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In 1988, Pete Incaviglia of the Rangers became the first player to strike out 150 times in three straight years. Sixteen days later, Deer became the second, and last season he made it 4 for 4. Reggie Jackson and Juan Samuel are the only other players to have three 150-strikeout seasons in a career.
Should players like Deer and Incaviglia be blamed for their high K rations? Bench doesn't think so. "Ownership has changed," he says. "Old ownership would say, 'Son, you're not getting out of Triple A until you learn to make contact.' Now they look for guys who can run and hit it a long way."
Few managers ask sluggers to choke up with two strikes and make contact. However, if they did ask, they wouldn't have much success. "[Making contact] is not what I'm paid to do," says Incaviglia.
"I like myself this way," says San Diego first baseman Jack Clark, who struck out 145 times last year. "If I just tried to put the ball in play, it wouldn't be as much fun."
What bothers Lynn is the high number of reputed contact hitters who strike out 100 or more times a season. In 1989, four players hit fewer than 10 homers and fanned 100 or more times: Gary Pettis, Rolando Roomes, Junior Felix and Andy Van Slyke. Pettis has accomplished that dubious feat five times, one short of Omar Moreno's major league record.
One reason often given for the increase in strikeouts is improved pitching. Says Bench, "These days, managers don't take the little guy who can't make the starting rotation and send him to the bullpen. Look at the Reds' bullpen. Cincinnati can bring in Norm Charlton; he throws 93 to 94 miles per hour. Then Randy Myers; he throws 95 to 96. Then Rob Dibble, who throws 96 to 97. More than that, though, it's the split-fingered fastball. Athletes today can sit on a fastball and hit it 900 feet. But the split-finger and other pitches keep them off balance."
Kubek scoffs at Bench's rationale. "It's not the pitchers," he says. "When I came up, a lot of pitchers threw spitballs. What's more devastating, the split-finger or a spitter?"
In this age of the strikeout, it's nice to know that some players still take pride in not whiffing. The Yankees' Don Mattingly, for example, hit 23 homers in 1989, with only 30 K's. Tony Gwynn of the Padres struck out just once in 72 plate appearances against the National League's top 10 strikeout artists. "I hate striking out," says Gwynn. "I'd rather hit a 100-hopper back to the pitcher. But I'm a contact hitter. It's O.K. for the big guys to strike out."
Is Kirk Gibson through at 32? Last week a source close to the Dodgers said that Gibson may retire before season's end. The operation he had last August to repair the tendon between his left knee and hamstring is so rarely done on athletes, there's no telling when—or if—he'll be able to return to action. Gibson went through a rigorous rehab program in the off-season, but his condition isn't improving, and he still can't run hard.