Strikeouts are good. Yes, of course, they are. Who didn’t know that? Those of us who had the pleasure of watching Steve Carlton as a kid or Curt Schilling as a beat writer were well aware of how incredible it was to watch a strikeout artist.
It was Picasso painting, Shakespeare writing, Hendrix playing guitar, and Steve Martin working with arrows and a deck of cards.
The movement on Lefty’s slider was legendary. Lefthanded hitters bailed on the pitch before it reached the plate. Righthanded hitters swung at air as the pitch dropped like a thrill ride near their right ankle. By the time he was finished, Carlton had 4,136 strikeouts, second only to Nolan Ryan.
Only Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens have passed Carlton since and, outside of the hitters facing them, who didn’t love watching those two throw a baseball?
Schilling played in the same era as the Big Unit and the Rocket and was his own kind of special. An adrenaline junkie, Schilling could crank his fastball up a couple of miles per hour whenever he needed a strikeout to escape trouble. The guy belongs in the Hall of Fame.
And, yes, strikeouts sure are good.
Wait, what do you mean you’re not talking about pitcher strikeouts? It can be good for hitters to strike out, too? Get out of here. I knew the millennials were going to do something like this. I just knew it.
It wouldn’t be so bad if I had a time machine that could take me back to 1975 so I could tell my Little League coaches that there were a lot worse things in a baseball game than a strikeout.
“But Coach,” I could have said, “didn’t you see how I worked the count? Billy needed six pitches to strike me out. I’m sure that is going to help us in the fourth inning when he’s worn down and one of our other hitters goes to the plate with the bases loaded.”
I struck out so much that I could have been somebody. I could have been an all-star.
All right, enough about legends and my Little League career. The real issue here is how strikeouts are perceived in 2018 not only by the Phillies and their growing analytics team, but also by most of baseball.
“The way the game is evolving, strikeouts are becoming more prevalent,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. “Our pitchers are making their best effort to miss bats and reduce the damage of each at-bat. Other teams are doing that. We’re doing that. We’re actually having a great deal of success with that on the mound.”
Klentak’s analytics are spot-on. Major-league hitters struck out 21.3 percent of the time in 2016, and that was a record until 2017, when hitters struck out 21.6 percent of the time. That record is in jeopardy if the April 2018 trend continues through the remainder of the season. Heading into this weekend’s games, major-league hitters were striking out 22.3 percent of the time.
“I think the most important thing about strikeouts is that they are appropriately balanced with walks,” Klentak said. “Strikeouts by themselves are not a terrible thing.”
Are you listening, Mr. Milburn, Mr. Maniscalco, and Mr. James? (Editor’s note: They were the Little League coaches who whiffed on appreciating my talent.)
“If [strikeouts] are balanced with a strong walk rate, I think it’s a perfectly good way to build an offense,” Klentak said. “Our walk rate [is among the] tops in the league. As long as those two numbers are moving together, I think it’s OK.”
The Phillies’ strikeout rate per plate appearance was 26.6 percent through 24 games, the third highest in baseball. But they also had the third-highest walk-per-plate-appearance percentage, at 11.4. The Phillies also lead the majors in pitches seen per plate appearance at 4.22, and manager Gabe Kapler is a broken record when it comes to reciting the value of that statistic. His main argument is that it wears pitchers down, which benefits his hitters later in the game because the starting pitcher is either gone or tiring.
“We’re getting on base via the walk, and we’re also up there in strikeout rate,” Kapler said. “One of the hazards of seeing a lot of pitches and going deep in the count is you are going to strike out some.”
In time, Kapler believes his hitters, many of whom are big-league neophytes, will start to put the ball in play more in deep counts. In turn, that will cause their own batting averages and the team’s runs per game to rise. As it is, the Phillies are averaging 4.9 runs, fifth in the National League. It would also help the Phillies’ cause if they hit for more power. The Phillies’ 20 home runs are ranked 26th in baseball. Given that they are getting more men on base, it would be a great benefit to have more power, too. The analytics generation still loves the three-run homer.
The Phillies believe they are on the right track offensively, even if they are striking out more than ever. Sure, it makes for longer games — the average Phillies game has taken 3 hours, 13 minutes this season, according to baseball-reference.com — and that will not help baseball attract younger fans, even if the millennials are responsible for the strikeout’s becoming a good thing.
“Our job is to win baseball games,” Klentak said. “There are a lot of different ways we can do that. The Royals that went to back-to-back World Series [in 2014 and 2015] … were about speed and defense and putting the ball in play. Some of the more recent success stories have been more walk-heavy, strikeout-heavy, home-run-heavy type approaches.”
I still hate watching a hitter strike out, but I am grateful that it has allowed me to rewrite the history of my Little League career.