It was only one month into a long season and already a friend was concerned about Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson and his ability to breathe fresh life and meaning into the strikeout call.
How many different ways, after all, can one describe the home team whiffs, especially so many of them, swarming about like mayflies?
As his scorebook filled with more Ks than the Kardashians’ family album, Simpson had used them all.
“Down he goes.”
“Swing and miss, strike three.”
“He rings him up.”
Figuring that even this talented analyst was exhausting the possibilities of English, his chum began texting him foreign phrases to use in case of emergency.
By the way, the Dutch for “He struck him out” is, according to Google Translate, “Hij sloeg hem uit.”
At this pace, Simpson may be reaching for the translator app. April ended with the Braves striking out more times (246) than in any month in franchise history. What a waste. The breeze would have been so much more appreciated in July.
All the previews for this reconfigured team warned us. The addition of the Upton brothers, serial strikeout guys throughout their careers, to a team that ranked seventh in K’s a season ago was bound to inflate the total.
But who knew that, even in the midst of a 17-9 first month, that the swing-and-a-miss would be such an identifying feature, practically a birthmark, of this version of the Braves? The no-contact nadir came in the cold and wet of Detroit when the Braves struck out 39 times in a three-game series. They made Anibal Sanchez look like Sandy Koufax, as he set a Tigers team record with 17 strikeouts in his appearance.
The team leader in striking out is not interested in the topic.
“It looks bad, but I think the bottom line it gives people something to talk about: ‘Can you believe how many times they struck out this time?’ That’s all it is,” second baseman Dan Uggla said.
“Do I like striking out four times in a game (as he did against Sanchez)? No, I do not. There is a better chance of making things happen when you put balls in play. But this team is what it is, and we are who we are.
“The fact of the matter is people are going to strike out, some more than others. Once you get to this level, it’s about run production. That’s the bottom line, driving in runs and scoring runs.”
The Braves finished April with the major-league lead in home runs and ranked 10th in RBIs and a middling 15th in runs scored.
These Braves are attempting to mainstream the strikeout, to legitimize it as a necessary cost of doing business for a team skewed toward power.
“The trade-off is the two home runs in the ninth (by the Uptons to beat the Cubs). And three in one inning against Kansas City,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez.
But how many strikeouts are a reasonable investment in the long-ball reward?
Reggie Jackson struck out more than anyone in baseball history and has a strikeout-to-home run ratio of 4.6-to-1. Dale Murphy owns the Braves’ strikeout record, and his is slightly better: 4.3-to-1. Those look streamlined, efficient even, compared to the career and 2013 (through April) numbers of certain Braves:
B.J. Upton — 8.7-to-1 career, 10.7-to-1 2013.
Jason Heyward — 6.3-to-1 and 6-to-1.
Uggla — 5.3-to-1 and 8.7-to-1.
Justin Upton, with his team-record 12 home runs in April, proved the real worth of the power-for-strikeout exchange (he struck out only 2.5 times for each of those homers, compared with his career ratio of 6-to-1).
This team would ask one thing of its fans: Stop worrying and learn to, if not love the strikeout, then tolerate it as an industrial byproduct of Braves baseball. It is the slag beside the iron mill.
The general manager tells us that of all the numbers he pours over, strikeouts figure low on the list.
The manager tells us that the raw number of strikeouts means little.
Said Gonzalez, “I think the strikeouts are OK. There are certain times during the course of the game that they’re not OK. Those are the ones that put a dagger in your gut — for instance, man on third, no out or one out, when they’re giving you a run, playing the infield back. You keep missing those scoring opportunities it’s going to come back and haunt you. Those are the strikeouts that really, really hurt.”
The Braves are trendy if nothing else. Strikeouts are up across baseball — totals have risen each of the past seven seasons. The top 10 highest individual single-season strikeout totals all have come since 2007.
Theories as to why vary, from hitters losing bat speed as they have exited the steroids era to more generous strike zones to an influx of big arms, from the starting staff through the bullpens.
“There are more power arms than I’ve ever seen before,” ESPN’s Curt Schilling told the Boston Globe.
“Strikeouts are not a topic of discussion for me when it comes to the topic of whether we win or lose,” said Heyward, out now while recovering from an appendectomy. “Pitchers are good. The average velocity across the game is higher. More strikeouts. More broken bats. Sometimes you tip your hat to the pitchers.”
There also is the matter of a generational attitude shift.
“It’s becoming more acceptable (to strike out). You’re seeing a lot fewer players cut down their swing with two strikes, that’s why the strikeout numbers are so high,” Braves GM Frank Wren said.
Wren pointed out that four of the top seven teams in strikeouts last season — including the leader, Oakland — made the postseason last year. (However, San Francisco and Detroit, the two teams in the World Series, were among the best at not striking out, ranking 26th and 24th in 30-team MLB).
For their part of the overall picture, the Braves, if they continue their April pace, would tie the major league single-season record of 1,529 strikeouts set in 2010 by Justin Upton’s old team, the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Houston Astros currently are on pace to shatter it.
The John Daly grip-it-and-rip-it approach to baseball would seem more sustainable if two-thirds of the regular Braves outfield were not hitting below .140 and Uggla wasn’t hovering around .160.
Wren calls the current Braves strikeout number “pretty extreme,” but added that, “When it warms up and we have more consistent at-bats, you’ll see that number normalize.”
“Sometimes you got to put the ball in play, and I think we will,” the GM said. “We have enough professional hitters. They understand that in certain situations you got to put the ball in play. I think our guys are capable of doing that.”
As they say in Amsterdam: “We zullen zien in Oktober” (We shall see in October).
TOP 10 CAREER STRIKEOUT LEADERS
1. Reggie Jackson 2,597
2. Jim Thome 2,548
3. Sammy Sosa 2,306
4. Adam Dunn 2,064
5. Alex Rodriguez 2,032
6. Andres Galarraga 2,003
7. Jose Canseco 1,942
8. Willie Stargell 1,936
9. Mike Cameron 1,901
10. Mike Schmidt 1,883
SINGLE-SEASON STRIKEOUT LEADERS
1. Mark Reynolds 223 (2009)
2. Adam Dunn 222 (2012)
3. Mark Reynolds 211 (2010)
4. Drew Stubbs 205 (2011)
5. Mark Reynolds 204 (2008)
6. Adam Dunn 199 (2010)
7. Ryan Howard 199 (2007)
8. Ryan Howard 199 (2008)
9. Jack Cust (2008)
10. Mark Reynolds 196 (2011)
BRAVES CAREER STRIKEOUT LEADERS
1. Dale Murphy 1,581
2. Chipper Jones 1,409
3. Andruw Jones 1,394
4. Jeff Blauser 792
5. Javy Lopez 728
6. Ron Gant 600
7. Glenn Hubbard 570
8. Brian McCann 564
9. Hank Aaron 558
10. Ryan Klesko 523
Source: Braves 2013 Media Guide
BRAVES SINGLE-SEASON STRIKEOUT LEADERS
1. Dan Uggla 168 (2012)
2. Dan Uggla 156 (2011)
3. Michael Bourn 155 (2012)
4. Jason Heyward 152 (2012)
5. Andruw Jones 147 (2004)
6. Andres Galarraga 146 (1998)
7. Dale Murphy 145 (1978)
8. Dale Murphy 142 (1989)
9. Andruw Jones 142 (2001)
10. Dale Murphy 141 (1985 & 86)
Source: Braves 2013 Media Guide