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Baseball is hurting: Just not right that strikeouts exceed hits

Baseball isn’t the game I’ve loved since Brooklyn won the pennant in 1941. 

There are too many players striking out too many times in the pursuit of too many homers.  The games continue to be too long, with too many dead spots.  And it’s become a game played too much of the time by only three of the 10 men on the field.

The statistics tell the story.  Last season, more than a third of all major league plate appearances ended in one of three outcomes — a home run, a walk or a strikeout. The Washington Post reported this phenomenon in March under a headline that warned us to, “Prepare for baseball’s most boring year yet.”

And with more than a third of all the batters going down on strikes, getting a free pass to first via a walk or triumphantly trotting around the bases after hitting a homer, the first, second and third basemen, the shortstop and the left, right and center fielders are demoted to spectator status.

Having seen this depressing statistic several times as I researched this column, I did some random checking on my own. Here’s what I found in the box scores of nine of the games played on Sunday, Aug. 11:

Players struck out more than 20 times in seven of the nine games — 26 times in a game between Houston and Baltimore and 25 times in games between the Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs. There were 14 home runs in the nine games, 60 walks and 189 strikeouts.

Baseball statisticians figure the major leagues are on a pace to have a record number of homers per game (1.36) along with a record number of strikeouts (8.7) and the stats for those nine Sunday games seemed to surpass the average.

So what’s the reason for all of this? The ball is livelier and many more of the batters are swinging for the fences because that’s where the fame and the fortune reside. Strikeouts exceeded hits last year for the first time in history — 41,207 to 41,019 — and are expected to do it again this season. This is a huge change in how the game is played; as recently as 2006, there were 13,000 more hits than strikeouts.  

The livelier ball, handmade for the Rawlings Co. in Costa Rica, is tighter with lower stitching than the former big league baseball, also made by Rawlings in China and still used by all the minor leagues but the highest, Triple A teams. When the Triple A leagues adopted the major league baseball last year, home runs soared as pitchers’ earned run averages dropped, offering additional evidence of a juicier baseball.

The juice level of the baseball has been a topic of conversation and speculation for nearly as long as baseball has been played for money. 

The first dead ball era lasted into the third decade of the 20th century.  From 1900 through World War I, the home run was a rarity. Napoleon Lajoie and Socks Seybold of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics smashed 14 and 16 homers in 1901 and 1902. 

Philadelphia infielder John Baker’s prolific production of homers — 11, 10 and 12 in 1911, 12 and 13 — earned him the nickname Homerun Baker. The nickname became ironic in 1919 when the ace pitcher of the Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth, hit 29 homers, only four fewer than the mighty Baker hit in his three consecutive seasons. (Ruth also had a 9-5 pitching record that year with an earned run average of 2.97; only one starting pitcher on the 2018 world champion Red Sox had a lower ERA.)

Since Ruth and a long list of almost Ruths dominated the game, the dead ball has disappeared forever but arguments over the relative liveliness of each era’s baseballs have been constant.  

Long ago, when I first became a fan of the late and still lamented Brooklyn Dodgers, there was a National League outfielder named Bill Nicholson, who labored from 1936 to 1953 for the usually futile Chicago Cubs. Nicholson was known for his prodigious swings and frequent misses, earning him the nom de guerre Swish Nicholson.

But by today’s standards, Swish was libeled. His main distinction wasn’t strikeouts; it was for being one of only six batters in all of baseball history intentionally walked with the bases loaded, something a New York Giants manager ordered after Swish connected for four consecutive homers in a Polo Grounds double header. (It worked; the Giants won 12-10.)

During his long career, Swish managed to have more homers than strikeouts. Compare that performance with a very good contemporary hitter, Julio Daniel, better known as JD, Martinez of the Boston Red Sox.

Through 2018, in a career half as long as Swish’s, JD hit 222 homers, but struck out 1031 times while Swish, in his 17 years with the Cubs and Phillies, hit 948 homers but struck out only 828 times.

Makes you wonder.

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.