Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Priorities

Those of us who work at the Hall of Fame are constantly being asked about the impact of steroids on baseball. People want to know how to evaluate the records that were set in the past 15 years, how to estimate the exact effect steroids had on this or that player's statistics, and how to judge the players who played under the influence. Should Rafael Palmeiro be elected to the Hall of Fame? How about Mark McGwire? How the hell should I know? Do we give extra credit to players we're pretty sure didn't use steroids?

How do you find a satisfying historical perspective for something you're living through at the moment? This is a difficult task in life, not to mention baseball, but the magnitude of the steroids mess is such that people want an answer. I don't think there is a satisfying answer. We will never know: A) the identity of every player who did steroids; B) when and for how long they used various substances which were or were not illegal/banned at the time; or C) the precise effect these substances had on performance, one at-bat at a time. We just won't know.

Some people want to obliterate the results of the last 15-20 years, simply because we can't know who cheated and how much it helped them. That is short-sighted and self-defeating, of course, unless these people simply eliminate baseball from their lives. If you're still watching the games, you have to accept the fact that whether it's steroids or sign-stealing or scuffing the baseball, cheating has always been part of baseball's history. If you want to take some number of home runs away from Barry Bonds because you think he wouldn't have hit so many if he hadn't taken steroids, go ahead and pick a number. 20? 50? 100? But while you're at it, you have to figure out how many times steroid-stuffed pitchers got him out because of that extra oomph on their fastballs. How many would that be? 100? 500? 1,000? Take away all the steroids, give Bonds all those at-bats back, and his home run totals would likely be pretty close to where they are now.

That's why it is a fallacy to point to steroids as the cause of the decade-long spurt in home runs that has leveled off the last couple of years. There are many reasons why home runs increased; I could list about a dozen factors that have contributed. But one important factor is usually overlooked in the discussion: batters hit a lot more home runs when they're trying to.

Fifty years ago, there was a stigma attached to batters who struck out too much. The mantra was "with two strikes, cut down on your swing and put the ball in play." That's what they taught us in Little League, and that's what the major leaguers did, even the sluggers. In 1959, Hank Aaron hit 39 home runs and Willie Mays hit 34. Their strikeout totals, respectively (in a total of 1,204 at-bats), were 54 and 58. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run record in 1961 with 61 blasts, he struck out 67 times.

Striking out, after all, does nothing for your team's offense. Put the ball in play and it might find a spot where the fielders ain't, the fielder might kick it, a throw might get away, and runners can advance even on an out. Whatever you do, don't strike out! The mantra guided hitters for decades, but that mantra has largely vanished from today's game. Think about the implications for a moment.

Fifty years ago, batters changed their approach with two strikes. Of course sometimes they hit home runs, but they weren't consciously trying to. If they got a fat pitch they'd drive it, but they were just as happy to slap an outside pitch for an opposite-field single. The idea was to single; a home run was an occasional by-product of a solid swing.

Today it's just the opposite. Even with two strikes, powerful hitters are swinging all-out and trying to clear those fences. Screw shortening the swing. If the manager isn't going to bust his balls about over-swinging, if the fans don't care about anything besides those mammoth blasts, if only the homers are going to show up on the highlight shows, and--most importantly--if his salary negotiation is going to be based on his positive stats, there is absolutely no reason for a batter to shorten his swing. That's what we see now.

Exhibit A for this all-out approach is Mark Reynolds. The other day he surpassed his ridiculous strikeout record set last year, zooming past 204 whiffs with almost two weeks left in the season. If he maintains his pace--and is anyone out there prepared to bet that he won't?--he has a chance to strike out more times in 2009 than the two league-leaders from 1959 combined (Mickey Mantle fanned 126 times to lead the AL, and Wally Post topped the NL with 101).

And nobody cares! Certainly not Reynolds, who after breaking his own record said, "I don't care about the strikeouts. . .I know I do things to help this team win." Indeed, Reynolds is second in the majors with 43 home runs, has 100 RBI and will surpass 100 runs scored, and has stolen 24 bases. He also has about the same number of singles that Maris had in 1961, but the singles are incidental the way two-strike home runs used to be.

