Generation K: Baseball’s strikeout trend is growing at record pace

cwright@newsobserver.comMay 15, 2013 

It wasn’t a particularly memorable pitch, but the result certainly was.

Alexi Amarista, one of the smallest everyday players in the major leagues at 5-foot-8, 152 pounds, mashed an 0-2 pitch over the wall in right-center field for a home run Sunday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Amarista’s blast beat the odds.

In the past five seasons, major league hitters faced 74,631 0-2 pitches. They hit just 834 home runs, compared with 35,980 strikeouts. Put another way, those hitters were 43 times more likely to strike out than hit a home run. That’s what made Amarista’s homer for the San Diego Padres so staggering. About the only person who wasn’t amazed was the man who threw the pitch.

"No, I was not surprised," said Roberto Hernandez of the Tampa Bay Rays.

How could you not be?

"Everybody tries to hit home runs,” he said. “All the time."

Everybody’s hacking, at every level. From touted prospect Wil Myers in Triple A Durham, who learned how to hit in this new era, to infielder Alexi Amarista, the “Little Ninja,” in San Diego.

And we wonder why major league baseball is on pace to reset its record for strikeouts for the eighth consecutive season.

‘Nobody cares’ about striking out

Harold Reynolds, a two-time MLB all-star, stopped wondering awhile ago.

This strikeout surge didn’t happen overnight. As an analyst for ESPN and now MLB Network, Reynolds has watched it grow for more than a decade.

Strikeouts have increased annually for seven consecutive seasons. Last year’s march to 36,421, the current record, truly was a team effort – for the first time, all 30 teams whiffed at least 1,000 times.

This season, hitters are on pace to shatter the 37,000 strikeout plateau.

There are many factors. More teams and more overall games mean more strikeouts. There also are more power arms, more starters who can touch 94 mph, more relievers who finish games throwing 98.

Some are more subtle. Without question, the influence of Sabermetrics has played a role, much to Reynolds’ chagrin. The new math – analyzing baseball using the game’s statistics – has produced a new crop of hitters who are conditioned to take pitches, knowing a walk helps the almighty OPS (on-base plus slugging), whereas moving a runner into scoring position doesn’t.

Reynolds said when he played, the goal was always to “knock (the starting pitcher) out and get to the bullpen.” Now, it’s a patient, slow waltz to the 100-pitch mark, which sparks a knee-jerk pitching change, and the easiest way to get there is to work the count.

The flip side to taking all of those strikes, rather than hitting the first or second one, is batters find themselves with two strikes far more often. And more two-strike counts lead to more strikeouts.

It’s a never ending cycle that leads to and from the dugout.

“Nobody cares,” Reynolds said in a phone interview. “Nobody is telling them it is not OK to strike out. This generation has bought into ‘an out’s an out.’ No it’s not. You get no benefit out of a strikeout. It used to be put the ball in play, force the defense to do something.”

Reynolds joked that Dave Kingman, maligned in his day, would be revered in this era.

“When he played, ‘Holy smokes, he strikes out 100 times! He’s got great power, but he strikes out too much.’”

Last season, Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees struck out 99 times by the All-Star break – and started the All-Star Game.

Some blame this acceptance on the Summer of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa criss-crossed the country, swatting towering home runs while rewriting baseball’s century-old record book.

The numbers inspired awe: 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals’ McGwire, 66 for the Chicago Cubs’ Sosa.

Nobody remembers how often the two struck out (Sosa led the NL with 171, 16 more than McGwire).

Nobody seemed to care.

It was the dawning of the swing-hard-and-hope era.

Myers: The poster child

Myers was almost 8 in the summer of ’98. Now 22, he grew up watching this transition and soon will be the newest face of the modern slugger.

In many ways, the Durham Bulls prospect is the perfect poster child: a powerfully built mashing machine with a single-minded approach and strikeout total to match.

“I strike out quite a bit actually,” he said, breaking into a quick laugh. “Strikeouts are just a part of the game. I try not to get too upset because it’s always going to happen. Most teams are looking for strikeout pitchers, so I feel like it’s become a bigger part of the game.”

Myers, who is 6-3, 205 pounds, and has 4 home runs and 47 strikeouts this season, explains his approach while standing at his locker inside Durham Bulls Athletic Park. He won’t occupy that space much longer. Most expect him to be in the middle of the Tampa Bay Rays lineup by July.

The Rays traded an All-Star pitcher to acquire his bat, and he figures he might as well swing it, regardless of the count.

“I’m not a good two-strike hitter at all, actually,” he said. “I could definitely work on it a little bit, but I’m not looking to ‘choke and poke’ up there with two strikes. I’m looking for a ball to drive still. You always hear ‘choke and poke’ with two strikes, but as a middle of the order guy, one of the guys that drives in runs, you’re not really looking to just slap the ball around, just put it in play.

“If I have a runner on base with two strikes, I’m looking to drive the ball, even with two strikes. I’m looking to put the ball in play hard somewhere to drive the run in.”

Changing his approach is a slippery slope, but the reality is, during the past five seasons, major league hitters homered with two strikes just 1.73 percent of the time. They struck out 42 percent of the time. You don’t need baseball statistics expert Bill James’ calculator to figure out that’s a losing proposition.

Told of Myers’ two-strike philosophy, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo wore the expression of a frustrated father.

“We teach the same thing everybody else teaches,” Montoyo said. “We stress it all the way from rookie ball to the big leagues: You have to shorten your swing with two strikes, try to put the ball in play. You would think it makes sense, man, I don’t want to be striking out, there’s no chance for anything. No error, no infield hit or nothing. I wouldn’t say nobody cares (about striking out). Nobody likes striking out, for sure. It’s just the approach: some people are just taking the same hack day in and day out with one strike or two strikes.

“You have to keep preaching it. You have to say it a thousand times, maybe a thousand and one times until they start listening. Just because a guy doesn’t do it, that doesn’t mean you’re just going to say, never mind. You’ve got to keep saying it, keep working on it.”

Tampa Bay Postscript ...

Back in St. Petersburg, the Rays took a 4-2 lead into the ninth inning against the Padres – thanks to James Loney’s two-strike home run, the second two-strike home run of the game.

The Padres got a runner on second against closer Fernando Rodney. A home run would have tied it.

Amarista, riding a hot hand after hitting the lottery earlier in the game, stepped to the plate.

With two strikes, and two outs, Amarista let it ride.

He struck out. The house won.

Wright: 919-829-4643

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