Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Think strikeouts are bad? You're wrong. And the Rays are proving it.

Baseball is changing, and it's changing in a way that runs counter to everything we've been taught.

"Put the ball in play and good things will happen" is the axiom.

But that's not the Tampa Bay Rays' style. Far from it.

They struck out 874 times in the first half, the most in baseball. If they maintain this pace, they'll be the latest team to break the major-league record.

Yet here we are in the middle of July and the Rays are playoff contenders. Not because of their pitching and defense. But because of their hitting.

They're striking the ball harder than they ever have. They're hitting more home runs. Most important, they're scoring more runs than they did in each of the past six seasons. What is going on?

Maybe strikeouts aren't as bad as we've been led to believe.

• • •

We tend to think of strikeouts as devastating defeats. The batter doesn't force the defense to make a play. He doesn't advance runners. It's a wasted at bat.

What if, though, we started thinking about them in terms of what they truly are — an out just like any other?

A group of sabermetricians proved this very thing in "The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball," an exhaustive takedown of conventional baseball wisdom. The authors found that, in general, there is virtually no difference between a strikeout and an out that occurs via a ball put in play.

It doesn't matter whether the batter hits a fly ball to the warning track.

It doesn't matter whether he hits a line drive to the center fielder.

It doesn't matter whether he hits a dribbler to the second baseman.

An out is an out. Each one hurts a team's chances of scoring a run.

For the Rays, strikeouts aren't evidence of failure; they're the byproduct of a strategy.

That strategy? Swing early, swing often and swing hard.

In today's game, putting the ball in play is not enough. The harder you hit it, the harder it is to defend, especially if it goes over the fence. If that means a few more swings and misses, then so be it.

Gone are the days of coaches telling batters in two-strike situations to "choke up" and sacrifice power for bat control. Why make contact for the sake of it? You're just doing the pitcher a favor.

"There's more guys thinking that two strikes is the same as no strikes," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "They're taking the same approach as they were early in the count because they're trying to do damage."

Think of what batters are up against today. Every decision, every swing is recorded, measured and analyzed. Scouting reports document and color code strengths and weaknesses. Red means "Don't throw the ball here." Blue means "Attack this spot." If the batter does hit the ball, he's going to hit it where the pitcher wants him to — right into the teeth of a defense that has shifted based on his tendencies.

Oh, the irony. Tampa Bay, an organization that was among the first to routinely use defensive shifts, now has to find a way to beat them.

So what's a batter to do? There are two ways to beat the shift. One of them is to draw a walk. The Rays do that in 9.3 percent of their plate appearances, the majors' sixth-highest rate. The other way to beat the shift? Hit the ball over it.

"I'm not going to beat anything out on the ground. I'm slow," first baseman Logan Morrison said. "I'm just trying to hit the ball in the air and in the gaps, and hopefully they go out for me."

They have been going out. He hit 24 home runs before the All-Star break. His previous season high was 23. His hard-hit and fly-ball rates are the highest of his career.

Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr. and Tim Beckham also are enjoying career years.

Yes, they strike out often — about once per game — but their power has increased. As a team, Tampa Bay has the fourth-most home runs in baseball. The underlying reason, of course, is that the Rays are hitting the ball harder.

"No matter what way you do it, if you can create runs, which we're doing — we're creating a lot of runs — then you do it," Souza said. "There's going to be some situations where we should be able to get a runner in from third and we strike out a couple of times, but overall we're getting on base and we're driving them in. That's all that really matters."

RELATED STORY: The wonderful sometimes wacky never dull world of Steven Souza Jr.

• • •

To understand how the Rays became the team that they are today, you have to go back to 2015.

It was a season of upheaval, from the front office to the playing field. New general manager. New manager. And, eventually, a new hitting philosophy.

From 2006 through 2014 — the Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon era — Tampa Bay was one of baseball's more patient offenses. Batters tried to work deep counts and wear down starting pitchers. The team's swing rate was consistently below the major-league average.

That philosophy worked well for a time, but the offense scuffled throughout the first half of the 2015 season. It needed a spark.

What did the Rays do? They started swinging more often, particularly early in at bats. From August on, they were swinging at nearly half of the pitches they saw — and doing damage. They hit home runs at a greater pace than they had all season.

Rays' 2015 offensive output by month

First half46.9%3347332787.4%22.1%0.68289
Second half49.4%2724312896.9%20.9%0.768113
*wRC+ stands for Weighted Runs Created Plus and is park- and league-adjusted. A wRC+ of 100 is considered average. The Rays' 117 wRC+ in August means they created 17 percent more runs than league average. Source: FanGraphs

The lesson is that home runs aren't just entertaining; they're actually important. There's a moderately strong correlation between the number of home runs a team hits and the number of runs it scores.