The fact is that Reynolds and hitters like him are taking their full cuts even with two strikes. The strikeout stigma is long gone. As long as the production is there, nobody cares. If you can keep hacking away with two strikes, trying for the long ball, you're going to launch more shots than the 1950s guy who choked up on the bat with two strikes and looked for a ball to nudge through the infield for a hit. Do the math. At most, you get two swings before reaching a two-strike count. With two strikes, you can foul off a lot of pitches before putting one in play. So if Player A is taking two full cuts and then choking up, and Player B is adding a few two-strike full cuts to those first two, it is automatic that he's going to hit more home runs. He's trying to! He can't help but hit more.

So we've grown a whole generation of sluggers whose agents know how to shine off the negative stats and trumpet the positives. We have Mark Reynolds, now completing his second full season in the majors, with 541 strikeouts in 1,450 at-bats, or one whiff every 2.7 AB. Yet his power and stolen bases will put him in the top 10 in the MVP balloting. The irony is that it is his futility at the plate which also gives him more chances to hit home runs. Opposing pitchers (and managers) are willing to throw more strikes to him because it's much more likely that he'll miss the ball than get a hit (in fact, nearly 50% more likely). Instead of pitching around him, they go after him. In Mark Reynolds' world, it's "Home Run Derby" all the time.

He's not alone, not by a long shot. Of the top 20 in career strikeouts, half played in this decade and six are still active. Mickey Mantle stands at #20, Willie Mays is #40, and Hank Aaron is #75. Jim Thome is #2 and has struck out four times as often as he hits a home run. He can't run, can't field, and doesn't hit for average, but people will want to put him in the Hall of Fame strictly on the basis of his 564 career homers. Nobody cares that he averaged 170 strikeouts a season over a five-year stretch.

But look at it this way. Reynolds strikes out roughly 1.4 times per game. This year, there might be one player in the whole majors who averages 2 home runs per week. It has become acceptable, even desirable, to sacrifice one or two at-bats every game in order to do something exceptional once or twice a week. I'm not saying that we should go back to the way baseball was played 100 years ago, when bunts, steals, hit-and-runs, and building a run at a time were the vogue. I'm just asking you to keep in mind that this one factor might account for more of the recent home-run madness than any other factor.

Here's a comment about Reynolds from Dodgers manager Joe Torre which puts the current mania in sharp focus. "He's dangerous," said Torre after Reynolds set a new standard for striking out. "You know he strikes out a lot, but don't miss your spot because he can do some damage. If you put up 40 home runs, strikeouts are the price you pay."

Joe Torre hit 252 home runs in his career. He peaked at 36 in 1966; that season he struck out 61 times. So he paid a bargain price for his power compared to Reynolds. Jeez, Joe, just because it is so doesn't mean it has to be so, or that it's okay to strike out four or five times as often as you go deep. Don't tell Albert Pujols that he should be willing to strike out more often if it means more home runs. From 2003-2006, he hit over 40 home runs each season without striking out more than 65 times. In 2006, he fanned only 50 times while blasting 49 home runs, almost adding his name to the short list of players who surpassed 40 home runs in a season but didn't strike out as often. Here's the list:

Name Season HR SO
Mel Ott 1929 42 38
Lou Gehrig 1934 49 31
Lou Gehrig 1936 49 46
Joe DiMaggio 1937 46 37
Johnny Mize 1947 51 42
Johnny Mize 1948 40 37
Ted Kluszewski 1953 40 34
Ted Kluszewski 1954 49 35
Ted Kluszewski 1955 47 40
Barry Bonds 2004 45 41

That's a nice group of hitters. Add up the strikeouts for those 10 seasons and you get 381, which is fewer than Mark Reynolds and Ryan Howard have combined for already this season, or 160 fewer than Reynolds has in less than three seasons in the majors. Is that really an acceptable price to pay--day after day, game after game--for something that might happen a couple of times a week? Just because it is condoned by fans, agents, managers, general managers, et al, it is not necessarily the way things should or have to be.


Sgt. Schultz the Ewok said...

I agree with most of what you have to say here... but there are a few points where I feel you are off-base...

KaKa said...

Thank you for sharing. This is definitely worth a while.
Aussie hook