Baseball’s latest record achievement is hardly a hit (updated)

I haven’t seen the final figures but unless something weird happened Monday, April 30  the month will make history for hitting futility in Major League Baseball. For the first time in modern history, baseball players on the Major League level will strike out more times than they recorded a hit during a month. See the final figures in this story published on May 2 by the USA Today — under the clever heading “Whiff of Offense.” This did happen.

And these guys are supposed to be pros, folks.

Yes according to the Wall Street Journal professional hitters on the Major League level whiffed 7,163 times in April but had managed only 6,808 hits for the month going into the final day. To prove that this irritating trend isn’t new, the closest this had ever come to being achieved — or rather unachieved — before occurred a year ago. In April of 2017 hits bested strikeouts by a mere 138. Nearly 35 percent of all plate appearances in April ended in a strikeout, walk or home run. That figure was less than 29 percent as recently as 10 years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported.

That’s a lot of dead time in the infield and outfield while spectators suffer through interminably long at-bats that cash in with nothing in play and a lot of defenders standing around adjusting their jockstraps. I get that chicks dig the long ball but after awhile even a home run can become boring. This is why I choose not to watch slo-pitch softball at my local City Park recreation field.

Wall Street Journal writer Jared Diamond (now there’s an apt name) leads the Tuesday story by making a comparison to the famous “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968 when St. Louis Cardinals righthander Bob Gibson set the modern-day record for lowest earned run average at 1.12 and Detroit Tigers righthander Denny McLain won 31 games. Major League Baseball responded by lowering the pitcher’s mound. As a result, neither of those marks has been approached since.

But even in 1968 when teams combined for a paltry .237 batting average what occurred in April of this year never seemed possible, especially in the era of the designated hitter.

Tom Verducci, the longtime baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, wrote about the rise of strikeouts in June of 2017 and references the video clip earlier in this post where fictional catcher Crash Davis from the movie “Bull Durham” tells rookie pitcher Nuke LaLoosh that “Strikeouts are fascist, throw some ground balls.” Earlier this year Verducci had another great read in Sports Illustrated about how a new style of hitting that focuses on home runs is altering the game. It’s not hard to understand. Home runs are still viewed as the most exciting play in the game. For players homers are the avenue to bigger paychecks, more endorsements and wider fame. But the emphasis on homers also led to the rise of the tainted era in baseball when use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs destroyed baseball’s record-keeping, exposed players to health hazards from drug abuse and created an unlevel playing field divided by players who took drugs and those who did not.

Not so long ago, within the last 20 years or so, a strikeout was seen as the ultimate sign of failure.. Today, as the WSJ story points out, it no longer holds that stigma. Three strikeouts mixed with one long ball is gauged as a decent tradeoff in a night. Hitters are encouraged to work the count, tire the opposing pitcher and draw a walk if necessary. The tired adage of the Little League coach — “a walk’s as good as a hit” come to life.

I’m old school. No question about it. But I doubt I’m the only one who wants to see action in the game. More balls in play translate into higher numbers of highlight-reel defensive plays. And I miss stolen bases, triples and inside-the-park home runs. I don’t tune in to baseball to watch hitters strike out or get a base on balls. Working the count is pretty damned soul-crushing for fans.

A ton of trends combined with longer periods of colder weather this year translated into a dismal hitting April for Major League Baseball. As the weather gets warmer I suspect that hits will once again outnumber strikeouts — but not by a wide margin.

But the overall trend of more home runs and strikeouts balanced against fewer hits doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. And it may be baseball’s biggest problem in the future.

 

 

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