Is the Strikeout Overrated?

There’s an epidemic of strikeouts in baseball today, and there’s no sign of it being erradicated soon. The question is: Does anyone care?

By Eric Gouldsberry, This Great Game—Posted May 1, 2009

TGG Opinion

The strikeout. For sheer embarrassment, there is nothing worse in the game of baseball. Suffering the third strike at the plate has, is and always will be the low point for the batter; the fateful swing that misses, the mocking roar of the umpire declaring the obvious, and that long, long walk back to the dugout, head lowered, ears desperately shuttered to avoid the boos and sarcastic cheers emanating from the stands and the opposing dugout. 

You don’t have to be a major leaguer to understand. The strikeout is a palpable moment of insecurity to even the greenest of little leaguers. It requires no explanation, no translation, no definition. 

Baseball statisticians and writers alike embrace the strikeout. They are quick to praise the pitcher who racks up K’s with double-digit frequency and include the strikeout as part of pitching’s triple crown, to go along with wins and earned run average. 

But for all the shame burdened upon the strikeout victim—and the brief moment of euphoria blessed upon the pitcher who delivers it—is the strikeout really an overrated fact of baseball life that players today care little about? 

Major leaguers seem to have already given their answer, and it’s a resounding no. In 2008, baseball set a record for the most total strikeouts in one season, at nearly 33,000. The average per game also set a new mark, at 13.54—nearly double the number from the 1930s, when offense was equally plentiful. Individually, records were busted in both leagues; Oakland’s Jack Cust struck out 197 times to establish a new American League mark, while in the National League, Arizona’s Mark Reynolds became the first player to strike out over 200 times, at 204. Ryan Howard, the booming slugger for the Philadelphia Phillies, came close, as he did in 2007; both years, he struck out 199 times. 

An out, after all, is an out, no matter how it happens. Beyond the momentary emotional stigma placed upon the batter’s shoulders, the strikeout is no worse than a sharply hit liner snagged by the third baseman or a deep fly ball caught at the fence by a center fielder. An out is an out is an out. Catcher Crash Davis told hot young prospect Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, he with the blistering fastball, in Bull Durham: “Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls—it’s more democratic.” 

In many cases, Davis’ advice could be well heeded. With runners on base, inducing ground balls offers the defending team the chance to get two outs—heck, maybe even three—for the price of one. Strikeouts won’t get you that option. That’s why, when the pitcher comes to bat with less than two outs and the bases loaded, most everyone pulling for him is pretty much thinking the same thing: Don’t ruin the rally by grounding into a double play. Just take the strikes, concede the at-bat and sit down. 

There are good arguments to be offered from both soapboxes. 

For those who advocate the strikeout as something special, there’s this to lean on: The strikeout is a sure thing. Anything hit off the bat doesn’t carry that same certainty. A ground ball may be turned into a double play, but it also might go through the hole or down the line for a single or extra bases. A fly ball could drop in between the outfielders. Even the easy routine grounder or pop fly could be botched or dropped by the fielder—a moment not too far behind the strikeout for sheer embarrassment. 

For those on the flip side stressing finesse over ferocity, there’s the longevity factor to consider. Greg Maddux struck out a lot of batters in his lifetime, but he wasn’t a strikeout pitcher. With astonishing pinpoint control, Maddux made quick waste of his victims without wasting his deliveries, and as a result often went nine innings without throwing 100 pitches. Compare that to the blazing arms of today who exhaust themselves into triple-digit pitch territory before the fifth inning is up, even if they’ve kept the opposition quiet on the scoreboard. Just one look at Nolan Ryan’s career records and you’ll understand the point further; the undisputed all-time strikeout king is also the runaway leader in walks. Pitching coaches, on orders from managers and front office management to protect the mega-salaried arms on the roster, are forced to keep a far sharper eye these days on pitch counts, so anyone laboring for the strikeout is more likely to be pulled before the seventh inning if not sooner—leaving the bullpen to shoulder more of the burden than in years past. 

Money also plays a role for the hitters who are whiffing at unprecedented rates and helps answer the question as to why. Hitters strike out more because they’re trying to power the ball. More power, after all, means more home runs. More home runs mean more glory. More glory means more money. More money means more cash in the bank account of the agent who spurs the player to hit for more power in the first place. (It also means more women by your side, if you’re a believer of Fox’s memorable tenet that chicks dig the long ball. They may be right; do you think Madonna would have ever called on Alex Rodriguez or Jose Canseco had those two averaged seven homers a year?) 

Steroids use to make the power surge come easy, but it’s batter beware in the current-day atmosphere of intensified (if not perfect) drug enforcement that has possibly helped bring home run totals down over the past few years. This same policing might be forcing pitchers, themselves not immune to the temptation of steroids, to lay off, go clean and practice pinpoint placement over brute fastball tactics. 

Yet the strikeouts keep coming, more than ever. In 2008, 86 hitters struck out over 100 times—including five virtual part-timers who managed to reach the century mark in 399 or less at-bats. 

Perhaps hitters just don’t care anymore. A major league slugger, armored with lucrative contractual obligations, almost seems oblivious to the verbal abuse that greets him when he’s swung and missed for the hundredth-something time. After all, he’s likely thinking about that home run that may come in his next time at bat. 

The media is no more critical of those who amass massive amounts of K’s; when MVP talk is traded at season’s end, hardly do we hear of voters dissing candidates because they’ve struck out too often. Ryan Howard whiffed a total of 398 times in 2007-08 but still powered 95 homers with 282 RBIs during that same time; in 2008, the voluminous power numbers trumped the 199 strikeouts in the eyes of the voters, who selected Howard runner-up for the NL MVP. 

The fact that there is no great debate over the abundance of strikeouts today underscores the reality that few care. Perhaps the perceived lack of discipline at the plate is best left to the batting coaches to mend. The rest of us are content to be entertained by the moment. After all, it was said of Babe Ruth that it was just as breathtaking to see him strike out as it was to see him launch a home run. So, from all appearances, the majority says: Let the K’s keep coming.