September 2008

Swing and a miss!

When you hear somebody mention 200 strikeouts being achieved, usually you think of a pitcher who is hitting a milestone marker for excellence in a particular season. Some guys even do it as a annual right of passage (i.e. John Smoltz), but I can tell you unequivocally one scenario in which you do not want to be racking up 200 strikeouts in a season…

Mark_Reynolds.jpgOr you could just ask Arizona’s Mark Reynolds, who struck out for the 200th time in the second inning of the Diamondbacks contest against Joel Pineiro of the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday. That sets a new mark for futility that sluggers had somehow managed to avoid in the entire storied history of Major League Baseball. Let that soak in for a minute. Reynolds has done something that no other man in the history of the sport has ever done! When do you think the next time that could possibly happen again could be?

How does this weekend work for you?

Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard, who is known throughout the game for his mammoth home runs and frequent u-turns at home plate, sits on 196 punch-outs this season. So Reynolds may not be alone at the top, if you can call it that, for very long. Howard set the single season record last year, when he fanned an eye-popping 199 times in the regular season and tacked on seven more for good measure in the Division Series. One could make an argument that Howard’s 206 would be the actual mark for a calender year, done in only 147 total games.

Ryan_Howard.jpgReynolds finished Thursday with 201 total strikeouts in his 148 games, so if the slight difference in his rate of futility and Howard’s is any consolation… nevermind. On a more serious note, I find it fascinating that hitters were able to avoid  the mythical 200 K mark in a season for more than 130 years. As the game has evolved and power has been pushed to the forefront of seemingly everyone’s evaluation of a hitter’s “strength” and/or value to his club, this single season record has continued to climb.

The last 50 years has seen the most shuffling at the top of the list for the single season strike-out record holder. In fact, only three men held the slot from 1884 to 1955. The first man to hold the single-season record was Sam Wise, who set the bar at 104 during that 1884 season while playing for the Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves). Gus Williams surpassed Wise in 1914 and went on to hold the record through the 1937 season after striking out 120 times for the St. Louis Browns. One year later, Williams was out of baseball.

Another Brave took the reigns in 1938. Vince DiMaggio, of the then-Boston Bees, would hold the mark of 134 until 1955. From there, eight men would emerge to set a new level swinging and missing over the next 53 years. Bobby Bonds and his 189 whiffs in 1969 set the mark for the longest period of time for any one player (34 years) before the torch was passed to Adam Dunn in 2004. Dunn notched a head-turning 195 punch-outs and held the record for a brief three year trial run. Then there was Howard and you know the rest.

Ruth_Jackson.jpgIt’s pretty clear that Howard is going to continue his shtick of long balls and long swings over the course of his career. In his 569 career games, Howard has accumulated 689 punch-outs. Most dead-ball era historians probably considered Babe Ruth‘s 3-strike exploits to be the pinnacle of decadence that flew in the face of fundamental baseball. Ruth went down on strikes 1,330 times and was the all-time record holder until Mickey Mantle took him off the hook in 1964. Howard is on pace to obliterate that number by the time his seventh full season is in the books. Oh, and Ruth’s career was 22 seasons long, by the way. 

Who knows, Howard could end up taking a swing, and I mean that very literally, at Reggie Jackson and his record of 2,597.

Digest all that, while I try to rid myself of my penchant for parentheses in literary settings.

Till next time,

G-Mc 

The need for speed…

Baseball is in a state of transition. There’s no doubt about it. The days when we would watch massive sluggers hitting tape measure blasts… while batting seventh in some cases, no less… will become much more rare. And in that respect, it restores the value of true sluggers. Bulked up baseball and PED (Performance Enhancing Drug) Era is becoming a thing of the past, and more than anything, I hope that means it will be safe to steal bases again.

Take a moment to look through the seasonal stolen base leaders during what may have been the “fastest” decade in the history of the game – the 1980s. Maybe I am partial because that’s the decade I grew up and consequently fell in love with baseball. Either way, there was a more complete brand of baseball that all started with speedy men at the top of the order that not only stole bases in mass quantities, but knew how to run the bases.

When a team is constantly relying on a 3-run homer to get themselves back in the game, with little or no other means of manufacturing runs, then that is a team that will live and die by that sword. I wouldn’t presume to say that is what is working against the Braves (who’ve hit just 118 homers going into Friday), but if there was ever a time to unleash “small ball” on the big stage, that time would be now.

Josh_Anderson.jpgAtlanta brought up speed merchant Josh Anderson late last month after a fantastic season with the Triple-A Richmond club (.314 with 42 steals in 121 games). This is a kid who sets a goal of 50 steals at the beginning of each season. Want to take a guess who the last Brave to steal 50 was? That would be Otis Nixon, setting the franchise record with 72 in 1991. The Braves have had just one player not named Nixon to steal more than 40 bases in the last 17 years. That coming in Rafael Furcal‘s ROY season of 2000.

It didn’t take Anderson long to start climbing the team leader-board in steals. With five already, he trails only Gregor Blanco‘s team-high 11 and Kelly Johnson‘s 10 for third on the team. How about a little more food for thought: The Braves have stolen 46 bases as a team this season… that would be one less than Anderson’s combined total of 47 entering Friday.

While I am not saying that speed will be a cure-all for the offensive struggles and all around ineptitudes that the Braves suffered through all season long. But a fusion of excitement that could get some pitchers distracted, put a few more men in scoring position and add a little bit of pressure to the opposition wouldn’t be a bad thing. And a team doesn’t have to have Ricky Henderson, Lou Brock or Tim Raines to accomplish this. Think how many times that just a run here or there would have made a difference in the one run ballgames.

The model that sticks out in my mind would be the Cardinals of the 80s. It was a team that took speed and the concept of manufacturing runs and turned it into a high art. It seems like everyone but Jack “The Ripper” Clark was capable of stealing 30 bags on that team. It also seemed like the defense of those St. Louis Clubs was second only to their speed in the all around game. I don’t think I am alone in suggesting that a return to this style could help rejuvinate and instantly change the way peoeple look at playing the game.  If just one team proves successful in this venture, you will see no less than half a dozen copy-cat attempts in the 3 years to follow.

Come to think a little more about that decade, and it was full of guys like Brett Butler, Willie McGee, Willie Wilson, Steve Sax, Ozzie Smith, Dave Collins, Gary Pettis, Juan Samuel and even a young Ryne Sandberg who were stealing 40+ bases. And those are just the guys I am thinking of off the top of my head. Then there was this guy named Vince Coleman  who took stealing to a higher level still.

On the other hand, you had Dale Murphy leading the league with 36 and 37 home runs. These days, the 40 stolen base club is far more exclusive than the 30 home run club. Maybe that will start to turn around. I’d love to see it. How about you?

Till next time,

G-Mc