The strikeout gets a bad rap, and its aesthetics are the problem. Strikeouts are ugly for a batter. They involve one of two scenarios: a pitcher making him look stupid swinging through a ball, or the batter making himself look stupid by staring at a third strike. Then, adding to the indignity, the home-plate umpire denotes strikeouts with a signature – and sometimes flamboyant – call. When the ump publicly shames you, that's bad.
Or it was, at least. Inside baseball, the strikeout doesn't mean what it used to, not from a hitter's perspective. They aren't celebrated, by any means, but they're no longer stigmatized as the domain of the undisciplined and untalented. Some of the best hitters in baseball are, paradoxically, the ones who swing and miss the most.
Baseball is going to set another record for strikeouts this year. Hitters are on pace to strike out 33,536 times, or about as many as in the entire decade of the 1920s. It would break last season's record by 652 strikeouts, and that raised the previous high by 480, which means strikeouts have grown more than 3 percent in the last two years alone. And executives around the game don't seem to care. Because they know something you might not.
What if we told you that the strikeout isn't really a bad outcome after all.
Would you believe it?
The deposed champion is still sensitive. Adam Dunn(notes) used to never want to talk about strikeouts. Now that he has passed along the title – and the recipient has yielded it, too – Dunn wants people to realize that he doesn't like striking out, per se. It's just part of who he is, like a personality trait whose origin – inborn or acquired? – he can't pinpoint.
"I care," said Dunn, a Washington Nationals outfielder. "But it depends on when you're striking out. If you strike out with two outs and nobody on, who gives a [expletive]?"
A huzzah echoed from across the room.
"Who gives a [expletive] if you strike out, period?" a teammate shouted.
Taken individually, some strikeouts matter. Runner on third, one out. Batter steps up and simply needs to hit a groundball to the middle of the field or a flyball anywhere to score the runner. Strikeouts in those situations, and plenty more like it, reek.
Writ large, strikeouts make or break nothing.
Yahoo! Sports analyzed the past full decade of games and found that in the greatest era of striking out baseball has seen – there were 316,274 from 1999 to 2008 – there is no connection between the number of times a team strikes out in a season and the number of runs it averages per game. The correlation coefficient between strikeouts and runs was .075, which means the relationship is so negligible there is no relationship.
Some high-scoring teams strike out a lot, and some low-scoring teams don't, and vice versa. The most productive team of the past decade, the 1999 Indians, scored 6.23 runs per game even though they struck out 1,099 times, the ninth most in baseball that year – and 92nd most of the 300 teams in the study.
The same rule does not apply to pitchers, for whom strikeouts are often the best-case scenario. The correlation between strikeouts per nine innings and earned-run average from 1999 to 2008 was .459, not as strong as that of walks per nine to ERA (.573) and strikeout-to-walk ratio to ERA (.668) – and not all that strong, period – but significantly more so than with hitters. This does create something of a logical quagmire: Strikeouts are great for pitchers – the likelihood of something troublesome happening is far worse when the ball is put in play – while not altogether problematic for hitters.
As baseball's statistical revolution dawned, the admiration for on-base percentage dovetailed with the acceptance of strikeouts. Patient players who valued the walk took more pitches. Sometimes those pitches were strikes. The strikeout became, in many cases, collateral damage.
The tradeoff is that more runners reach base, creating more opportunities to score. A player such as Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz(notes) developed the reputation as someone who struck out too much, yet his power earned him multiple chances. Now with his fourth franchise, the 28-year-old Cruz has regular plate appearances for the first time in his career and has hit 31 home runs in 405 at-bats. Any team will trade his 105 strikeouts for that.
"Those guys have value, as long as they're productive otherwise," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "It also depends on the context. That is something we're more sensitive to. We have a number of guys who strike out. We're an aggressive club that already strikes out a lot. There's a danger in adding too much of the similar profile."
The Rangers lead the American League with 1,097 strikeouts this year. They're eighth in baseball in runs per game. Arizona's 1,099 strikeouts are the most in the major leagues, and the Diamondbacks rank 19th in scoring average. Though neither will come close to threatening the single-season record of 1,399 set by Milwaukee in 2001 – Florida finished 28 shy last year – the pervasiveness of strikeouts is better seen through the number of teams reaching four digits.
The first 1,000-strikeout team was the 1960 Phillies, who shattered the mark by punching out 1,054 times. They trotted out the youngest lineup in baseball and ended the year 59-95. Their strikeout champion was Pancho Herrera, who led the NL with 136. He struck out 120 times the next season and never again had a major league at-bat.
Strikeouts thrived in the late 1960s, dipped through the '70s and '80s and emerged again alongside steroids. By 2001, only five teams didn't strike out more than 1,000 times. What looked like a mid-decade turnaround ended with six teams below 1,000 last year. This year, it's even more stark: Just two teams – Houston and the New York Mets – are on pace to finish with fewer than 1,000 strikeouts.
