In certain situations, strikeouts no longer taboo in major leagues
Strikeouts don't bother Pirates catcher Russell Martin as much as they used to.
Early in his career, Martin would fret about whiffing. It felt like a such wasted at-bat. From a young age, every player is taught that it's better to at least put the ball in play — when anything can happen — than to strike out.
Those thoughts went through Martin's mind during a game against the Cincinnati Reds on April 12 at PNC Park. In the second inning, the Pirates led, 5-1, with runners on first and third and one out.
Martin pondered his options. Hack away — gunning for a home run, but risking a strikeout — or shorten his swing and simply make contact? He chose the latter ... and grounded into an inning-ending double play. The Reds eventually tied the game, but the Pirates won it on Andrew McCutchen's seventh-inning homer.
“I told myself if I'm ever in that situation again, I'm going to attack the ball and try to drive it instead of just putting the ball in play,” Martin said. “Think about it. A weak ground ball is a double play. If you get a punchout, there's still a chance for another guy to drive in runs. So, there are times when a strikeout can be better than a weak ground ball.”
It's an opinion that a lot of hitters share. Strikeouts have increased in each of the past five seasons and are on pace to go up again this year, but there's no sense of panic in clubhouses. Last month, there were 5,992 — the most in April in the 138-year history of the majors.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the average of 15.29 strikeouts per game in April is the second highest in a full month. The record of 15.47 was set in September 2012, the seventh straight month in which the mark was broken.
For many major leaguers, strikeout is not a dirty word anymore.
“It used to bug me a lot more than it does now,” Martin said. “There are some players who honestly do not care. They are up there to drive the ball. They won't have a two-strike approach. They're just taking their best swing every time. There are times when I'll do that.”
Over the first four years of Martin's career, he never struck out in more than 14.4 percent of his plate appearances. But his rate has nudged up in each of the past three years. Last season, Martin fanned 19.6 percent of the time — but he also hit a career-high 21 homers.
So far this season, Martin has struck out in 10.2 percent of his trips to the plate. The major league average is 20.1 percent.
The past four years, few teams have struck out as frequently as the Pirates. In 2008, the team had a 16.6 percent strikeout rate. Last year, it was up to 22.4 percent, the second-highest figure in the majors.
“It's one of the things about the game that still electrocutes me,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It's a part of the game we've let get away from us. We've lowered the bar.”
This week, the Atlanta Braves struck out at least 10 times in five consecutive games — a franchise record in the modern (post-1900) era. Yet, all those empty swings hadn't knocked the Braves from their perch atop the NL East. Atlanta won two games in which it racked up 16 strikeouts.
“We're trading strikeouts for production,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We have high-strikeout guys, but they are also capable of hitting a lot of home runs. I don't know if we can punch out 16 times and win a lot of games over a full season, but we're going to have our share of strikeouts. That's the way our lineup is constructed, and we think it's a pretty good lineup.”