Former Red Sox star David Ortiz isn’t a fan of rising strikeouts rates
The home run is arguably the most exciting play in baseball. It’s a potentially game-changing moment that can leave fans holding their collective breaths, the anticipation building as they watch to see if the ball clears the fence in fair territory. Fans dig the long ball but rarely consider the expense of those majestic blasts. As far as former Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz is concerned, the game is trending in a direction that glorifies home run hitters a bit too much.
Ortiz certainly has nothing against hitting home runs. He has 541 of them on his Cooperstown-worthy resume. He’s less fond of hitters piling up strikeouts at an alarming rate. Ortiz told Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe that hitters are striking out frequently because all they try to do is hit home runs.
"“We used to want to develop great hitters,” Ortiz told Abraham. “Now it’s all strikeouts with some home runs and it’s straight-up [expletive] boring. If you could bet in Vegas that the next hitter was going to strike out, you’d take it every time.”"
Ortiz expressed how he would be disappointed with himself for striking out 100+ times in a season, something he did six times during a 20-year career. It would be tough for a hitter to get too down on themselves for doing so these days. In 2019, only 34 qualified major league hitters struck out fewer than 100 times.
It’s no longer uncommon to see a hitter punch out 200+ times in a season. It’s happened 11 times since 2010. Those strikeout prone hitters had two factors in common. Aaron Judge (2017) was the only one of them to sport a respectable batting average at .284 while seven of them failed to hit above .235 for the season. Most of them where also home run hitters, with eight of the 11 bashing 32+ homers in the season where they topped 200 K’s.
In 2010, Ortiz set a career-high with 147 strikeouts. He struck out in 27.9% of his at-bats, up notably from the 20% rate he set for his career. The major league average that year was 21%. By 2019, hitters were striking out in 26% of their at-bats.
Strikeouts are no longer taboo as long as they are accompanied by plenty of home runs. Hitters were once taught to choke up on the bat and shorten their swing with two strikes in order to improve their chances of putting the ball in play. Many hitters in today’s game are content to let the bat fly regardless of the count.
"“We used to be criticized for taking big swings in certain situations,” said Ortiz. “Now that’s all they want every time. It’s hard to watch for me.”"
There are situations where simply putting the ball in play can benefit the team even if it doesn’t fall in for a base hit. It could move a runner along, possibly even driving in a run. There is such a thing as a productive out but there’s nothing to be gained by striking out.
A hitter can look foolish when they swing out of their shoes but the all-out approach allows them to obliterate the ball into orbit if they make contact. Home runs get you paid so strikeouts are a small price to pay in pursuit of those eye-popping totals.
Everything has a tipping point though. With home runs rising rapidly across the sport, there’s no longer a scarcity for that skill set. It’s easy to find cheap power that can deliver 20-25 homers. Plenty of hitters can top 30 home runs but they may struggle to find employment if they don’t bring anything else to the table.
Chris Davis is the ultimate cautionary tale. The Baltimore Orioles gave him a 7-year, $161 million extension after the 2015 season when he led the league with 47 home runs despite the warning sign that he also led the league with 208 strikeouts. Davis has hit .196 with a .670 OPS and has struck out in 41.1% of his at-bats in five seasons since then while clogging Baltimore’s payroll with a cool $23 million per year.
Teams are learning that overpaying flawed hitters who produce impressive power numbers is a dangerous game.
Former All-Star Jay Bruce hit 30+ home runs five times in his career and tallied a respectable 26 in 2019. He also struck out in 26.4% of his at-bats that season. The 33-year-old recently settled for a minor league deal with the Yankees that pays a mere $1.35 million plus incentives if he makes the major league roster.
Maybe home runs don’t pay as well as they used to.
Ortiz has an entire career’s worth of evidence to prove that he was an elite power hitter who was also capable of producing a solid batting average that wasn’t hindered by excessive strikeouts. His words of wisdom could do wonders for certain young Red Sox hitters.
Bobby Dalbec should take note. The rookie burst onto the scene last year with eight home runs in only 23 games. He could also be the poster child for what Ortiz is so disgusted by. Dalbec’s 42.4 K% was the second-highest in the majors among hitters with 90+ plate appearances. His raw power is off the charts but Dalbec is going to struggle to find consistent playing time if he doesn’t drastically reduce his strikeout rate.
Baseball is a game of adjustments. While many young hitters are swinging for the fences aiming to pad their stats, pitchers are learning to expose them to pile up strikeout totals. Hitters will eventually alter their approach in response. The result might lead to fewer home runs but if the trade off is that hitters will stop striking out nearly half the time, the game would be a little less “boring.”