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Published September 12, 2015
There's been some talk lately about the rising rate of strikeouts making baseball boring for fans.
I saw where one in every five batters is striking out, a ratio that has spiked over the last three decades. The last game without a K was 1985.
There are many schools of thought as to why. For me, as a passionate former player, it is a serious concern because it gets to the heart and soul of the game.
I don't like that today's hitters have been allowed to adopt a carefree attitude toward the strikeout. General managers, managers and coaches have been pulled into this mess because it's difficult to find a path to accountability.
Look to Atlanta, where the Upton brothers are among the major league leaders in strikeouts. Both brought in from other teams, signed to guaranteed, rich deals. At least Justin is productive offensively, so the strikeouts are tolerated. Brother B.J. is another story.
Hitters take the easy way out when asked about striking out. "An out is an out," they say. Almost to the man, this is the mantra, and those in charge accept it and are paying a high price for it.
There was a time when every hitter in a big league lineup knew how to play the game. This included a concerted effort to put the ball in play with two strikes, especially when an at-bat demanded contact.
They learned that in the minors, before they got to the big leagues, and could easily be sent back there. Sure, there will always be home run hitters who strike out more often. But back in the day we hated it, at least I did, and tried our best to learn to be better with two strikes.
There are very few, if any, hitters today known for being complete in all facets of hitting. Each has his style, few have the entire package and none are tough to strike out.
With men on first and second and no outs, today's managers just put up with the big swing with two strikes, understanding advancing runners by choking up and putting the ball in play is not in the game plan.
Why not have a plan for two-strike contact in your arsenal? A plan knowing more contact would make you a better hitter, and help the team win. I averaged around 130 Ks per year, one every five at-bats. That's today's average. Remember, I was hitting 35 home runs, driving in 100 runs and scoring 100.
I hated every strikeout. I felt I had been beaten by the guy on the mound, that it was me and not him that caused the K. Sure, every so often you must give the pitcher credit for setting up and making a nasty pitch with two strikes. But even in those at-bats the hitter missed or took a good pitch to hit before two strikes.
Today, hitters refuse to shorten their swing, wait longer and hunt the ball with two strikes. In fact, I can't cite one hitter today, now that Placido Polanco isn't in the majors, who is known for being tough to strike out.
Who am I to give advice about contact hitting, you say? I'm in the top 10 all-time in strikeouts, I averaged over 100 a year. Yes, 1,883 career Ks, but my goal each and every year was to be a better two-strike hitter.
My final two productive years, 1986 and '87, I did just that. I cut them back to 84 and 80, a big reason for my third NL MVP in 1986. I figured out how to correct my one flaw, the propensity to strike out.
Why couldn't I have done it 10 years earlier? That's my beef: Today's hitters should be motivated to make more contact, especially when the pitchers are getting better at punching them out at a ridiculous rate.
In defense of the hitters, if there must be one, today's pitchers are a tough challenge for several reasons. In the 1980s, there were a handful of guys who could reach 95 mph and that was occasionally. The average fastball speed was 87-88 and fastballs in the mid-90s were reserved for one-inning closers.
We had starters like Tom Seaver in the '70s and Nolan Ryan and Doc Gooden in the '80s who stood above all the rest because of speed. Most were two-pitch pitchers — sinker-slider or fastball-curve — with great control.
It's nothing now for a staff to include several guys 6-foot-5 and over who average around 93-95 mph. Add to that the development of the splitter, cutter and changeup, some marginal control, and the knowledge that hitters are aggressive and willing to strike out, and you have a K rate of 20 percent.
Not always easy, either, when hitters are facing three different pitchers in a game, with specialists coming out of the bullpen for specific situations.
Is there an answer?
Hitting coaches don't have the clout to demand a two-strike approach. Hitters are paid very handsomely for .250, 80 RBIs and 130 Ks. They don't realize making contact another 50 times could mean 100 RBIs.
They don't understand how important contact is to winning in close games. Often a simple groundball will advance a runner or score a run. The great 100-RBI men get 20-30 a year with a simple grounder.
The pitch count issue affects this as well. The concept of making the pitcher work, taking pitches and long at-bats has definitely increased the strikeout rate. Hitters are seldom aggressive early in the count, leading to more two-strike hitting.
What I did was learn to hit the fastball, in play, hard, early in the count, more often. I learned that a downward path to the ball would hit it hard and fair more consistently. It also allowed me to wait longer and identify the pitch because I was shorter and more direct to the ball.
Mentally, I gave up wanting to lift the ball at the point of contact. Most hitters today have a built-in desire to lift it. They refuse to allow themselves the experience of success that goes with the descending swing plane. It's a commitment to a process that rewards you as a hitter over time.
Here are some names of hitters who swung down through the ball: Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, Al Oliver, Dick Allen, Dave Winfield and today, Albert Pujols and Carlos Beltran.
Of course there are great hitters that had a slight uppercut, start with Ted Williams. But underachievers with uppercuts are going to remain just that.
I can't understand why many hitters won't make changes. Very few have the built-in motivation.
Try something different! Stand closer to the plate, close your stance, open your stance, use a different bat, control your breathing, lighten your grip, don't take practice swings, spread out, swing softer, copy a great hitter or just swing down through the ball.
I tried all of these and they worked because if they did nothing else, they gave me a sense that I was trying to get better by changing.
There's is a saying I believe: "If you keep doing what you're doing, you're gonna keep getting what you're gettin'."
If what you're "gettin'" is good, keep "doin'" it. If what you're "gettin'" isn't, change.
Through the '90s and into the next decade, offense dominated baseball. The tide has swung totally in the opposite direction.
Will the K rate ever go down? For the sake of the game's future, let's hope so.
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was a three-time NL MVP, hit 548 home runs and was the World Series MVP when the Phillies won their first championship in 1980. He is 10th on the career strikeout list with 1,883 and ranks 18th in walks with 1,507. He occasionally writes for The Associated Press.