The Big Whiff
In this season of unbelievable hitting and unspeakable pitching, how is it that major leaguers are on pace to make 1994 the biggest strikeout year of all time? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there has never been a season in which there was an average of 12 strikeouts per game, yet the average this year was 12.4 at week's end—and you can't blame Rob Deer, because he's now playing in Japan.
Mariner manager Lou Piniella offered the easy explanation: "You get a lot of money for hitting homers." Indeed, hitters are swinging from their heels instead of trying to put the ball in play because they don't win $4 million arbitration awards by hitting a lot of singles. But that's not the only explanation.
"I just don't think hitters are as disciplined today," says Blue Jay coach Gene Tenace. "They swing at pitches that are way out of the strike zone, especially with men in scoring position."
It used to be embarrassing to reach the century mark in strikeouts. Hall of Fame slugger Frank Robinson, now an assistant general manager with the Orioles, says the worst year of his career was 1965—the only season in his 21 as a major leaguer in which he struck out 100 times. The Reds traded him to the Orioles after that season, claiming he was an "old 30."
In 1960 the Phillies' Pancho Herrera set a National League record by striking out 136 times, but, according to Elias, 33 seasons later that total isn't even among the top 140 strikeout seasons of all time. The '60 season also produced a then-record seven 100-strikeout men. The record now is 43, set in 1987, another huge offensive season. At week's end 62 players were on pace to strike out 100 times this season.
The increase over the years in strikeout rates is clearly defined. There were five strikeouts per game in the 1920s, six in the '31 is, seven in the '40s and eight in the '50s. The average jumped to 11 per game in 1963, when the strike zone was enlarged, but the figure dropped to between nine and 10 after the mound was lowered and the strike zone was returned to its previous dimensions in '69. Strikeouts per game reached 11 to stay in '86, the year Deer, Jose Canseco, Pete Incaviglia, Cory Snyder and Danny Tartabull—among the greatest strikeout men in history—began playing regularly.
Reggie Jackson was the first player to fan 150 or more times in three different seasons (1968, '71 and '82). Since then, Deer, Incaviglia, Cecil Fielder and Andres Galarraga all have had at least three straight 150-strikeout years. Babe Ruth never fanned 100 times in a season.
Thing is, strikeouts are an accepted part of the game today. No one on the Tigers tells Fielder to choke up, shorten his stroke and hit singles to rightfield. He's paid $4.2 million a year to swing as hard as he can. So it was no big deal last Friday when he struck out four times in five at bats against the Rangers. It was the 35th time this year that a batter struck out four times in one game, a feat Deer achieved a record 17 times in his career.
Even good hitters have been striking out a lot. Tim Salmon of the Angels, the 1993 American League Rookie of the Year, was tied with the Yankees' Tartabull and the Tigers' Travis Fryman for the major league lead with 85 whiffs through Sunday. The Rockies' Galarraga, the '93 National League batting champion and a .320 hitter this year, had struck out 78 times at week's end, tying him for first in the NL with the Reds' Reggie Sanders and the Cards' Ray Lankford.