I read an article on ESPN by David Schoenfield about the rise in strikeouts in the league. He made a great point in the article that players generally do not try to put the ball in play anymore. “They’d rather hit .235 with 12 home runs as opposed to .300 with five home runs and a ton fewer strikeouts,” he said. And he’s absolutely right. Hitting for average no longer gets rewarded.
I grew up watching Tony Gwynn. He was a large, imposing force at the plate, but he didn’t hit many home runs. He also didn’t strike out very much. In his career, Tony Gwynn had 9,288 at-bats. He struck out 434 times. That’s 4% of the time. His approach at the plate was one of beauty and the reason behind the title of this blog. He could hit just as well with two strikes as he could with none. What did he sacrifice in always trying to put the ball in play? He sacrificed home runs. He hit 135 in his career. But he knocked in 1,138 runs and scored 1,383 runs himself. Combined he accounted for 2,386 runs (subtracting the 135 home runs so we don’t count those RBI’s and runs twice) in his career. That means a Tony Gwynn at-bat resulted in a run, one way or another, 26% of the time. He also hit .338 for his career.
So let’s re-cap; Tony Gwynn struck out 4% of the time while his at-bats resulted in runs 26% of the time. Who has the better approach, a guy hitting .235 with 15 home runs per year, or a guy hitting .310 with 5 home runs and 80 runs scored?
This brings me to my next point. Hitting for average is not appreciated anymore. Chase Headley was tapped to be the Padres power-hitting third baseman of the future. At a detriment to himself and the club he tried to fulfill that prophecy. Below are his numbers prior to 2011:
2007: 18 at-bats, 0 home runs, 4 strike-outs, and a .222 batting average.
2008: 331 at-bats, 9 home runs, 104 strike-outs, and a .269 batting average.
2009: 543 at-bats, 12 home runs, 133 strike-outs, and a .262 batting average.
2010: 610 at-bats, 11 home runs, 139 strike-outs, and a .264 batting average.
In 2011, Chase Headley has taken a new approach at the plate. He has stopped trying to pull the ball and tried putting more balls in play. This has led to a reduction in home run totals, but an increase in production overall.
In 85 games so far this year, Headley has had 292 at-bats. His strike-outs are only at 67. And he’s batting .305. Between runs and RBI’s, Headley is accounting for a run scored 22% of the time.
Headley is on pace to reduce his strike-out totals from the previous year. He’s more productive than ever. And he’s forgotten. He probably should have been an All-Star this year, but his meager 2 home runs likely precluded him from real consideration.
Following in Tony Gwynn’s footsteps is not often done. Home runs dazzle, but lead to strike-outs and lower batting averages. There are not many pure hitters left, so when a player works on becoming one, he should be celebrated. Keep it up Chase, you have at least one fan not concerned with your home run totals.