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VOL. 131 | NO. 124 | Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Swing – and a Miss – is More Common in Baseball All the Time

By Don Wade

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It’s obvious when there are a lot children at AutoZone Park. Even the most harmless infield popup prompts a collective shriek and the hope of a home run.

The long ball may not be what it was at the peak of baseball’s steroid era when Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were cartoon characters, but the game has not turned away from the notion of driving the ball.

Memphis Redbirds manager Mike Shildt notes that the game is approaching a full decade of escalating –and record-breaking – strikeout totals for hitters. And it’s not just at the major league level.

Second baseman Kolten Wong hit four home runs and worked on playing center field during a recent stint with the Memphis Redbirds before being called back up to the parent St. Louis Cardinals. 

(Austin McAfee/CSM)

The hitter with the most strikeouts in the Pacific Coast League is Iowa Cubs outfielder John Andreoli (95 whiffs through June 19). He batted lead-off in the Cubs’ Monday, June 20, game at AutoZone Park and smacked the first pitch of the game into left-center field for a double. Clearly, he doesn’t believe in waiting to get in his hacks.

Apparently, no one does.

While the Redbirds entered Monday’s game having won nine of their last 10 games to continue the push toward .500, they also ranked 15th in the 16-team PCL in runs scored (287) and batting average (.246). They had struck out 538 times, which is a lot, but it ranked only eighth in the league and far behind the league-setting 634 strikeouts by Oklahoma City. On the other hand, El Paso led the league with 411 runs scored and a .308 batting average and had only been punched out 398 times – the lowest total in the PCL.

“Every year it escalates,” Shildt said of baseball’s strikeout totals. “It’s become more acceptable. People are looking for damage. Guys who were great hitters (in the past) didn’t strike out a ton, but slugging percentage and OPS are big analytical tools now. Players know this. Agents know this. Batting average is not as highly a valued metric.”

At the game’s top level, the Kansas City Royals last year won the World Series as the team that struck out the least. In fact, they were the only team in MLB to strike out less than 1,000 times (973), and their penchant for coming back in playoff games was directly tied to their ability to put the ball in play when it mattered most.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, plucked several low-strikeout hitters – mostly from smaller colleges – on the last day of the recent MLB Draft. Caleb Lopes, an infielder out of Division II University of West Georgia, is but one example. He had nine home runs and just 10 strikeouts in 266 plate appearances this past season.

Scouting director Randy Flores told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I don’t think our scouts are naive when they look at a stat line that shows (a player) doesn’t strike out a lot. It was a mix of (numbers and eye test) on those picks. … They have a chance to continue to develop their hit tool.”

Through June 19, the Redbirds had two players with more than 50 strikeouts in less than 200 at-bats. Patrick Wisdom had 59 strikeouts in 192 at-bats and was batting .234 with just three home runs. David Washington had struck out 55 times in only 137 at-bats, but also had 10 home runs.

The days of shortening up with two strikes appear to be over for most pro hitters even as the Cardinals and other organizations begin to look for prospects who have better contact rates and strike out less.

That said, Shildt does prefer a swinging strikeout over a called strikeout.

“You have no chance of getting a hit with two strikes if you don’t swing the bat,” he said.

Kolten Wong Aided by Football Past
After the St. Louis Cardinals optioned second baseman Kolten Wong to Memphis on June 7, he made quite an impact with his bat: hitting .429 with four home runs, 10 runs scored, 11 RBI, a triple and four walks for a .529 on base percentage and .929 slugging percentage over seven games.

That helped him get right back to St. Louis. But while with the Redbirds he worked on playing center field. He had played it some at the University of Hawaii, but Shildt says he also drew on his experience as a high school safety.

“It was pretty impressive but not surprising because he’s a good athlete,” Shildt said. “Because he was a free safety, he was comfortable with the drop step going left or right.”

Grichuk, Hazelbaker to Redbirds
While Wong and outfielder Tommy Pham went back to St. Louis, outfielders Randal Grichuk and Jeremy Hazelbaker came down to Memphis.

Grichuk had eight home runs with 27 RBI in 62 games this season, a comedown from last year when he made the Topps MLB All-Star Rookie Team after hitting .276 with 17 homers and 47 RBI in 103 games.

Hazelbaker was batting .250 with seven home runs and 19 RBI in 61 games before being optioned.

“We kind of take their temperature (when they first get here),” Shildt said. “But Kolten, Grichuk and Hazelbaker have all had success. They know they can play at the level. It’s just a matter of consistency.”

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