Strike Three: Mike Napoli and MLB’s Wiffle Ball approach


Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox found a real gem in Mike Napoli. Signed to a contract loaded with incentives, he exceeded expectations in 2013, clubbing 23 homers and collecting 92 RBI. He also struck out 187 times in 578 plate appearances (32.4%), eclipsing Mark Bellhorn’s well-ventilated summer of 2004 (177 K’s in 620 PA, or 28.6%) for the single-season team record. Through long stretches of the regular season and playoffs, Napoli drove fans crazy with rally-killing whiffs.

I often wondered why Mike Scioscia kept Napoli on the pine in Anaheim. The majority of Angels fans would say it was the skipper’s soft spot for former first round pick Jeff Mathis. But maybe it was Nap’s penchant for the K that drove his manager crazy. Scioscia is regarded as an old school tactician. He probably believes in the concept of “productive outs.” But Napoli has also gotten on base at a .357 clip for his career, and that’s OK with the new school. His experience exemplifies a league-wide trend.

According to Jim Caple in Lindy’s 2014 Baseball Preview, hitters (or would-be hitters) went down on strikes a Major League record 36,710 times in 2013. There’s been a new league-wide record every year for the past six. The top 15 individual single-season strikeout totals have all been compiled in the last eight years (your defending champ is Mark Reynolds with 223 in 2009).

For their part, pitchers are throwing an average of five miles per hour harder than they did back in 1989. But batters have ignored more traditional adjustments when facing unfavorable counts, like choking up on the bat or shortening their swing, in favor of digging in and swinging from the heels. This approach has produced a nationwide spike in hitters hanging their heads on the way back to the dugout.

And it’s not just Napoli, Reynolds, Adam Dunn (second all-time with 222 K’s in 2012) or new sensation Chris Carter (212 K’s in his first full season of 2013 — look out, record books). Last season, nine of the top 10 hitters in the Majors posted greater than 89 strikeouts; sabermetric darling Mike Trout leading the way with 136.

Among the top ten hitters 25 years ago, only Will Clark and Lonnie Smith had more than 71, with Clark the lone player to crack the century mark. Carney Lansford, who hit .336, struck out just 25 times!

The all-or-nothing sluggers of my youth, like Rob Deer and Pete Incaviglia, added color to the sport. Deer’s 186 K’s in ’87 and Inky’s 185 whiffs in his rookie year of ’86 once stood as the third and fourth highest single-season totals. Now, they’re 23rd and 26th on the list, respectively.

In Boston, Napoli’s whiffs (with Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s 137 and Stephen Drew’s 124 – interestingly, both are gone at the start of 2014) were more of a nuisance than a hindrance to team success. We’ve been told the strikeout isn’t bad, so why make an effort to avoid it?

The exception to the rule: David Ortiz. Big Papi had 88 K’s in 2013. His strikeouts have actually declined from a career high of 145 in 2010, the last in a string of six healthy seasons in which he topped 100 K’s. Though it often seems like he’s trying to pull everything over the wall, Ortiz also appears to have figured out what kind of hitter he is at this stage in his career and isn’t headed back to the dugout woofing at umpires as frequently. However, he also grounded into 21 double plays last year (10th in the Majors), so if anyone wants to run the numbers on the value of Ortiz striking out less but falling victim to more twin killings, I’m all ears.