WASHINGTON – The man who oversees baseball's best pitching staff does not care for the position's most glamorous statistic. In fact the thought of it makes Steve McCatty recoil. He crosses his arms. His head shakes. A sour expression crosses his face.
"Strikeouts are bull[bleep]," he says.
He scoffs. Such a waste, he implies.
It is late in the morning on the last day before the All-Star break and his Washington Nationals pitchers are grabbing their gloves in the clubhouse, heading to the field. He watches as they walk by – Stephen Strasburg with the sizzling fastball, Gio Gonzalez with the swooping curve, Tyler Clippard, who is the current closer – strikeout specialists all should they want to be, and McCatty says the empty swings aren't always worth the effort. He'd rather have a nice, quick ground ball to shortstop.
That seems so much more efficient.
"If you try to strike out every hitter you're going to burn up pitches," says McCatty, the Nationals pitching coach. "Look, just do the math. If you're taking 15-20 pitches to get through every inning that will multiply fast."
He would rather his pitchers let the hitters hit the ball. This is an organizational emphasis of the Nationals. Instead of two strikeouts in an inning, how about just one along with a pop-up to second base? It's just easier, he says.
The irony of all this is the Nationals do strike people out. They get lots of strikeouts. The team with the National League's best record is also fifth in the majors in strikeouts with 693. Strasburg alone has 128, Gonzalez 118.
But they could probably strike out more. A lot more. Which is where McCatty's words seem to have settled in and Washington's pitching has it unexpectedly in first place in the National League East. McCatty, for instance, was one of the strongest voices pushing Strasburg to stop trying to throw 100 mph and work at a lower, more sustainable figure like 96. The effort needed to throw harder wasn't making Strasburg that much better.
Strasburg's fastball is going to overwhelm most hitters. Why make it more intimidating? The goal, in the end, is to get people out, not make the catcher's glove crack extra hard.
Which is what McCatty keeps trying to say.
If the goal is to get outs, why not get them as quickly as you can?
"The odds are in your favor as a pitcher," he says, pointing out that most hitters fail more than 70 percent of the time. "It's like Las Vegas. If the odds weren't in Las Vegas's favor, the buildings would all be two feet tall."
McCatty was never much of a strikeout pitcher. Back when he played for the Oakland A's in the early 1980s, he struck out fewer than five hitters every 9 innings, while twice winning 14 games – the second of which led the American League in a strike-shortened season. He remembers teammate Rick Langford pitching complete games while throwing fewer than than 100 pitches.
"You give up a couple of hits or you give up a home run, I don't care," McCatty says. "If you pitch quickly and throw strikes, you are going to get outs.
"If I'm taking the pressure off by saying to a pitcher, 'Give up a hit or a home run, fine. I don't care.' "
Yes, McCatty understands, strikeouts matter to people. Strikeouts make headlines. Strikeouts impress fans. Strikeouts show dominance. Strikeouts are often seen as the best measure of how well a pitcher can overwhelm hitters.
"It's an arbitration stat, I get that," he says.
He also understands there are times when strikeouts are necessary. For instance, there was a moment last weekend when Gonzalez had a runner on second with less than two outs in the middle of a 1-1 tie. To McCatty that was a perfect time for a strikeout. This way you get an out while not allowing the runner to advance or risk a ground ball getting through the infield for a hit. But, he adds, there aren't that many times you really need a strikeout.
Perhaps McCatty's words matter more this summer because the Nationals need their pitching staff to be as fresh as it can be in the season's final three months. Pitching is what has made Washington the best team in the National League. So good, that when manager Davey Johnson was asked to assess his pitching staff the other day he said: "All I can say is stay healthy."
Yet while the Nats lead the majors in numerous pitching categories including ERA, batting average against, walks-to-hits-to- innings pitched ratio, they are in the bottom third of key offensive statistics including runs scored and on-base percentage. If the Nationals are going to make their first postseason in Washington they will have to rely on their pitching. And that's going to be more challenging as the summer heat wears everybody down and Strasburg creeps ever closer to the 160-inning threshold the organization has set as his limit in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery.
Without Strasburg there is going to be more pressure on everybody else and therefore a need for the staff to conserve pitches.
"Outs are outs," McCatty says, still standing in the Nationals clubhouse. "If you don't need the strikeout, why use all the pitches to get one? I'd rather win 2-1 and have our pitcher strike out two and walk four than lose 2-1 and have our pitcher strike out 13 and walk one."
He looks around the room. His pitchers have all left for the field.
He is left to stand here: a lone voice crying for sanity in a world obsessed with strikeouts.
And he can only hope they are listening.
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