There is no outcome in baseball as reviled as the strikeout. Little Leaguers are taught that they should never strike out — that the strikeout is the worst possible way to make an out (well, outside of a double play).
If nothing else, hit the ball and force the fielders to make a play; don't give the other team an easy out.
That bias against strikeouts is difficult to undo, and it influences how fans view major-leaguers. If a player strikes out frequently, fans grow frustrated with him, regardless of whether he is a star or not. Sluggers get some leeway, but even then plenty of Tampa Bay fans were grumbling by the end of Carlos Peña's subpar 2010 season.
If there is one thing the Rays are good at, it is striking out. The Rays had the third-most strikeouts in the majors last season (1,292) and had five players who struck out more than 100 times: Ben Zobrist, Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Peña and B.J. Upton (and Sean Rodriguez came close).
But despite the prevailing public opinion, these strikeouts weren't all that bad. In fact, they did not hurt the Rays' offense significantly more than any other type of out.
Striking out so often has two negative effects: it prevents a team from advancing runners that are already on base; and it lowers a team's batting average.
Thankfully, the Rays did not need to hit the ball in play to advance runners; they could do it themselves on the basepaths. The Rays led the majors in stolen bases last season by a large margin, and they were one of the best in the league at taking an extra base on a single or double.
And due to their high strikeout total and aggressive baserunning, the Rays were best in the majors at avoiding the double play.
As a result of all their strikeouts, the Rays did have one of the lowest team batting averages (.247) in 2010. However, having a low batting average does not necessarily doom a team to last place. Last season, the four teams with the worst overall batting averages were the Mariners, Pirates, Padres and Rays. Two of those teams were bad, but the Padres and Rays both won 90-plus games.
On the flip side, the four teams with the best batting averages were the Royals, Rangers, Twins and Reds. Three of those teams were good, but one of them was horrendously bad and lost 95 games. Having a good batting average helps, but it is no guarantee of success.
What matters most is a team's ability to get men on base while avoiding outs. If a team makes fewer outs, it gets more runners on base and has more chances to score.
Last season, the top six teams in on-base percentage all made the playoffs: the Yankees, Twins, Red Sox, Braves, Reds and Rangers. The Rays weren't far behind, coming in 10th, while some 95-plus-loss teams (like the Mariners, Pirates and Astros) finished at the bottom of the list.
Many Rays were undervalued by fans last season due to their low batting averages and high strikeout rates. Zobrist (.238) and Upton (.237) had nearly identical batting averages and both struck out more than 100 times, leading to plenty of frustrated fans. But both still reached base at a league-average rate and were valuable offensive pieces.
This upcoming season, Rodriguez will likely strike out in around 30 percent of his plate appearances and get criticized as a result, but he is still a useful hitter who can take a walk, hit for power and run aggressively.
As long as the Rays are reaching base and being aggressive on the basepaths, they could lead the American League in strikeouts and still score the third-most runs in the majors — exactly as they did last year.
So the next time you see Rodriguez or Upton take yet another called strike three, try to contain your frustration. Strikeouts are not great, but they are also not as bad as you may think.
Steve Slowinski is the owner of DRaysBay.com, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays that specializes in analysis and statistics.