What do you hear broadcasters saying more and more this season?
“He swings and misses, strike three!” “He takes a called third strike.”
If you want contact, 2013 is not for you. The season is taking on a similar pattern. Strikeouts are on the rise, and there are an abundance of theories as to why.
General managers, managers, and coaches were asked, what’s up?
The GM of one prominent American League team said it’s clear that “the strike zone is wider.”
There appears to be no directive from Major League Baseball for umpires to call more strikes. But if you watch games on TV and see the strike zone box, you are seeing pitches out of the zone being called strikes. It may be as simple as what the GM said, but there are other interesting ideas out there. A couple of Red Sox hitters have also said there are a lot of pitches out of the zone being called strikes.
In addition to an increase in strikeouts, there were 40 shutouts in the first 428 games this season (9.3 percent). The highest rate of shutouts came in 2010, when there were 329 in 4,860 games (6.8 percent).
ESPN analyst Curt Schilling said, “There are more power arms than I’ve ever seen before. Ever.”
Padres special assistant Brad Ausmus offers no firm data on the subject, but a theory that “teams seem to be rushing young hitters to the majors in an effort to save payroll.”
Marlins bench coach Rob Leary echoes that sentiment, saying, “There are a lot of hitters in Major League Baseball who are just cutting their teeth and may not be ready.”
A special assistant to a National League GM said bluntly, “It’s steroids. It’s no secret that players took steroids to improve their strength and vision. As players begin to get off the stuff because of the tougher penalties, hitters can’t wait as long to swing. They’re getting fooled on pitches that just a few years ago they’d be able to wait on and at least foul off.”
A longtime AL scout feels there’s too much emphasis on seeing more pitches per at-bat.
“It’s the in vogue stat now — pitches per at-bat — and I think it’s really screwing up hitters,” he said. “Because hitters are taking so many pitches, they’re getting down in the count, 0-2, 1-2, and major league pitchers are able to exploit that. Instead of going up there with a solid, aggressive approach, they take so many pitches they’re getting themselves in pitchers’ counts and striking out more as a result.”
An NL scout said, “I think there’s an overload of data with some of these younger players. It starts at the minor league level, and instead of going up there and just seeing the ball and hitting it, it’s preached to them to make the pitcher pitch. Yeah, he’s pitching, and the hitter is going back to the bench with his tail between his legs.”
Orioles GM Dan Duquette said, “There are a lot of power arms, but hitters are not making the proper adjustments with two strikes.”
Some attribute it to cold weather all over the country, and therefore the pitchers have the early advantage. Another AL scout said, “There are more all-or-nothing-at-all hitters out there. Guys are swinging for the fences so there’s less contact being made.”
A couple of our scouts were blaming the hitting coaches.
“So many ideas out there,” said one. “These coaches change jobs year to year and hitters are just being saturated with new ideas and new ways of doing things that they never just get back to what got them to the big leagues.”
How many times have we heard a hitter say, “Just getting back to the way I used to hit.” Then why did you ever change it to begin with? There are opposing theories of hitting out there, for sure. There always have been. The in-vogue method is to stay back with your hands and back leg and move forward. Some hitting coaches think this is backward, pointing to the fact that some of the great hitters, such as Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, were out front with all of their movements.
“Stay back . . . and watch the ball get past you and put yourself in a bad hitting position,” said one hitting coach who preaches the “out-front” method.
And, of course, the high strikeout totals could be mere coincidence. The Red Sox won a nine-inning game last week in which they struck out 16 times. The Tigers won a 14-inning game in which they struck out 21 times against the Mariners.
Aaron was mortified if he struck out 100 times in a season. There used to be pride. The Astros have data that suggests that when the count is 3-2, it’s better to take the pitch because the percentages are greater for a walk.
An out is an out. Does it really matter if it’s a strikeout?
“Keeping the ball in play creates the possibility of creating runs,” said Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is trying to reduce his strikeout total. “Good things can happen if you’re making contact.”
