Time was, strikeouts were seen as the worst sort of out: true failure, and also selfish – an unproductive out, a time at bat sacrificed without benefit to the team. The bunt, the sacrifice, and the ground ball behind the runner were considered the best sort of outs. The kind that helped score a run, moved a runner along, or provided the opposition a chance to make an error. Strikeouts were, by contrast, useless.
Baseball players used to avoid strikeouts – and talking about strikeouts – as much as they could. This piece, on the history of strikeouts, contains this gem of information:
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.
The 2017 Milwaukee Brewers have struck out 1198 times in 122 games thus far in 2017. They led MLB in 2016 with 1543 K’s.
Hitters hit the way they can, too. That’s why it doesn’t bother Reggie Jackson to hold the career strikeout record for hitters.
”The first four or five years of my career I thought about trying to cut down,” Jackson said. ”Then I said the heck with it. I was accomplishing what I wanted to. There are times that strikeouts are bad and I can’t stand them. The worst time is when you have a man on third and less than two out. Another bad time is when you have a man on second and no one out. The third is when you don’t swing the bat, when you’re called out looking. Other than that, a strikeout is just another out. I’d rather strike out than hit into a double play.”
Down the corridor in the Philadelphia clubhouse, Mike Schmidt, another with a hefty strikeout total, looked as though he had been asked to commit heresy or treason or both when he was asked about strikeouts.
”I don’t want to start up a discussion on strikeouts,” he said. ”I’m just a little bit superstitious. I don’t want to talk about them. That might start me thinking about them and I don’t want to do that. That’s a negative thing and I don’t want to talk about negative things. I’d be happy to talk about doubles and home runs and r.b.i.’s but not strikeouts.”
Later that evening Schmidt struck out twice.
Needless to say that in 2017, attitudes have changed a bit. Likely AL Rookie of the Year winner Aaron Judge has now struck out in 37 consecutive games. This tied the record of consecutive games with a strikeout set by Expos pitcher Bill Stoneman in the 1971 and 1972 seasons. Judge broke the previous single season record of 32 games by a position player on the 15th of this month, established by the King of The Three True Outcomes, Adam Dunn, in 2012. With one more K tomorrow against the Detroit Tigers, Judge will own the record all by himself.
Judge is mired in an awful slump, hitting just .169/.329/.355 since the All-Star break and his home run derby victory. But the K has been a part of Judge’s season in an almost incidental way: Judge is likely to be the RoY because of his prodigious ability to hit homers, and strikeouts are now seen as a necessary byproduct of the power making process.
Judge’s record is not being blasted as selfish or boring; his 33rd consecutive K game accompanied his 37th homer, a 457-foot shot to help the Yankees win 7-5. Judge’s strikeouts are a feature, not a bug: the modern game expects sluggers to pile up the Ks en route to large home run totals and Judge has been one of the best home run hitters in baseball this season.
Still, there’s something noteworthy about striking out that many games in a row. Judge’s rookie season has been record-setting: he now holds the Yankee rookie record for homers, besting Joe Dimaggio who swatted 29 homers in his 39-K rookie season. Judge has whiffed 167 times thus far, and seems a lock to break 200 – to go with his 40+ homers.
If anything, Judge should tip his cap to trailblazers like Reggie Jackson, Adam Dunn, and Mark Reynolds: without their contributions to K Lore, Judge would be judged more harshly for his strikeout profligacy. But thanks to these pioneers, the strikeout has gone from something Mike Schmidt was afraid of – and made fun of for – to a footnote in Judge’s remarkable rookie season.
Featured image courtesy of allWalls