Much noise is being generated by the record setting number of home runs being slugged in the major leagues this season. A more quietly received correlation involves the record setting number of strikeouts occurring as well. I don’t know what the current number of runs scored is but it would be interesting to see if more homers meant more total runs despite more strikeouts. I don’t have access to Bill James‘ garage full of super computers, so could one of you run the metrics on that and get back to me? Thanks. Here is the what makes me lazy about that chore: I don’t really care.
Here is why I don’t care: if the whole game was strikeouts and home runs, I’d be asleep by the third inning. With a lineup full of guys like Hank Sauer or Aaron Judge being pitched to by guys like Hunter Strickland or Craig Kimbrel, I would be reminded of backyard games I played alone or with my brother Jimmy that involved making a strike with my pitch against an imaginary zone on the yellow brick wall. Didn’t we love the three and two count! Or tossing up a rubber ball or a rock and swinging at it as it fell with a cracked bat or a pick ax handle and either driving it across the alley to a neighbor’s yard (mixed approval ratings on that one) or missing for a strike. You couldn’t take a pitch in that game so there were no walks. In those days, no matter what form of ball was being played, peer pressure favored swinging the bat. Today that peer pressure seems to exist just as strongly in major league dugouts. You no doubt have heard the recitations of the theory: launch angle, uppercut, sweet spot, barrel, etc, etc. ad nauseum. Two strike adjustment? Up yours! However, before we go all gaga over the latest genius hitting ideas, perhaps we should consider the thoughts of the last ballplayer to bat .400 for a season.
Ted Williams hit a lot of home runs. He belted 521 in his Hall of Fame career with about five seasons off for military service and he compiled a lifetime batting average of .344. I know, batting average prestige has gone the way of the silver dollar but he also had a lifetime on base percentage of .483 so there. When the Splendid Splinter hit .406 in 1941 he struck out 27 times in 606 plate appearances with 37 home runs and 120 runs batted in. The most he struck out was 64 times in his rookie season of 1939. When he hit .388 in 1957 at the age of 38 he struck out 43 times and walked 119 times. For his career, Williams fanned 709 times compared to 2021 walks. Here is Ted in his book The Science of Hitting writing about the two strike adjustment: “You choke up a little bit. You quit trying to pull…you think about hitting the ball back through the box.” Then, “You can wait longer,you get fooled less, you become more consistent getting good wood on the ball. Psychologically, becoming a good two strike hitter inspires confidence. A batter knows he can still hit with authority. He learns, as I did,that he can cut strikeouts to less than 50 a year.”
Some of the other great hitters in history were able to be prolific with the long ball without gargantuan whiff totals. Henry Aaron launched 755 homers (we don’t know the exit velocity) and batted .305 for his career while being considered a pretty free swinger. Hammerin’ Hank averaged 60 strikeouts a season with a high total of 97 in 1966. Stan Musial hit 475 home runs with a .331 lifetime batting average. When he was 41 years old in 1962, he set a personal high for whiffs with 46. In 1943, at the age of 22, Musial set his low total with 18 strikeouts in 700 plate appearances. His teams won a lot of games. Frank Robinson, whose rookie home run record in the National League was recently surpassed by Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers, hit 586 home runs with a .294 batting average. He struck out 100 times in 1965 and that was the most of his career. Robinson also walked almost as often as he fanned. So it can be done. Even Reggie Jackson seems like a conservative swinger these days. He was the strikeout king with 2597 but his average of 124 per season while smacking 563 homers seems almost paltry compared to today’s numbers.
Those of us who enjoy base running, hitting the gaps, intelligent bunting, great fielding, and pitchers who can work themselves out of trouble are perhaps being relegated to the old school back of the bus while velocity and pitching changes go through a phase of popularity. I think I’ll go out and hit some rocks.