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MLB Analysis: Maybe Some Guys Should Stop Swinging for the Fences

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I’m going to start off with a euphemism and call the last 20 or so years in MLB the “era of the long ball.” Nothing to investigate, no need to wring our hands over any of the records that were set, no need to defend anyone in court for anything they may have done during an era with an innocuous name like that. We saw a lot of home runs and that was just fine as far as most fans were concerned. No need to question why. It was just an “era” and it seems to be coming to an end. At least that’s what the numbers suggest.

From 1998, when MLB expanded to 30 teams, through 2006, there were at least 5,000 home runs hit per year in the league topping out at 5,693 in 2000. Since 2006 we’ve seen the 5,000 home run mark topped only once, and last year’s number of 4,552 is the lowest since before Ken Caminiti, one of the early figures in the era of the long ball, was the National League’s MVP. If the trend continues, the era of the long ball is slowly but surely coming to an end. Unfortunately, most of the league’s hitters and coaches haven’t gotten the memo.

About the only time you don’t see most hitters swinging from their heels for the fences is when they already have two strikes on them. Some, and it’s by no means any great percentage, employ what’s known as a “two-strike approach” at that point. Their swings become more compact. In theory, the compact approach lessens the chance of striking out, and increases the chances of both putting the ball in play and getting a base hit. Of course, a more compact swing also diminishes the chance of a home run. Like about 75% of these guys have any significant chance of hitting a home run in the first place, right?

Last year, for instance, the average number of home runs for a team for the whole season was 152, or slightly less than 1 per game. By contrast, each team averaged almost 8 hits per game that weren’t home runs. Put another way, when a batter comes to the plate, the chances that he’ll hit something other than a home run are 8 times better than the chances that he’ll hit a home run. So why do so many guys who hit 5 or 10 or 15 homers a year keep trying to do something they so rarely accomplish?

Part of the conventional wisdom is that after the 1994 strike, MLB had to rebuild its fan base. The games had to be exciting and nothing’s more exciting than someone blasting the ball out of the park, right? Honestly, just like every other fan I jump up and cheer when it looks like the ball’s leaving the yard. Some particularly exciting home runs are indelibly etched into my baseball memory. I was at the Oakland Coliseum when Marco Scutaro, who was down to his last strike, hit a walk-off homer against Mariano Rivera in 2007. The place went predictably nuts. And I saw Barry Bonds hit a home run that was simply phenomenal. The Giants were in Oakland for some interleague play, and Bonds crushed a ball that got to the second level of the stands in right center field faster than anything I’ve ever witnessed. Even the sound of that home run was different. The experience was astonishing.

Okay, home runs are exciting, but trying to hit home runs and failing is not exciting. And that seems to be happening more and more. In 1998, each team averaged 1037 strikeouts per year. In 2011 that number was 1144 – an additional 4 games worth of strike outs. The game’s getting less exciting, not more. So what’s to be done? How about looking at the approach of some hitters who didn’t try to clobber the ball with every swing?

Somewhere in the back of my mind was a stat about Matty Alou. A total of 17 strikeouts for an entire year was rattling around in my head. I checked the stat to see if I remembered it right. Seventeen for the entire year? That couldn’t be right. I looked it up, and sure enough, I had it wrong. In 1970 Matty Alou struck out 18 times, not 17, in 718 plate appearances over the course of the season. Unbelievable! By contrast, of the Oakland A’s with more than 100 at bats in the first 43 games of the 2012 season, no one has less than 24 strikeouts. And we’re just one-fourth of the way through the year. You need someone of a bit more recent vintage? Okay, how about Wade Boggs?

He played into the era of the long ball. Over 18 years, the 12-time All Star only managed 118 home runs, but he won 5 batting titles, and was a lifetime .328 hitter. In 1989, Boggs swung the bat 1191 times and missed the ball on only 58 of those swings. Again, unbelievable! You need more? How about what Ichiro does year after year? How about what Derek Jeter did in the second half of September of 2010? Alou, Boggs, Ichiro, and Jeter – these men have brought excitement to the game without the benefit of big home run numbers. Of course, the ultimate example is Pete Rose, one of the most exciting players the game has ever produced. MLB’s all-time leader with 4,256 base hits managed only 160 home runs in a 24-year career. Is anyone going to seriously contend that Rose didn’t bring excitement to the game?

So here’s my tip. How about the hitters who don’t drill home runs like they’re Aaron, Ruth, or Mays, and that’s most of them, try a “no strike approach” instead of a “two strike approach”? Here’s a news flash: not only is it easier to get a hit with a more compact swing, it’s even easier if you give yourself 3 chances to get a hit instead of just 1. A team that can grind out base hit after base hit can do far more damage than a team that gets the occasional 3-run homer, Earl Weaver’s formula for winning notwithstanding. The pitcher has to stay in the stretch; some pitchers clearly get rattled anytime someone’s on base; the infielders and the catcher have to focus on the base runners; and the positioning of the infielders and the outfielders has to adjust to the presence of the base runners.

None of those things happen when the bases are cleared by a home run. How many times have you seen a home run kill a rally because the tension associated with runners on base has been wiped out? And don’t tell me that stringing together 4 or 5 hits in a row isn’t exciting for the fans. It’s the kind of excitement that outlasts the thrill of a single blast between strikeouts.

I’m not saying that Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto shouldn’t be swinging for the fences. Mickey Mantle once admitted that he was trying to hit a home run every time he swung the bat. But let’s face it, in the post “era of the long ball” era, those guys are getting fewer and farther between. Maybe it’s time the league got the memo.

Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com
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