Mark Reynolds' career is off to a great start. Much better than the one I started in 1972. I've never met Mark, someday I hope to have that pleasure. But it seems from all I've heard, his game is similar to what mine once was.
Like Mark, I was a third baseman with a propensity for hitting home runs, as well as striking out. Generally, the two go hand in hand, like peanut butter and jelly. There are exceptions _ Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds in his later years, Frank Robinson and Albert Pujols, to mention a few.
A tough-to-fan power hitter is a rare breed. Reggie Jackson has 563 home runs and leads all-time in Ks with 2,597. The top 20 on the lifetime strikeout list includes Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Mickey Mantle and Schmidt, all 500-homer club members. Note, though, that 200 strikeouts was way out of reach until recently. Now, it's becoming the benchmark for some of today's longball guys.
Reynolds seems to have sort of a cavalier attitude toward setting strikeout records. "So what?" he says. Ryan Howard has to deal with the issue all the time and appears comfortable with his hitting style. Both are cleanup men and both have MVP numbers. Unfortunately, both will be chastised, no matter what they accomplish, if 200 Ks is their norm.
Before we criticize, though, let's look at it from both sides. First, what do they bring to each game?
From an opposing manager's standpoint, they dictate the bullpen matchups in close ballgames because of the home run. Sure, sometimes they go down with little fight, but most times they strike significant enough fear to draw walks, cause deep counts, wild pitches and big-time, game-winning "bombs." They scare pitchers out of the strike zones and often give their teammates a chance. Just ask Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez what hitting behind Howard creates.
Causing havoc in opposing bullpens is highly underrated, and a daily concern to managers. With Howard and Reynolds, or Aaron or Bonds or Pujols, the game is in reach as long as they can get to the dish as a tying run. Herein lies their inherent value. They give you hope when you're behind, and enough times with one swing they change a game. Home run hitters should drive Cadillacs, uh, I meant Bentleys; singles hitters, well, is there such an animal?
Some might contend these sluggers should be motivated and able to make the necessary adjustments to reduce their weaknesses. Seems like a lot of strikeouts, 200. In my day, the leaders were around 150 _ I went for 180 one year. Imagine punching out once every three at-bats. I'm often asked what my hitting philosophy was, and in its simplest form, it was: "Go to bat and try not to strike out."
I hated striking out, all 2,000 times I did it. I guess my problem was I felt the opposing pitcher saw me as a dangerous hitter, not a good hitter. There is a difference. Most of my career I was that hitter ... "dangerous." Make good pitches _ fastballs up, sliders away _ and I'd get myself out, especially in pressure at-bats where contact was a must. I wanted to be a "good" hitter, good in my eyes and the opposing pitcher's, not just a guy who whaled and occasionally hit a bomb.
There have been Super K guys in every generation, and fans love to see them come to the plate. Today, more than ever, the strikeout has more flair. It's not looked at as the degrading out it once was, or as I looked at it. It's a macho thing. Fans are giving a pass to hitters who thrill them enough other times. I like that, I wish it were that way in the 1970s. I made the "K Man Walking" trip a lot, to a chorus of boos many times.
If I could make one suggestion to Mark Reynolds, or anyone else listening, it would be to find a "go to" approach. In golf, the great ones have a swing and ball shape that they go to under pressure. It's a swing they know will keep the ball in play. In baseball, there are at-bats where contact is paramount. At-bats where a strikeout fails to advance runners, kills a rally, leaves a runner on third, stops momentum and brings down the crowd. A contact or "go to" stroke is the answer. At the end of the year, tracking contact in those at-bats would show a high percentage of times the team benefited. That, in itself, should be enough motivation.
Mark Reynolds and any other high K guy could choke up, spread out and just center the ball, and they'd hit 50 home runs and around .300 in today's game.
Eventually they will, like John Daly in golf. When he gets older, loses his length and ego that goes with it, he'll learn to play a simpler, more rewarding game. When hitters understand that a shorter, less violent, level swing increases contact, when they realize that more contact means more production, more consistency, and more wins, they'll change.
It took me 13 years to see the light, make those changes and become "dangerous" and "good". Why should they wait that long? Take it from me and my buddies: Sometimes a single is harder to hit than a home run!