What is with the obsession with power hitters striking out? More specifically: Why does it seem like the masses -- and this includes a sampling of fans and media alike -- freak out about power hitters striking out instead of grounding out or flying out?
It's a common refrain. Earlier this season I tweeted something about David Wright getting off to a hot start and a fan tweeted back something about his strikeouts. I just saw a Reds fan tweet something about Joey Votto striking out too much earlier this season. And there's a parade of those. Adam Dunn, when he was very productive, was reviled by a certain segment in Cincinnati due to his high strikeout totals. And on and on and on. The examples are plentiful.
My belief is a novel one, I know. It is that a strikeout is an out. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less -- a strikeout is an out. I'll now rebutt all the strikeout-obsessers in advance.
1. You gotta put pressure on the defense, Matt! If you're talking about youth-league baseball, I'm on your side. The defenses there have far more holes and routinely commit errors. But when we're talking about professional baseball, let's remember how good these guys are. Entering Thursday, the worst fielding percentage in baseball was .969 (the Giants). So 96.9 percent of the time the most error-prone team had a defensive chance, they made it into an out. League average is over 98 percent.
2. But Snyder, Putting the ball in play gives someone a chance to find a hole! Of course it does. But the suggestion in the face of strikeouts is to "shorten up" and just put it in play. I'm sorry, guy, but I'll take Wright and Votto using their normal swing -- in the hopes it ends up with an extra-base hit -- instead of them shortening up in hopes they punch a grounder through the hole or weakly ground out (with a two percent chance of an error). And even when someone does put the ball in play, the general odds of it becoming a hit are 30 percent (BABIP normalized is .300). Yes, I realize a strikeout has a zero percent chance of being a hit, but in shortening up, a power hitter loses his main value to the team.
3. He's swinging through pitches he doesn't usually miss. Is he also popping up or weakly grounding out on pitches he doesn't usually miss?
On my side, I've got two points:
1. Sometimes striking out is better. Remember, better doesn't equal "good." With runners on base, he can hit into a double play. So just staring at the "K" column on a player's stat page is useless. We need context before passing judgment.
2. Working deeper counts is good. It's much better to work a seven-pitch at-bat that ends in a strikeout than fouling out on the first pitch, right? The strikeout-obsessers see "0-1" vs. "0-1, K" and automatically hate the latter line, yet the player who struck out had a much more productive at-bat, relatively speaking. And if you're gonna go on the "first-pitch out" crusade, just make my example a second-pitch popout.
To reiterate: My argument is not that striking out is good. It's not. Striking out is bad. My argument is that a strikeout is an out, not an extra-awful out. Of course there are times a strikeout is pretty terrible, but there are times a popout or groundout are pretty terrible, too. But the stigma on hitter strikeouts is far greater, even than double plays.
Example: There's a runner on third and no one out. The hitter strikes out. That's awful, right? Well, yeah, but would you feel better if he grounded out to the pitcher or popped out to the shortstop? It's the exact same result. So why the extra venom for a K?
In this same example, obviously a deep fly ball gets the run home, so that's a much better result. But if there were two outs, a strikeout and fly out bring home the same result. Like I said earlier, we need context on these things. There are times a strikeout is the worst possible outcome. There are times it's equal to any other kind of out. There are times it's better than a few alternatives. Context.
Is this obsession still a deep-rooted ego thing from playing baseball in our youth? It's possible. I hated striking out more than anything as a kid. It's such an empty feeling to have all those adults watching and strikeout instead of putting it in play. Once I got into high school and college, though, foul-outs behind home plate drove me far more nuts because sometimes on a strikeout you just get beat by a great pitch.
So let's ease up on the strikeout hatred and instead focus on productive at-bats as a whole. A two-pitch, routine double-play is way worse than a strikeout, even if it doesn't elicit the same public outcry.
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