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Swings and Misses

February 22, 2014

Hugh Atkins

Hugh Atkins

I picked up my copy of the 2014 Sporting News Baseball last week. This is the annual publication that passes for the old Street & Smith’s Baseball Yearbook these days. One of my favorite features is “Targets: Today’s players set their sights on the all-time leaders.” This section lists the career leaders in the definitive categories like home runs and hits for batters and wins and strikeouts for pitchers.

A quick glance at the leaders this year shows that only Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels is within reach of one of the premier career plateaus going into the 2014 season. Pujols sits at 492 home runs and should become the 28th member of the 500 Home Run Club.

Alex Rodriguez, who is still under contract with the New York Yankees, has 2,939 hits, leaving him 61 shy of 3,000. Since Rodriguez will miss the entire 2014 season due to his suspension for repeatedly using performance-enhancing drugs, he will not reach any career milestones this year.

Tim Hudson of the San Francisco Giants and C.C. Sabathia of the New York Yankees enter the season as the active leaders in wins with 205 each, so no pitcher will get close to 300 wins this year. The pitcher approaching 300 career wins is likely to show up about as often as the cicada. Sabathia is also the career leader in strikeouts with 2,389, meaning that no pitcher is close to reaching 3,000 any time soon.

Focus on strikeouts

This year’s Sporting News Baseball also has an article entitled “Fans Go Wild,” which covers the increasing rate at which batters are striking out. This is an interesting article, but it really doesn’t give any real reason for the increase. Former player Paul Molitor theorizes that there is a prevailing thought that, as long the player is producing runs, the strike outs do not matter.

Whatever the reason for the increase, teams, managers, players and the media seem to attach less stigma to the strikeout now than they did in years past. Some players, no matter how well they performed otherwise, became known for striking out. In my younger days, Bobby Bonds of the San Francisco Giants was the first player I remember being taken to task by the media for his frequent strikeouts.

© T.C.G.

© T.C.G.

Bonds began an impressive major league career in 1968 with the Giants and his first big league hit was a grand slam. He played in 81 games that year, batted .254 with nine home runs and struck out 84 times. In 1969, Bonds played his first full season and hit 32 homers, drove in 90 runs, and stole 45 bases. He also set a new record for strikeouts in a season with 187. The next season, Bonds hit .302 while breaking his own record for strikeouts with 189.

Bonds played 12 more seasons and during the 1970s he raced up the all-time strikeout list but never approached the record-setting heights of 1969 and 1970. He wound up his career after the 1981 season with 332 home runs, 1,024 RBIs, a .268 batting average, and 461 stolen bases. Bonds struck out 1,757 times in his career, which left him in third place all-time when he retired. Adam Dunn of the Cincinnati Reds broke Bonds’ single-season record for strikeouts in 2004 with 195. Mark Reynolds of the Arizona Diamondbacks set the current record in 2009 with 223.

The eventual strikeout champion, Reggie Jackson, got a head start on Bonds by striking out 46 times in his rookie season in 1967. He followed that with 171 whiffs in 1968. Bonds passed Jackson in 1974 and held a lead over him until the 1980 season when Jackson passed him for good. Jackson blew by Willie Stargell in 1982 and wound up his career in 1987 with an incredible 2,597 strikeouts.

Jackson had 2,584 hits–or 13 fewer hits than strikeouts. He batted 9,864 times, so he made 7,280 outs–4,683 of which weren’t strikeouts.  Jackson also blasted 563 home runs, so nobody makes such a big deal out of him being the all-time leader in strikeouts.

Bobby Bonds had an outstanding career that featured both power and speed. Five times he finished the season with over 30 home runs and more than 30 stolen bases. He was an exceptional outfielder with a great throwing arm. Bonds deserves to be remembered for more than his strikeout total–especially since his total no longer seems so exceptional. His total is only good enough for 17th place on the all-time list today.

200 Ks

As mentioned earlier, Mark Reynolds holds the single-season record for strikeouts with 223. Not only is Reynolds one of the four players who struck out more than 200 times in a season between 2008 and 2013, he also is the only player to do it more than once–or more than twice, for that matter.  Reynolds racked up 204 strikeouts in 2008, 223 in 2009 and 211 in 2010. The other members of the exclusive 200-K Club are Drew Stubbs (205 in 2011 with the Reds), Dunn (222 in 2012 with the Chicago White Sox) and Chris Carter (212 with the Houston Astros in 2013). If Babe Ruth is known as the Sultan of Swat, then maybe Reynolds should hold the title of Sultan of Swish.

The Babe, the Hammer and Dan Uggla

Speaking of Babe Ruth, baseball’s greatest slugger retired after the 1935 season as the all-time leader in strikeouts with 1,330; 104 players now have more strikeouts than the Babe. Current home run champion, Henry Aaron, struck out 1,383 times, which places him in 87th place all-time.A Brief Aside 2-19-14

Ruth and Aaron were virtual contact hitters compared to today’s free swingers. Ruth played 22 seasons and went to the plate 10,672 times while amassing his strikeout total; Aaron played 23 seasons and had 13,941 plate appearances. Neither Ruth nor Aaron ever struck out 100 times in a season.

For a little perspective, Dan Uggla is about to start his ninth season in the big leagues. He already has 1,255 strikeouts in 5,211 plate appearances, which places him in 133rd place all-time. Uggla is only 48 strikeouts behind Ruth and just 128 behind Aaron. In each of his three seasons in Atlanta, Uggla has set new franchise records for strikeouts in a season with 156, 168 and 171 respectively. It is also noteworthy that Uggla’s plate appearances have dropped in each of those seasons from 672 in 2011 to 630 in 2012 to 537 in 2013.

Uggla likely will blow by Ruth sometime in May and then, if he hits well enough to remain in the lineup, pass Aaron sometime in August. If Uggla manages to cut his strikeouts down to 150 this season, he still will catapult over 53 over players on the all-time strikeout list.

Even with such a fast start to his career as far as strikeouts are concerned, I don’t think Uggla will ever make it to the top of the all-time list. He doesn’t hit well enough when he’s not striking out for his career to long enough for him to do it.

Maybe the media were too hard on Bobby Bonds for striking out so much. But it would be nice for at least some of the stigma associated with the strikeout to make its return.

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