It’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game. But that’s really not so bad these days. The strikeout, once something hitters did all they could to avoid, now has a degree of respect within baseball.
As the Red Sox prepare for Game 1 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night at Fenway Park, it’s with the knowledge they are going to strike out quite often.
The Sox set a franchise record with 1,308 strikeouts during the regular season and have whiffed 106 times in 10 postseason games.
But the Sox led the majors in scoring this season by wearing down opposing pitchers with long, patient at-bats. Strikeouts, hitting coach Greg Colbrunn explained Monday, are a cost of doing business.
“There’s an awareness of pitch counts and starting pitchers sticking to a pitch count. So when guys go up there and battle for six or seven pitches, a strikeout is a good at-bat,” Colbrunn said. “I know how that sounds, but it’s true.”
The Red Sox and many other teams are willing to accept high strikeout totals if their hitters are disciplined at the plate and, when they do connect with the ball, provide the home run hitting power that is so difficult to find in baseball’s post-steroids era.
Strikeout totals have risen for four consecutive years in the American League, climbing from 19.6 percent of the at-bats in 2010 to 21.9 percent this season. But the number of runs scored and home runs hit have risen, too.
Twenty-one players in baseball this season hit at least 25 home runs while striking out 100 or more times. Seven were selected to the All-Star team. Strikeouts aren’t quite cool, but they are accepted.
“You’d prefer somebody hit for power and not strike out often,” Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen said. “But those guys are the superstars and they’re fairly rare. Sometimes you have to have an appreciation for what a good strikeout can do. You have to look at those long at-bats as contributing to the overall good of the lineup. Power is hard to find and you learn to live with the strikeouts.”
Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli is a good example of the tradeoff teams make. Napoli set a team record with 187 strikeouts this season. But he also contributed 38 doubles, 23 home runs, 92 RBIs, and 73 walks to the offense.
“I wish I didn’t strike out as much as I do. It’s embarrassing,” Napoli said. “But I don’t feel like I’m really helping the team if I get defensive at the plate and cut down on my swing. I have to do what I do.”
Napoli struck out on three pitches only 17 times all season. On 120 occasions, he saw at least five pitches before striking out, and there were 17 times Napoli saw seven or more pitches before going down.
Napoli averaged 4.59 pitches per plate appearance, the best in the majors.
“If you strike out four times but see 25 pitches, that could be a quarter of somebody’s pitch count by one hitter,” Hazen said. “There’s a lot of value there.
“When you talk about the value of outs, a double play is the worst play. You’d rather see a guy work the pitcher and strike out with runners on first and second and one out rather than hit a ground ball.”
The postseason offers an even clearer view of how a hitter such as Napoli can be frustrating and fruitful at the same time. He has struck out 15 times in 33 postseason at-bats. But Napoli’s home run in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series was the difference in a 1-0 victory. Napoli then homered and doubled to help win Game 5 against the Detroit Tigers.
Napoli stayed true to form and struck out three times in Game 6. But nobody in the dugout minded.
“He goes up there and very rarely does he have a short at-bat,” Colbrunn said. “There’s a lot of merit to that. Mike is a threat every time he goes up to the plate. All I ask of him is to be consistent and he does that.”
Colbrunn played in the majors from 1992-2004. He has watched what he calls a “culture shift” when it comes to strikeouts.
“When I first came up you were supposed to put the ball in play with two strikes,” he said. “Certain hitters struck out 100 times, but not too many. Now you look at some of the best hitters in the game and they are guys who strike out a lot.”
The 10 hitters with the most strikeouts in baseball this season averaged 32 home runs and 92 RBIs.
For Napoli, it’s a matter of maintaining his confidence.
“When I strike out I’m not going back to the dugout with my head down,” he said. “I have to be ready to go back up there again later in the game and give a good at-bat. I know what my approach is and I’m going to stick to it. I might miss some pitches. But something good is going to come from it when I get one.”