Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez had a very interesting conversation during a Mets game last week about why strikeouts have reached epic proportions in major league baseball. They came up with an explanation I had not heard before.
Cohen pointed out that the last eight months of baseball — the last month of 2011, all of 2012, and the first month of this season — have been the highest strikeout months in the history of the league. They said it has nothing to do with pitchers being better or the absence of steroids making hitters worse. No, it has to do with the new philosophy of hitting.
Many teams, the Mets included, now preach the theory that hitters should take more pitches and wait for that perfect one that the hitter can drive. This leads to more two-strike counts, which in turn leads to more strikeouts.
Hernandez also said the two-strike approach has changed. In the old days batters would choke up and just try to make contact. Nowadays they swing for the fences, and more often than not, they strike out. Hernandez said one scout claims the current two-strike approach is the worst in baseball history.
Cohen also pointed out that the dreaded pitch count plays a role here. With virtually every starter on a 100-pitch leash, batters take pitches in order to get them closer to that number. This forces them out of the game, allowing them to hit against mediocre middle relievers, the soft underbelly of every team.
They didn’t mention another key factor that has been talked about at length — the stigma of striking out is gone. Hitters used to hang their heads in shame on the walk back to the dugout after a strikeout. Now they get pats on the back for trying. Ralph Kiner struck out more than 100 times in his rookie league. He said he was so embarrassed, he vowed never to do it again, and he never did. Willie Mays also struck out 100+ times just once, when he was 40 and just trying to hang on with severely diminished skills. Hank Aaron never struck out 100 times, nor did Babe Ruth; proof that you don’t have to take strikeouts to hit home runs.
Just like everything, this trend will some day go away, replaced with a new, hopefully better hitting philosophy. In the meantime, let’s all enjoy the cool breezes we get from all of those whiffs.