Swing and a Miss: Strikeouts in Baseball

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Pitching is so important in baseball that as the position players arrive at their Florida and Arizona stadiums this week for spring training, they’ll find the pitchers and catchers already there, limbered up and ready to go. For pitchers, mental toughness is just as important as talent and physical conditioning, and they need all the preparation they can get.

The most individualistic of team sports, baseball pits batter against pitcher in a match-up in which only one can triumph. From Little League fields to Major League stadiums, the strikeout represents the ultimate victory for a pitcher and the most bitter of defeats for a hitter. A punch-out in a key situation may elicit a fist pump or signal to the heavens by an excited pitcher and, subsequently, a thrown helmet or broken bat by the dejected batter.

Little League hitters who strike out on a regular basis typically find themselves either firmly planted on their team’s bench or searching for the nearest lacrosse field. In the Major Leagues, however, the negative impact of a player’s strikeouts is often equalized, or even overshadowed, by his production in other at-bats.

The average Major League Baseball player will strike out in 1 in 5.71 plate appearances. Strikeouts represent the least productive outcome for a hitter—other than hitting into a double or triple play. If, however, a hitter is able to limit his number of strikeouts, he likely will be able to put more balls into play, which could potentially lead to more hits, more errors by the opposing team, more productive outs such as sacrifice flies, and ultimately more runs being scored.

One of the most prolific hitters of the present day is Albert Pujols, first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2008, Pujols won his second National League Most Valuable Player award while finishing in the top five in the National League in batting average, homeruns, and runs batted in— a rare feat. What is perhaps more impressive is that he managed to strike out in just one in 11.87 plate appearances—nearly half as often as the average player. His exceptional bat control and keen eye at the plate were crucial in allowing him to put together such an impressive season.

The same skills helped Pujols lead his team twice to the World Series—once in 2004, when the Cardinals were swept by the Boston Red Sox, and again in 2006, when his team defeated the Detroit Tigers and were crowned World Champions. During the course of his eight-year career, Pujols hit at least 30 homeruns and drove in at least 100 runs in every season while managing to strike out less than 69 times in every season but one.

While strikeouts are anything but desirable, an abundance of strikeouts does not necessarily preclude a player from compiling impressive statistics or being a key part of his team. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is Ryan Howard, first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. Howard won the National League MVP award in 2006 despite striking out 181 times—the second highest total in the league. He went on to strike out 199 times in 2007, then a Major League Baseball record, while still hitting 47 homeruns and knocking in 136 runs—both second best in the NL. Howard followed up that campaign in 2008 by leading the National League in both home runs and runs batted in, finishing 2nd in MVP voting to Pujols, and helping the Phillies win a World Series Championship.

Howard managed all of these accomplishments despite striking out in one out of every 3.52 plate appearances. While Howard is often criticized for his all-or-nothing approach at the plate, those same big swings that produce gaudy strikeout totals are also responsible for the impressive power numbers that have been vital to his team’s success. As Howard told the Philadelphia Inquirer in March 2008, “You ground out. You fly out. You strike out. An out is an out. You don’t hear anybody say, ‘That guy led the league in groundouts last year.’ ”

The differing approaches, yet similar production, of Pujols and Howard highlight the uncertain impact that a large number of strikeouts have on a player’s success. While a strikeout in a particular at-bat may be a temporary victory for the pitcher, the hitter may still have the last laugh.

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