing. Ruth's peers derided him for it, equating his lack of self-control at the plate with his behavior in between games. 

You see, striking out was for bush leaguers. It made you look like a feckless rookie fresh off the bus for 'A' ball. Striking-out meant you weren't worthy of the uniform.

And that strike-out shaming was a good thing. By encouraging a hitter to put the ball into play, a player was giving himself a far better chance of getting on base than by blindly trying to knock a pitch into next week.

A fielder could lose track of the ball. Make a bad throw. A first baseman could drop the throw. You just never knew. And that doesn't even take into account the runners you could advance.

Even in a world without Google, players knew they couldn't score from the dugout.

But things change, don't they? The twin forces of our obsession with the big gesture (the dunk, the sack, the home run) and owners willing to offer generational wealth to someone capable of banging 40 home runs removed the stigma of striking-out.

In our twenty-first century parlance, it just means you're going for it. And what's wrong with that?

In a word, everything.

While I generally advocate for it, too many of today's hitters are far too generous to opposing pitchers. By swinging at anything and everything, hitters demand only that a pitcher throw the ball in the general vicinity of the plate, where like the wolf in The Three Little Pigs, they will huff and puff and blow the house down.

This while the ball more often than not resides safely in the catcher's mitt.

Am I the only guy who's figured out that in these days of hard pitch counts, the quickest way to get last year's Cy Young winner off the mound is to make him throw lots of pitches?

Work that at bat. Foul off pitches until you see the one you want. Make that guy earn his thirty-million per.

Home plate doesn't care whether the guy crossing it just smacked a five-hundred foot home run or scored on an infield groundout. Each counts for exactly one run. Just like ICBMs, selfie sticks and those giant foam fingers that say we're number one, runs are manufactured.

There's a methodology to it, a set of instructions. And step number-one says you have to get on base.

By swinging for the lottery's grand prize every time up, hitters are condemning themselves (and their buddies on the basepaths) to an all-or-nothing gamble the house is going to win the vast majority of the time.

It's the equivalent of a basketball player taking a half-court shot every time down the court.

It's stupid.

Yes, home runs are fun. Who doesn't love seeing a hitter pulverize a ball and send it screaming over the wall? But if said hitter hits 40 and strikes out 200 times (a ratio of five strike-outs to every home run), that becomes a very expensive run.

How many teammates did this player leave on base or fail to advance over the course of those five strike-outs?

Again, turning a baseball diamond into a casino is dumb. Strike-outs are toxic. They are absolutely, positively the worst kind of out. Play the odds. The home runs will still happen.

It'll be cool—even with out all the fanning.