Column: Approach by hitters resulting in more K's

2013-05-13T11:00:00Z Column: Approach by hitters resulting in more K'sBy BOB KLAPISCH - McClatchy Tribune Writer

Baseball academicians like to say the golden era of pitching is forever nestled in the late '60s and early '70s, memorialized by Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, among others. Maybe so, but try convincing today's hitters, who are having more trouble making contact than at any point in the game's history.

Pitchers are bigger and stronger, radar gun readings have soared and, most tellingly, strikeouts are being compiled at a record-setting rate. The war from 60 feet, 6 inches has tipped so heavily in favor of hurlers it's hard to remember that only a decade ago the major leagues, rampant with steroids, was morphing into glorified softball.

Hitters, however, are now being overpowered like never before. The ratio of strikeouts per nine innings, which had been on the rise since 2006, reached 7.5 last year, an all-time high. The surge is continuing, too at 7.7 for 2013.

So what's driving the revolution? It depends on who you ask, and, more accurately, whether they believe baseball is actually progressing. Not everyone believes it.

SNY broadcaster Keith Hernandez dismisses the idea that pitchers are any more dominant today than during his career. Instead, he faults hitters who are guilty of "the worst two-strike hitting I've ever seen. So many flawed swings - they're the biggest guess-hitters ever."

Indeed, guess-hitting, or trying to think along with a pitcher, is a necessity these days, as hitters go deeper into counts and find themselves at the two-strike precipice. Run production is now rooted in walks and home runs, which is why sluggers are increasingly selective - or, to some, passive.

As Sports Illustrated recently noted, first-pitch swinging has decreased from 33 percent in 1988 to 26 percent in the present day. Everyone is looking for that one mistake during the course of an at-bat, even if it means waiting four to five pitches and even if it means striking out.

Therein lies the most plausible explanation for the epidemic of whiffs. Strikeouts are now considered an acceptable write-off for the possibility of drawing a walk or getting that dream, middle-of-the-plate fastball.

Whereas hitters used to be embarrassed by strikeouts, they dismiss it as merely another out. Orioles manager Buck Showalter said, "When I was a ballplayer - granted I wasn't much of one - but in my day, if I struck out I'd come back to the dugout thinking, 'I failed, I failed.' You just don't see that attitude any more. Guys get paid to hit the ball out of the ballpark, you can only do that by swinging hard."

The irony is that the pursuit of homers and walks has yielded little. There were at least 5,000 home runs hit in each season between 1998-2006, but that total has been reached only once since then. And walks have been trending downward since 2010, as well, dipping under 15,000 in 2012 for the first time since 1992.

In their place? Strikeouts and more strikeouts, although that doesn't necessarily mean less success. Oakland set a single-season record for K's in 2012, yet still captured the Western Division title.

And that's just fine with pitchers who, for the past 100 years, have regarded strikeouts as the equivalent of throwing a 50-year touchdown pass or, in more primal terms, delivering a knockout punch. Nothing sends a more powerful message to the other dugout than a swing-and-miss in a key moment in the game. Now it's happening all the time. In 1978, only 21 batters fanned at least 100 times; last year 111 did.

Whether it's a matter of good pitching or guilt-free swinging is still debatable. Hernandez, for instance, is suspicious of the growing number of pitchers clocked at 96 mph and above. The radar guns, he says, "are inflated." Indeed, speeds flashed on the ballparks' Diamond Vision screens are calibrated out of a pitcher's hand, instead of when the ball actually crosses the plate. The difference can be as much as 5-7 mph.

Hernandez flatly says, "No one today is throwing any harder than Nolan Ryan," although his colleague Ron Darling says it's important to note that relievers, not starters, feature more daunting fastballs.

"In my time, relievers could get away with being sinker-slider specialists like Roger McDowell," Darling said. "Today, they all have to be throwing gas, and it makes it that much harder for the hitters, especially late in the game."

Then there's the matter of information and technology, which is more available and more useful than ever before. Before he steps to the mound, a pitcher already knows every one of his opponent's "hot" and "cold" zones, his ability, or lack of, to handle a certain pitch in any given count and where the batted ball is likely to go.

Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "I do believe data that identifies a hitter's chase area are more successful today. Generally, most of the useable game data supports pitching and defense, way more than it does offense."

There's one more point to consider, as well. Pitchers are flourishing today because they've joined the ranks as the industry's best athletes. Darling said, "Twenty years ago, maybe a guy like Matt Harvey would've ended up being a first baseman." But pitchers are now commanding bigger salaries and generally have a shorter path to the big leagues than position players. Hence, more and more, the studs are the ones standing on the rubber, not in the batter's box.

The result? The strikeout is king again. Somehow, we know Seaver, Gibson and McLain are all smiling.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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