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Swing and a Miss

Why is everyone in Major League Baseball striking out so much?

Author Jack Cavanaugh

PHOTO BY RON VESLEY/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES

HE NEVER CALLED ONE OF HIS BATS "WONDERBOY," like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, but Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn may as well have, considering how seldom he broke them at the plate. For a player of modern vintage (his career with the San Diego Padres extended from 1982 through 2001), Gwynn was a rarity in that he could go a whole season with the same bat—this, at a time when many hitters were shattering several in a single game. And the zealous lumber abuse has continued. "Too many guys swing for the fences nowadays," says Gwynn. "And I don’t think it’s so much the size of the bat as it is the mind-set. I myself always tried to put the ball in play. That way you can often help your team even when you make an out, by advancing a runner."

With more players than ever throwing Gwynn-like caution to the wind and trying to go long, the number of strikeouts has hit unprecedented heights. The average number of strikeouts per game in 2011 was the highest ever, at 14.2. Adam Dunn, an outfielder with the Chicago White Sox, whiffed three times in 17 separate games in 2011; he wound up with 177 strikeouts and a .159 batting average … in only 122 games. And Dunn wasn’t even close to the MLB record of 223 strikeouts, set in 2009 by outfielder/third baseman Mark Reynolds, then with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Reynolds’ dubious record was threatened last year by Cincinnati Reds outfielder Drew Stubbs, who finished with 205 whiffs in 158 games. And by midseason this year, Stubbs was making another serious run at Reynolds’ record, having fanned 96 times in 86 games while hitting in the low .200s.

As of August, the average number of strikeouts per game this season was pushing up against a whopping 15. On a single day, July 14, there were more than 20 strikeouts in four separate games. There is, it seems, no relief in sight.

You have to take a look back through baseball history to appreciate how much of a departure this is. In 1941 there were just 7.1 strikeouts per game, and that was the year that Ted Williams hit .406 while striking out only 27 times, and Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games and batted .357 while going down on strikes only 13 times. Even the swaggering, strikeout-prone Babe Ruth never broke the century mark in a single season, and fanned just 1,330 times during his 22-year career. That’s about half as many times as the all-time strikeout leader, Reggie Jackson, who struck out 2,597 times over 21 seasons (but whose 563 homers got him into the Hall of Fame, possibly setting a bad example for today’s hitters).

So why so many strikeouts? Baseball insiders suggest that a number of factors may be at play. Some note that the combination of lighter bats and closer fences (moved to facilitate more homers) has emboldened players to swing harder and try for the long ball more often. Others think that pitchers have simply caught up with, and maybe even surpassed, hitters in the post-steroid era—an assertion backed up by a decline in home runs since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa clouted 65 and 63 allegedly chemically induced dingers, respectively, in 1999.

Hall of Fame infielder Joe Sewell would probably find those numbers by Reynolds, Dunn and company hard to fathom. Back in 1932, the 5-foot-6, 155-pound Sewell, who spent 11 seasons with the Cleveland Indians and three with the Yankees, struck out only three times in 503 at-bats. No big-leaguer with at least 500 plate appearances has ever whiffed less than that in a season. Sewell fanned just four times the following season. That left him with a total of 114 strikeouts in 7,132 at-bats during a 14-year career in which he batted .312. (By contrast, Dunn whiffed more than that by mid-August in 2011, his first season with the White Sox, who had signed him to a four-year $56 million contract.)

"On two of the three times I struck out in 1932, I was called out," Sewell told me during an interview at the Baseball Hall of Fame, before he died in 1990. "And each time, I thought the last strike called was outside the strike zone." Fittingly, Sewell’s plaque at Cooperstown reads: "Most difficult man to strike out in the game’s history." Even though he was hardly a power hitter, Sewell, popular with fans as the little guy who practically never struck out, still managed 49 career home runs, including a high of 11 in 1932, when teammates Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig belted 41 and 34, respectively. Despite his small stature, Sewell used a 40-ounce bat and said he thought some major-leaguers would make better contact with heavier bats. "Some big guys use bats that weigh only 32 ounces," he said. "Most of them use toothpicks to hit with. I don’t understand that."

Meanwhile, multimillion-dollar players show no signs of cutting down on their swings, as batting averages continue to drop and the rate of strikeouts increases. Perhaps if these whiffs evoked a rain of boos and catcalls, as was the case years ago, it would reduce their number. But that’s not likely, says Randy Robles, a senior statistician for the Elias Sports Bureau. "Today there’s no stigma attached to strikeouts, no matter how many times a player does it. And at the rate we’re going, we might soon see an average of 18 strikeouts a game, which would average out to one strikeout per batter each game."

That might very well make a considerable number of baseball fans think twice before shelling out big bucks to watch said games. It’s true that swinging for the fences might yield the occasional burst of excitement in the stands—but when hardly anyone is making contact with the ball, let alone reaching the fences, there’s a problem.

JACK CAVANAUGH, a sportswriter who worked for the New York Times for 20 years, claims to have been more Sewell than Reggie when he played college ball (though he did use a 32-ounce bat).

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