The Strikeout: The Rise and Acceptance of Baseball’s Unproductive Out

Hitters Never Used To Strikeout Like This

Chris Carter does what he does best: strikes out. photo: Houston Chronicle

Chris Carter does what he does best: strikes out. photo: Houston Chronicle

We are not even at the end of June and yesterday I read that the Astros Chris Carter had struck out 102 times so far this season. Carter is batting .198 with 13 home runs. The Astros as a team have struck out 728 times.

Those statistics are appalling and yet no one in baseball circles talks about it. Had they been playing thirty or more years ago players like Chris Carter, Mark Reynolds and the recently retired Adam Dunn most likely would not have been on a major league roster. Hitting thirty or more home runs, and batting .220 or under and striking out around one third of your plate appearances would have insured that you would not be around the big leagues very long.

But those days are over. Apparently there is no shame in striking out consistently if you can hit a few homers. Many teams apparently covet these one dimensional players and give them big contracts if they can hit some dingers.

The 1935 starting infield of the Detroit Tigers from left to right Charlie Gehringer, Billy Rogell, Hank Greenberg and Marv Owen. They combined for 173 strikeouts.

1935 starting infield of the Detroit Tigers (l to r) Charlie Gehringer, Billy Rogell, Hank Greenberg & Marv Owen. They combined for 173 of the team’s 453 strikeouts.

Contrast today’s strikeout numbers with baseball’s glory days and the statistics are startling. For instance, the 1935 Detroit Tigers hitters had 453 strikeouts in total.

Almost every starting player on the team had more walks than strikeouts.

Even the Tigers pitchers only struck out a combined 84 times in 549 plate appearances.

Tigers 1935 stats via baseball-reference.com Hank Greenberg led the team with 91 strikeouts, while hitting 36 home runs and driving in an astounding 168 runs. Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane batted .319 and struck out a total of only 15 times.

Because the Tigers were the 1935 World Series champions, you may think strikeout statistics like this are an aberration, but they are not. The American League team that struck out the most were the Philadelphia Athletics (603). In the National League the Philadelphia Phillies had the most whiffs (661). The teams with the least strikeouts were the Chicago White Sox (405) and the Boston Braves (436).

When the sluggers of yesteryear made an out they tried to put the ball in play, advancing runners and thinking about their team and winning the game. If a power hitter made an out, they wanted it to be a productive out. Striking out was truly looked down upon by players, management and fans.

Today players care about padding their own power numbers for a fatter contract. To put yesterday’s home run sluggers in perspective with the free swingers playing today, look at the great players strikeout numbers.

The most Babe Ruth ever struck out in a season was 93 times. Hank Aaron, 97 times. Willie Mays, 123 times. Frank Robinson, 100 times. Ted Williams, 64 times. The most times the superb Joe DiMaggio missed a third strike was a miniscule 39 times and that was in his rookie season. Even Mickey Mantle, famous for his propensity to hit home runs as well as strikeout pales in comparison with the modern player’s strikeout numbers. True, Mantle led the league five times in strikeouts. But the most Mantle ever struck out in a season was 126 times. Mantle also had more walks than strikeouts in his career with a .421 on base percentage,17th overall in MLB history.

As you move through the decades strikeouts increase steadily but not to the insane proportions we have today. Even up until the 1980’s players striking out frequently were still a rarity. In the intervening fifty years from 1935 -1985, team strikeouts had not even doubled. Major league teams averaged 500 strikeouts in 1935 and 864 in 1985.

Individual season strikeout leaders like Steve Balboni whiffed 166 times in 1985. That is a big number. But over his eleven year career Balboni only struck out 856 times in 3,440 plate appearances in 940 games .

Compare that with Mark Reynolds who has struck out 200 or more times in a season three times. As of June 28, 2015 Reynolds has 1462 strikeouts in 4590 plate appearances in his career. This means nearly one third of all of Reynolds plate appearances have resulted in completely unproductive strikeouts. And Reynolds is not alone, with players like Chris Carter, Ryan Howard, B.J. Upton, Jay Bruce and Chris Davis chalking up more strikeouts than games played.

You may say this is the era of pitching specialization with lefty specialists, set-up men and closers and that pitchers simply dominate the game today. The strikeout has just become another out for a batter and it is no big deal.

But it is a big deal. These players who occasionally hit home runs and do little else but strike out, are as exciting as shooting fish in a barrel. Will baseball teams continually put up with these whiffers for a few home runs? Unfortunately they will, as GM’s and fans don’t seem to mind the breeze created by the strikeout kings. TheĀ  players (and seemingly the management) don’t seem to be frustrated. Its only the few old time baseball fans who suffer watching the abysmal at bats loaded with all those K’s. We remember what baseball used to be.

Give me an Albert Pujols, a power hitter from the old mold, over a Mark Reynolds or Chris Carter any day of the week.

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4 thoughts on “The Strikeout: The Rise and Acceptance of Baseball’s Unproductive Out

  1. John

    There are some other stats that might be interesting to see over the same timeframe:
    Number of base hits (are home runs up, but singles doubles and triples down? I’m going to presume inside the park home runs are too insignificant to count.)
    How often were the old time guys at the plate with a man on vs. today? (If any contact might get a chance for a score, a player might be more likely to swing.)
    How has scoring changed over a generation? I’m dubious that more scores = higher TV ratings, but most pro sports seem to be encouraging scoring, and not limiting it.

    Reply
    1. Uncle Bob

      Consider how the dynamics of pitching staffs have changed, numbers of players in the league, average velocity etc…
      Comparing eras is an exercise in futility.

      Reply
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