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Thursday, June 20, 2013
Updated: June 22, 1:55 PM ET
MLB's universal chorus: Strike three!

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

On Opening Night of the 2013 season, the Astros strucK out 13 times … and won. The next day, the Angels and Reds combined for 30 striKeouts, the most by two teams in a season opener in baseball history. Two days in, and the striKeout extravaganza was on. Again.

The start of this striKeout craze came in 1986-87 when Rob Deer, Pete Incaviglia, Cory Snyder, Bo Jackson and Jim Presley started playing every day. Each strucK out 150 times a year but hit 20 to 30 homers; and as quickly as a Bryce Harper home run leaves the ballpark, it was OK to K. Since then, the striKeout rate has steadily climbed to where it is now: a pace that will make 2013 the biggest striKeout season ever. Through May, the nine biggest striKeout months in history had been the past nine months. In April, there were 15.29 striKeouts per game, five more per game than the average in the 1980s. May (14.98 per game) and the first half of June (15.01) were hardly better. It's an epidemic that, at this pace, has no cure.

B.J. Upton
B.J. Upton can't seem to make contact. But he's got plenty of company on the Braves.

"I hate it," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.

It affects almost every player and every team. The Braves have won three games in which they strucK out 15 times. No team in history had ever done that in a season; the Braves did it by May 6. Four players in history have strucK out 40 times in April: Preston Wilson in 2000, and Chris Carter, Jay Bruce and Mike Napoli this season. So, three players this year strucK out more times in one truncated month than Joe DiMaggio did in any season of his career.

"It's embarrassing," Baker said.

But, it's not. Or, at least, it apparently isn't embarrassing enough.

"Years ago, striking out was the scarlet letter," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Now it doesn't matter."

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson said the worst year of his career (1965) was the only year that he strucK out 100 times. (He hit .296 with 33 home runs and 113 RBIs and was traded after the season.) Lou Brock sat out the final day of the 1970 season because he had 99 striKeouts and didn't want to striKe out 100 times again. Last season, a record 109 players strucK out at least 100 times, and there weren't 109 100-striKeout seasons from 1900-1963 combined. Fourteen of those 109 didn't hit even hit 10 homers. Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera strucK out 100 times and hit two home runs.

At least Manny Lee's 1991 record is intact: He is the only player to striKe out 100 times in a season without hitting a home run.

The great Babe Ruth never strucK out 100 times in a season, but last year, the White Sox's Adam Dunn strucK out for the 100th time on June 15, in his team's 64th game. That tied the record for fewest games to 100 striKeouts, set by the Rangers' Chris Davis in 2009.

"I was joking with Adam in 2009 when I was striKing out three times every game," said Davis, who has cut down on his striKeouts this year and is having a terrific season. "He said he was genuinely upset that I was being sent back to the minor leagues because he knew he'd be at the top of the striKeout list. I'm just glad that others are jumping on the bandwagon."

Others? Almost everyone is on it. Bill Buckner never strucK out three times in a game; through June 17, players had strucK out four times in a game on 73 occasions this year. The A's Adam Rosales strucK out four times in a game that he didn't even enter until the 10th inning, joining Graig Nettles in 1969 as the only players in the past 100 years to do that.

Adam Dunn
Adam Dunn epitomizes the all-or-nothing approach. (Can you guess which one happened in this at-bat?)

Five different players -- Prince Fielder, Starling Marte, David Ross, J.D. Martinez and Kelly Shoppach -- have a five-striKeout game. The Astros' Brett Wallace, since sent to the minor leagues, strucK out 13 times in his first 17 at-bats, breaking the record set by Pat Burrell and Sandy Koufax for the most striKeouts in the first six games of any season.

The Astros are on a pace to striKe out more times than any team in history. This year, they became the first team ever to striKe out 13 times in each of their first four games. Their first three games were against the Rangers, who became the first team in history to allow no runs and record 15 striKeouts in consecutive games. On April 17, the Tigers and Mariners combined to striKe out 40 times, marking the second game since 1900 in which each team strucK out at least 19 times. In that three-game series, the Tigers and Mariners strucK out 82 times, setting a major league record for the most striKeouts in a three-game series.

This year, Tigers pitchers set an American League record with seven straight games of at least 10 striKeouts, one short of the major league record set last season by the Brewers. Tigers pitchers, in fact, are on a pace to striKe out more hitters than any other team in history. They already have five different starting pitchers with a 10-striKeout game this year; the 1968 Indians are the only other team in history to have five pitchers striKe out 10 or more in a game in one season.

"It is ridiculous," Baker said.

Marty Foster
Marty Foster and other umps have done it so often that "strike three" is just muscle memory now.

So why are there so many striKeouts?

First, the pitching today is simply spectacular.

"I've never seen pitching like this," said White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson, who was a star hitter in 1968, the accepted Year of the Pitcher. "Pitching today is better than it has ever been."

"It's the generation," said Padres catcher John Baker, whose .150 batting average and 12 striKeouts in 40 at-bats has him in the minors at the moment. "Players are bigger, better and stronger than ever, including pitchers. There's a better understanding of coaching today at every level: high school, college and with special instructors for kids. They know how to pitch more effectively today. The riddle of how to get a guy out -- change the eye level, changing speeds -- isn't as difficult. The focus is clearer. Then you take away the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs by hitters, and you get what we are seeing these days. Unless there's some sort of change, striKeouts are going to keep increasing every year."