RELATED STORY: Commissioner Rob Manfred refutes theories on home runs, drug testing

"You don't have to be first in the league in home runs," Longoria said, "but every once in a while you have to run into a three-run home run, and that's going to help you win a game. Very rarely do you see teams score five-plus runs nowadays without a home run, six-plus runs without a home run. It just doesn't happen."

He's right. Thirty years ago, it was easier for teams to get by without hitting home runs. Not so today. Of the teams that have scored at least five runs in a game this season, only 13 percent managed to do so without hitting a home run. Of the teams that have scored at least six runs, one of every nine did so without hitting a home run.

If you're a power-driven team, it's best to take your hacks early. The home run opportunities dry up in the later innings as teams micromanage situations and cycle through hard-throwing relievers. That's why Tampa Bay hitters aren't concerned about driving up pitch counts anymore.

"Nobody's trying to grind down pitching, I promise you that," Longoria said. "Most of the time, the bullpens nowadays are good. There's three, four guys down there that are (throwing) 95-plus with wipeout stuff. You want to be in the lead before you get into the late innings."

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• • •

This all seems like baseball sacrilege, doesn't it?

We've been taught to feel ashamed about striking out, and now we're not supposed to bat an eye? When did we get so soft and start tolerating failure? This is America! Strikeouts are for losers!

Bo Jackson understood this. More than that, though, he felt it.

You'd think that someone who struck out once every three at bats would come to terms with failure, that he'd hang his head in shame and walk back to the dugout without incident.

Not Jackson. His job was to vanquish the pitcher. When he didn't succeed, he got angry.

Who could forget him snapping a bat over his knee after chasing an 0-2 slider?

When we look at strikeouts through the prism of pitcher performance, we admire them. They are acts of dominance. A pitcher is not merely a man who throws a ball. He is a gladiator who imposes his will on the challenger.

Bob Gibson. Steve Carlton. Nolan Ryan. Roger Clemens. Randy Johnson. Pedro Martinez. They didn't just get batters out. They intimidated, fooled and embarrassed them. They owned home plate, and we either loved or hated them for it.

Strikeouts are successes to revel in. It's fun to see Chris Archer pump his fist and pound his glove after a strikeout. It's fun, too, to hear "Another One Bites the Dust" pulse through the stadium PA system. As Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said last season after his 20-strikeout performance against the Tigers, "Strikeouts are sexy."

Walk into any ballpark, and somewhere there's a celebration of the "K," the shorthand for "strikeout" invented by journalist Henry Chadwick. If you don't see a designated "K Corner," chances are you'll spot fans hanging "K" signs on a wall or railing. At Tropicana Field, strikeouts get the center-field scoreboard treatment. Every time a Rays pitcher sets down a batter, a neon blue "K" lights up.

Sure, the numbers say what they say, but we can't help ourselves. We're obsessed with strikeouts. It's not that we can't let go. It's just that we don't want to.

The Rays are hardly alone in taking an all-or-nothing approach to hitting, though they are at the forefront. The Brewers, Athletics and Rangers also are trying to slug their way to victory. These teams' focus on power, however, might be doing more harm than good, Sports Illustrated argued recently.

"The quaint interludes between balls regularly put in play have become yawning gaps of nothingness," the article said. "While the game prospers economically, baseball officials worry about where the sport is headed."

Wow. Yawning gaps of nothingness. When you put it that way, maybe strikeouts really are terrible.

But wait a second. Who is buying tickets to witness the art form that is the fielding of a ground ball? The answer, of course, is no one. There's no math or science here to support that one is better than the other. It's just plain bias.

So where does this bias against batter strikeouts come from? Is it 10 years old? Twenty? Fifty?

It's hard to say exactly, but what we know for sure is that it predates even Babe Ruth, and Babe Ruth is baseball. Most fans can recite Ruth's career home run total more easily than their phone numbers. What has faded over time is the fact he led the majors in strikeouts five times. The Sultan of Swat wasn't immune from strikeout shaming. Even he heard the boos.

"I swing big, with everything I've got," he said. "I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can."

The reason the sport can't shake the shame is rooted in its infancy. In "Smart Baseball," Keith Law writes that in the 19th century there were "times when batters could tell the pitcher where they wanted the ball thrown, or periods where the number of balls required for a walk or strikes required for a strikeout varied from today's 4 and 3. Hitting the ball over the fence for a home run was rare … as most hitters were just trying to put the ball in play."

Let that sink in. Batters. Could tell pitchers. Where to throw the ball.

And yet when a batter swings and misses at a 95 mph fastball today, we treat it as a crisis.

If baseball is in danger, it's not because of strikeouts. We want to see batters hit moonshots. We want to see pitchers to throw fire. We want to see power.

And it just so happens that power helps teams win ballgames. Until that changes, strikeouts are here to stay.

Evan Longoria wants to know: What are you more interested in seeing?

"Eight strikeouts and three home runs or no strikeouts and no home runs?"

As long as the Rays are scoring more runs than the other team, does it matter?

Statistics in this report are from the first half of the season. Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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