Once upon a time, there was this awesome game called baseball. You know that game where guys, and, for a time, women, threw a ball, hit the ball, ran the bases, and caught the ball? Known as “America’s Pastime” it was an exciting sport, despite many claiming it too slow, which kept people engaged, wondering what would happen next, and tuning in. Well, like the times, it seems the splendid, exhilarating, intoxicating physical activity named baseball has changed. And, as changes tend to go, they’re not always necessarily for the better.
The saying, “Chicks dig the long ball” did and still does have validity to it. When a player hits a ball 440 feet in the air, it’s jaw-dropping. Hitting well, in and of itself, is one of the two most difficult things to do in sports. The other being hitting a golf ball where you’d like. So, to be able to hit a moving baseball, get the necessary trajectory, backspin, and power behind it to send it out of the park takes exceptional skill to say the least. Each “era” has had their share of power/home run bashers. Let’s take a look at a few from the 70’s up until today. MLB’s “acknowledged” all-time home run king Hank Aaron, before being overtaken by Barry Bonds, had a batting average of .327, hit a career best 47 dingers, 118 RBI’s, and only struck out 58 times in 1971. This was no fluke as Aaron had a career average of .305 and never struck out more than 97 times in a season. In 1982, “steady Eddie” Murray batted .316, smashed 32 home runs, knocked in 118 RBI’s, and amassed just 82 strike outs. The switch-hitting Murray chalked up a career average of .287, had a season high strike out total of 104 in his rookie season, and is one of only 27 players to hit over 500 major league home runs. Arguably one of the greatest players ever, Ken Griffey Jr., in his AL MVP winning 1997 season batted .304, had career highs in home runs (56) and RBI’s (147), while striking out 121 times, a career high. Griffey Jr. was a career .284 hitter and is sixth on the all-time home run list with 630. Griffey Jr. was chosen with apologies to “The Big Hurt” Frank Thomas. In 2006 for the St. Louis Cardinals, Albert Pujols hit .331, blasted 49 round trippers, plated 137 RBI’s while only striking out 50 times. Pujols is still going, is one of nine players to go yard more than 600 times, has a career average of .303. Considered by some to be one of the MLB’s best players and power hitters, in his MVP season, Bryce Harper batted .330, slugged 42 home runs, had 99 runs batted in, and struck out 131 times. For his seven year career thus far, Harper is a .280 hitter with 803 strike outs, and no season with less than 94 punch outs. In 2017 for the Florida Marlins, Giancarlo Stanton won the NL MVP hitting .281, ripping 59 dingers, and stockpiling 132 RBI’s with 163 strike outs. While piling up monstrous power numbers thus far in his nine years, Stanton has a career season high of 170 strike outs with no season below 94, and is a career .270 hitter. The trend seems obvious and the numbers, not only with “power” hitters but with hitters in general, seem to back it up. Batters are striking out significantly more and it doesn’t seem to matter. At least not to owners, General Managers, and the analytics. So, as it stands in recent years, it is better and or more efficient to strike out than to put the ball in play and hit a ground ball.
Similar can be verily stated regarding pitching as well. While it has been and always will be beneficial for pitchers to strike batters out, it was not always that which was strived for or even highly encouraged. Take for instance the fantastic trio of the Atlanta Braves consisting of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux. While Smoltz, as a starter and reliever, had the velocity and stuff to strike plenty of guys out, and he did, he, Glavine and Maddux the master focused on movement, location, change of speeds, and pitching to contact. Their philosophy was the strike outs will come and they’d go for them when necessary. Getting useful outs via ground ball double plays, pop ups, etc. was the goal. How’d that work out for them? Glavine had five 20 win seasons, 305 career wins, and a Cy Young award. Smoltz had one 24 win season, 213 wins, 154 saves, and a Cy Young. Maddux had two 20 win seasons, 18 seasons with over fifteen wins, 355 career wins, 4 Cy Young awards including a season with an ERA of 1.56 and a strike out to walk ratio of 5 to 1. Nowadays, while it appears there may be more guys who can throw in the mid and upper 90’s velocity wise and accumulate the punch outs, their walk to strike out ratios are no where near Maddux’s 5 to 1 let alone even 3 to 1 in most cases. Seems there’s more throwing going on than actual pitching. Toss ninety-seven MPH and blow it by ’em looks like the mindset of the guys on the hill in this decade. Hence, the frequency of walks is up due to command of pitches issues. Apologies to guys like the Mets Jacob deGrom and the Giants Madison Bumgarner.
Yes, times have changed. Thanks, analytics. Is baseball still the exciting, intoxicating game it once was with so much going on within all of its big plays and little nuances? Has the gamed slowed down with all of the emphasis on banging home runs, throwers getting strike outs and batters not particularly caring if they do get punched out, and pitchers giving up walks with not much else? Has “America’s Pastime” become passed its time? Let’s hope not. Once upon a time, there was this awesome game called baseball…..
~ Ray Schuyler
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