"There are certainly worse things," said Dean Taylor, and he would know as the general manager of the 2001 Brewers team that averaged a staggering 8.6 strikeouts per game, nearly two more than the major league average.
The Brewers moved into Miller Park that season, and Taylor and his braintrust agreed that the park's dimensions begged for a home run-heavy lineup, strikeouts be damned. They finished 68-94. In the lineup daily were Richie Sexson(notes) and Jeromy Burnitz(notes), embodiments of free swingers, and Geoff Jenkins(notes) and Devon White, neither of whom understood the meaning of plate discipline, and the king of them all, Jose Hernandez(notes), who ended that season with 185 strikeouts. The next year, Hernandez made the All-Star team – then sat out games to avoid breaking the single-season strikeout mark, finishing with 188.
Somehow, Bobby Bonds' mark of 189 held for 34 years. It's quite miraculous, actually, that as strikeouts grew in popularity, it took decades for a challenger the level of Hernandez to come along. Over three straight years starting in 1961, Jake Wood, Harmon Killebrew and Dave Nicholson bested the previous record. Bonds took over in 1969 with 187, upped the mark by two in 1970 and saw everyone from Rob Deer to Pete Incaviglia to Cecil Fielder to Jim Thome(notes) try and fall short.
Then Dunn came along. He was an incredible specimen: 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, as coordinated as a cadaver, and with a long, looping swing that drove home runs phenomenal distances and missed pitches with stunning frequency. In Dunn's first full season, he struck out 170 times. Two years later, he set the record with 195. Three years after that, Ryan Howard(notes) put up his first of back-to-back 199-strikeout seasons. And last year, Mark Reynolds(notes) finally did the deed and went over 200.
"I was in Cincinnati with Adam Dunn, and even though he is a high-strikeout hitter, he has an extremely high walk rate and hits home runs," said Taylor, now an assistant GM with Kansas City. "There aren't just two sides to the strikeout coin. Sometimes there's a third."
Dunn's is very simple: He produces. If he hits five more home runs this season, he'll be the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and walk 100 times in six consecutive years. Babe Ruth didn't do that. Mickey Mantle didn't do that. No one. So for all of those pitches Dunn stares at with an empty face, he compensates plenty.
"It's production, right?" Dunn said. "Scoring runs, driving in runs, brother. That's what it comes down to."
Well, for the most part. There is, in truth, some merit to putting the bat on the ball. Quite a bit, actually: balls in play drop for hits about 30 percent of the time. So say Dunn cut back on his strikeouts by 10 percent. That's another six hits every season.
"Fair enough," Dunn said. "I have no argument."
career strikeout leaders
Only it's not realistic. There is no incentive for Dunn to change his approach. He succeeds with what he does. He thrives in spite of relief specialization, which uses splits to provide pitchers with advantages – and, they hope, more strikeouts. He contributes even though pitchers are better and throw harder and can find his weaknesses on video. Dunn understands there is a new breed of baseball player, one that grew up watching him take epic whacks at pitches, then take the trudge of shame back to the dugout with minimal consequences.
That player is Reynolds, who struck out for the 189th time Tuesday. If he continues his pace over Arizona's final 22 games, he'll end the year with 220. Which is fine, because his 41 home runs are second in baseball. Another is Chris Davis(notes), the Texas Rangers' first baseman who strikes out an unfathomable 41.3 percent of his at-bats. His strikeout problems got so bad the Rangers sent him to Triple-A this summer for seven weeks. And he's at 129 and counting.
Already 54 players have struck out 100 times this season, Ryan Braun and Michael Cuddyer(notes) the newest members of the century club. The number grows daily, and whether it's power hitters like Braun and Cuddyer or leadoff hitters like the soon-to-hit-100 Brian Roberts(notes) and Chone Figgins(notes), they're all of the same mind: strikeouts are just part of today's game, and those who don't – Albert Pujols(notes) and Joe Mauer(notes) and Carlos Lee(notes) and Dustin Pedroia(notes) – are the real outliers.
Around 100 players are going to crack 100 this year. It would be the first time that happened, though with all the strikeout records on the hitters' side falling, it's no surprise. The career mark is in jeopardy sometime over the next few years, too. Perhaps Jim Thome sticks around long enough to break it. Probably not. He's 290 strikeouts behind Reggie Jackson, whose 2,597 have stood for 22 years.
So the likeliest candidate is 872 away, and while that seems like a lot, it should take Alex Rodriguez(notes) about seven years to break it, provided he stays healthy. And in a way, it's appropriate that A-Rod will own the record, because before he admitted using steroids, the general feeling in baseball was that Rodriguez would go down among the all-time greats, his raw power and hitting aptitude amalgamating into a near-unparalleled hitting savant.
No one said a thing about his strikeouts.