True, and good things happen if you’re hitting home runs, like Indians slugger Mark Reynolds does. He may break every strikeout record, but he hits a lot of home runs. He’ll take the tradeoff.
Astros vets have a way out
One of the great benefits of playing for the Astros if you’re a veteran is that you get to showcase yourself for a possible trade at the deadline. Carlos Pena, Erik Bedard, and Bud Norris are prominent veterans who could perform well enough to escape a tough situation.
Norris could be the No. 1 guy on contenders’ wish lists (along with the Cubs’ Matt Garza if he shows he’s healthy and productive), according to an AL general manager. Norris, who is only 28, has added a changeup to his repertoire, which makes him even more valuable. The Astros are going to cash in big time on Norris, who is considered a No. 3 starter by most baseball people.
Teams will likely line up if Norris has a good first half. So far, the results have been mixed, but teams know what Norris is and what he isn’t. It’s nearly impossible to deal for a No. 1 starter, so Norris will be in demand.
Bedard is a lefthander who has been around. Unfortunately for him, he has an injury history, which scares teams off. He’s also not gotten off to a good start. He allowed six runs and walked four against Oakland last Monday night. Pitching like that won’t get him out of Houston.
Pena still has the ability to hit home runs, which makes him valuable to a contender even though he’s a swing-and-miss guy. He also plays a very good first base. The Haverhill native could revive his career with a good showing with the Astros. He had two homers last week.
Playing in Houston will eventually be a good thing. GM Jeff Luhnow has a solid track record as someone who helped build the Cardinals. He’s brought the same principles and philosophies — most of which are driven by data — to his new job. But the growing pains will be there, and veteran players hate rebuilding.
While the Astros rebuild, they will have to hire fill-in veterans at certain positions. Eventually, the Astros would like a team full of their best prospects, likely augmented with upgraded veterans.
Apropos of nothing
1. Shane Victorino said the Indians were contenders for his services at the same time as the Red Sox. And while they went one more year, offering four years at $40 million, Victorino wanted to play in Boston and decided to take the Sox’ three-year, $39 million instead. “They were neck and neck,” Victorino said. “They were both in it, and Cleveland made a great offer and showed a great interest, but I loved everything about the Boston situation, the city, the atmosphere, the commitment to winning, and it worked out well for everyone. The Indians got some good players after I decided on Boston. They’re a great organization with great people. Boston just seemed like the best fit.”
2. The attendance at the Red Sox-Indians series in Cleveland was dreadful, drawing fewer than 33,000 for three games. Yes, it’s April, and Cleveland is struggling economically, but you wonder if Cleveland could be one of the teams (along with Tampa Bay) that might have to relocate? Montreal is watching you.
3. If you’ve been a sports reporter for a long time, you’ve seen just about everything. Recently read Jim Street’s account of his experiences covering the A’s, 49ers, Raiders, and Mariners, among other things. A fascinating read through the eyes of an outstanding reporter. The book is called “Life From The Press Box: Recollections of a Sportswriter” and can be purchased at amazon.com.
4. Why are the Yankees hanging in with so many devastating injuries? For one thing, GM Brian Cashman is really good. He acquired hungry, once-productive players such as Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Kevin Youkilis, and Lyle Overbay, and unleashed them. These guys want to prove the critics wrong, and so far they have. It’s not unlike what the Red Sox have done with Mike Napoli, Victorino, and Jonny Gomes.
5. A couple of scouts were at a Buffalo-Syracuse Triple A game when one turned to the other and said, “Could we see the first double cycle in this game?” Buffalo’s Jim Negrych, a Blue Jays prospect, hit for the cycle in the Bisons’ 27-9 win over the Chiefs, the Nationals’ affiliate, with a 19-mile-per-hour wind blowing out. There were seven homers and 43 hits, including 29 for Buffalo, in the game. Negrych went 4 for 7 and leads the International League with a .515 average. One thing to take away from the game: The Jays have good hitting in the minors and the Nationals not-so-good pitching.
