Commentary

Swinging hard ... and missing often

Today's players exceeding the 100-strikeout mark more than ever before

Originally Published: June 27, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

On the final day of the 1970 season, Cardinals third baseman Joe Torre checked the lineup card and noticed that Lou Brock, St. Louis' dynamic leadoff hitter, was not in the lineup.

"Lou, what are you doing?'' Torre said. "I have 99 RBIs. I have to get to 100. You have to be on base so I can drive you in.''

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezIn only his second season, the Rangers' Chris Davis is on pace to strike out 242 times.

Brock was adamant: He wasn't playing. "I checked the stats, Lou had 99 strikeouts,'' Torre said. "He didn't want to strike out 100 times.''

Thirty seasons later, Rangers first baseman Chris Davis hit the 100-strikeout mark on June 20, the earliest in history that any player has reached it. Davis won't be alone at 100 for long, and by the end of the season, there might be 100 players with 100. Last year, 90 players struck out at least 100 times -- that's more 100-strikeout seasons than there were from 1900 to 1962 combined (80). The Nationals' Adam Dunn was, as always, one of the 100.

"One hundred already? I'm the king, but good lord!'' said Dunn, who had 73 on June 20. "That's … good.''

Ryan Zimmerman knew of Davis' 100, looked at Dunn, laughed and said, "Are you jealous?''

They can joke because high strikeout totals are as much a part of today's game as the national anthem. This trend began in the mid-1980s when Rob Deer, Bo Jackson, Pete Incaviglia, Cory Snyder, Jose Canseco and others came to the major leagues at roughly the same time. They all hit 30 or more home runs, struck out around 150 times (in 1988, Incaviglia became the first player ever to strike out 150 times three years in a row, and later that season, Deer became the second) and suddenly, all across baseball, it was OK to K. It has only gotten worse: The top six single-season strikeout seasons of all time have come in the last five years. Of the top 20 strikeout seasons ever, only three came before 1986.

"I'm not a big fan of it, but the trade-off for driving the ball, for hitting the ball out of the ballpark,'' said Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan, "is accepting 180-190 strikeout seasons.''

Last year Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds struck out 203 times, which was more than the biggest strikeout seasons of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio combined. Ruth never struck out 100 times in a season. Frank Robinson had one 100-strikeout season, and called it "the worst year of my life.'' But in 1991, Blue Jays shortstop Manny Lee struck out 107 times and didn't hit a home run, the only player ever to strike out 100 times in a season without hitting a home run. Williams never struck out 65 times in a season. DiMaggio never struck out 40 times in a season. Davis, in his second major league season, struck out 43 times in May. He struck out in 21 straight games this year; DiMaggio's longest strikeout streak was four games.

Bill Buckner never struck out three times in one game, but Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard has struck out four times in a game 14 times; the record is 23 by Reggie Jackson, followed by Bo Jackson's 19. Howard is one of the premier power hitters in the game, but he already has more career strikeouts than Williams in nearly four times fewer games.

Forty years ago, there were 11.55 strikeouts per game. Thirty years ago, it dipped to 9.55 strikeouts per game. But in 1989, it rose to 11.23, then to 12.02 in 1999. This year, the rate is 13.63 strikeouts per game. In part this is a function of today's swing-as-hard-as-you-can-in-case-you-hit-it mentality. Hitters today are hacking the same on 0-2 as they are on 3-0 because the game has become so tolerant of strikeouts.

"The old-time players with tell you to choke up with two strikes and put the ball in play,'' said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "But almost everyone in the game today can hit the ball out. The ball is harder, bats are lighter, guys are bigger, ballparks are smaller. The game has changed.''

DiMaggio was one of the great power/contact hitters of all time; he hit 361 home runs and struck out 369 times. In 1941, the year in which he hit in 56 games in a row, he hit 30 homers and struck out 13 times. During his 56-game hitting streak, he faced only 53 pitchers.

"Now you'll see three pitchers in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning -- and most of them are throwing 95 mph,'' Dunn said. "For every crucial at-bat I'll take late in a game, I'll always be facing the toughest lefty on the other team. That's why the strikeout rate is up.''

It's also rising because of today's emphasis on on-base percentage, working deep counts and taking walks. Granted, Ruth and Williams were walk machines, but they are the two greatest hitters of all time, and they were way ahead of their time. Dunn is a perfect example of today's hitter. He is in his ninth season, and he has, by a healthy margin, more strikeouts than Williams and DiMaggio combined. But he also has a career on-base percentage of nearly .400 thanks to all his walks.

In 2004, he walked 108 times, but struck out 195 times. Of those, 72 were called third strikes, which means he struck out more times looking that season than Williams struck out -- looking or swinging -- in any season.

Adam Dunn I've tried to be more aggressive early in the count and eliminate strikeouts, but that didn't go too well, either. I guess you are who you are.

-- Nationals slugger Adam Dunn

"It would be a lot harder to take if I didn't get on base a lot,'' Dunn said. "If I went to the plate and swung at the first three pitches every at-bat, I would not strike out at all, but I wouldn't be helping my team win, either. I've tried to be more aggressive early in the count and eliminate strikeouts, but that didn't go too well, either. I guess you are who you are.''

Magadan agreed. "It doesn't mean that if you run a count deep and still strike out, you've had a good at-bat, but it's better than a three-pitch strikeout,'' he said. "We stress getting a good pitch to hit whether it's the first pitch of an at-bat or the fifth pitch. If you attain that goal, but the at-bat ends in a strikeout, at least you've taxed the pitcher a little, and you've given yourself a chance to walk. Over here, we want you to be aggressive on the first pitch. But for a pitcher to get you out, we want him to make three good pitches, not one.''

The strikeout craze has affected even our best hitters other than, of course, Albert Pujols, who has 26 home runs and 28 strikeouts this season. Only three hitters in baseball history have hit .300 in a season of 160 strikeouts: Howard (.313) in 2006, Bobby Bonds (.302) in 1970 and Sammy Sosa (.308) in 1998. But through Thursday, the Mets' David Wright was leading the National League in hitting with a .356 average, but was on pace to strike out 161 times.

Wright's season is emblematic of the ultimate acceptance of the strikeouts today because he's hitting .400 when he puts the ball in play. But even with the tolerance of strikeouts, Dunn says, "I hate striking out. I've always hated it. You strike out, you get beat. I'll never get used to it.''

Chris Davis is in his first full major league season. He has great power; he has hit 30 homers in his first 147 games. But he has also struck out 190 times in those 147. This year, he is on a pace to strike out 250 times. Like Dunn and others, he'd better get used to it.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.