Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Zen of K

It all started with my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker's rants about Jack Cust. Cust is the A's outfielder/designated hitter who has put up some truly bizarre numbers the last two seasons. This year, he led the American League in both strikeouts and walks. He also hit 33 home runs and drove in 77 runs while batting .231. Read his complete line here.

Steve's complaint is that Cust is boring: more than 51% of his plate appearances end with Cust either trotting to first base or making a U-turn to the dugout, without putting the ball in play.

I won't quibble with Steve's conclusions; they do represent a value judgment (is a fly out more interesting than a strikeout?). But in digging into Cust's stats, I came to realize this: he is not alone.

Cust's 197 strikeouts this year represented a personal high (and got him oh-so-close to becoming the first 30/100/200 man in baseball history), but he didn't lead the majors in strikeouts. Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds managed to whiff 204 times (while batting .239), and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard is considered an MVP frontrunner after striking out 199 times and hitting .251.

And then there's Arizona's Adam Dunn, who outwalked even the oh-so-patient Cust (122) and managed to strike out 164 times, while also pounding 40 homers and driving in 100 runs.

In all, 8 fulltime big-leaguers averaged more than one strikeout per game this season (and a couple of others, Matt Kemp and Jim Thome, came very close). Cust had 16 games where he struck out 3 or more times. That's a lot of Silver Sombreros.

It's pretty clear that the phrase "contact hitter" is becoming an anachronism in baseball. "Grip it and rip it" is the new mantra. Even when you miss.

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