Updates on 9
1. Ted Lilly, LHP, Dodgers — The Red Sox never pursued Lilly while he was available because it would have been too difficult to add him to the 25-man roster. The Sox have been looking for that veteran starter they can keep at Triple A in reserve, but haven’t found the right guy. The team feels better about its depth given that Alfredo Aceves has replaced John Lackey for a couple of starts. Lackey is on the mend from a right biceps strain. The Sox also will get Franklin Morales back soon, and he’s been stretched out as a starter. Allen Webster could help later in the season.
2. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees — He has a crack in his ankle, which will keep him out of action until the All-Star break, according to GM Brian Cashman. The stories are already starting that Jeter won’t be Jeter when he returns. Those around him say Jeter will be Jeter. Always has been and always will be.
3. Brad Penny, RHP, free agent — The former Red Sox is still unemployed and looking to get back to the majors. Nobody has yet to bite on Penny, who last pitched for the Giants in 2012, and also had a disappointing few months with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan. Penny is still only 34.
4. Zack Britton, LHP, Orioles — As the Orioles look for pitching help, there’s an increasing feeling among baseball people that Britton, 25, is the arm the Orioles could dangle in a deal. Britton has begun the season well in Norfolk, 1-0 with a 1.98 ERA in three starts. He has allowed three earned runs in 13⅔ innings with seven walks and five strikeouts.
5. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals — He may be a former Gold Glove third baseman, but eventually his throwing issues may force Zimmerman to first. Of course, Adam LaRoche is there at present. Zimmerman made four throwing errors over a five-game span, and Zimmerman said it had nothing to do with his offseason shoulder surgery. It may not be full-fledged “yips,” but how to fix it will be an ongoing issue. “I’m not sure it’s the yips because he can make the throw on the run,” said a team official. “It’s when he sets up that he has the problems. It’s something we don’t want to bring attention to because it makes it worse. Not sure there’s much we can do.”
6. Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett, Dodgers — The three ex-Red Sox are off to good starts. According to a scout who just watched the Dodgers, “Crawford looks like the old Crawford. He’s running well, hitting the ball to all fields. Gonzalez keeps hitting and Beckett was outstanding in his last start against the Padres, mixing speeds and locations and really pitching.”
7. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers — Kemp struck out 18 times in his first 55 at-bats. He is getting pounded inside and can’t seem to get the barrel out in front. “He hasn’t been able to make the proper adjustments. He’s going to get pitched like that, but so far it’s been eating him up,” said an NL scout who watched him last week.
8. David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox — Among players, there was nobody angrier about the Boston Marathon bombings than Ortiz. “It just sickened me that these two guys could ruin so many people’s lives,” he said. “I wish I could have gone out there and found them myself. This was the worst thing I ever heard. Innocent people, little kids, their lives ahead of them, had to be ruined by these people.”
9. Jeremy Hazelbaker, LF, Pawtucket — Scouts feel Hazelbaker has put himself back on the map as a player teams might be interested in trading for. Hazelbaker was hitting .271 with four homers and nine RBIs entering Friday. The difference, according to the scouts, is Hazelbaker has taken a far more aggressive approach at the plate and is swinging at good pitches in good counts. At 6 feet 3 inches, 200 pounds, the lefthanded hitter is showing some power and he’s considered a plus defensive outfielder.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Last season, the Pirates’ Pedro Alvarez started 5 for 41, the only thing that has made this season’s 4 for 45 a little more understandable.” Also, “In the Red Sox’ first 14 games, Jarrod Saltalamacchia was behind the plate for nine games and opposing batters hit .211; David Ross was behind the plate for five games and batters hit .209.” . . . Happy birthday Gary Peters (76) and Chris Donnels (47).Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.