This year, the Phillies' Roy Halladay, pitching hurt, became the first pitcher to striKe out nine in a start of 3 1/3 or fewer innings. Alex Cobb, the Rays' fifth starter, became the first pitcher to striKe out 13 in an appearance of less than five innings. (Cobb also became the first pitcher to striKe out four in an inning and allow a run.) The Rangers' Yu Darvish strucK out 80 in his first eight starts, the first to do that since Curt Schilling in 2002.

"We just finished with the Nationals, then we got the Cardinals," Baker said in mid-May. "A new guy would come out of their bullpen, and we would look at his chart and say, 'Jeez, he's 96-100 mph with a 94 mph cutter.' Where in the hell are they finding these people?"

Yu Darvish
The biggest beneficiary so far? Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, who leads the majors in strikeouts.

They arrive every day. The Mets' Matt Harvey was terrific last year as a rookie and has been sensational this year. He is the only pitcher since 1900 to striKe out 125 and allow fewer than 25 earned runs in his first 17 starts. (When he strucK out 13 Braves in seven innings on Tuesday, it was his fourth double-figure striKeout start of the season.) The Cardinals' Shelby Miller became the second youngest pitcher (behind Kerry Wood) to throw a one-hit shutout with no walks and 13 striKeouts.

There are so many hard throwers today, so many pitchers with great secondary stuff, so many who have a slider or cutter or changeup or splitter or curveball to go with a 95 mph fastball. And most of them can throw a striKe with three pitches, two of them off-speed pitches. And they can throw most of those off-speed pitches when they are behind in the count.

"There are no more fastball counts anymore; 2-1 is a breaking-ball count today," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. The Orioles charted every pitch from March 16 until the end of spring training this year and found that 81 percent of 2-1 pitches are off-speed.

"I get asked all the time, 'Are you looking for a pitch? Do you sit on a pitch?'" Davis said. "The answer is 'No, I don't.' You can't now because pitchers can throw all sorts of pitches for striKes in almost any count. There is a reason, you know, that no one hits .400 anymore."

Two springs ago, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said that now 50 percent of pitches thrown on 3-2 were off-speed, as opposed to his prime as a player (the 1980s), when on 3-2, you almost always got a fastball.

"If you are looking for something soft, and you have to adjust to something up in velocity, that is impossible to hit," Maddon said. "Hitters are looking soft on 3-2. They can't adjust."

And it isn't just the starters who have exceptional stuff; the relievers do, too.

"Every night," said Rangers DH Lance Berkman, "someone comes out of the bullpen throwing 95, and I've never heard of him."

Aroldis Chapman
Can't really blame the hitters when they're facing 100-mph heaters from Aroldis Chapman.

"We're told, 'You've got to get the starter out of the game and get into their bullpen,'" Diamondbacks infielder Willie Bloomquist said. "And I'm thinking, 'Why would we want to do that?'"

And it's not just right-handers like Harvey, Miller, Halladay and Justin Verlander with power stuff. There are power left-handers everywhere: Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Aroldis Chapman, Matt Moore and Chris Sale, to name a few.

"There are no more Jamie Moyers and Jim Parques," Yankees outfielder Vernon Wells said. "The lefties today are fireballers."

"Back in the day, when my dad [Ron Davis] played, Ron Guidry was about the only left-hander that threw 95," Mets first baseman Ike Davis said. "Now there are about 80 of them."

After 55 games this season, Ike Davis had strucK out 66 times in 207 plate appearances and was hitting .161. The Mets sent him down.

"We just saw the Rays, and they brought Jake McGee out of the bullpen in the seventh inning throwing 97 mph," Baker said. "When I came up in 2008, the only power left-hander in a bullpen was Billy Wagner, who I was fortunate enough to face ... or in my case, unfortunate enough to face. He was the only one. Billy Wagner was great, but now, you see more and more of them in that mold. Now there are Billy Wagners pitching the seventh. There are Billy Wagners as situational left-handers facing one batter in the eighth. That's how much pitching has improved."

Orioles reliever Darren O'Day is right-handed, and he throws only in the upper 80s, not the mid-90s. But he's a striKeout pitcher, too, because he is so deceptive with his submarine delivery.

"When the hitters were just pounding the ball 10 or 12 years ago, pitchers decided that they had to do something to striKe hitters out, just to keep the ball in the park," O'Day said. "Maybe that's where the cutter came from. Pitchers decided that you can't let make them contact."

Ryan Zimmerman
Neither Ryan Zimmerman nor his shadow made contact. But just "making contact" isn't the point.

Why can't a hitter try to make more contact?

"No one chokes up anymore; no one tries to move the ball," Maddon said. "The bats are smaller and lighter. Guys are swinging them as hard as they can in case they make contact. Years ago, guys would use a big bat, choke up and try to move the ball. Not anymore. But you have to nurture that. You have to draft guys that don't swing and miss. When I was a hitting coach in the minor leagues, I used to use something called a "B" hack, which was less than your "A" hack. That plan consisted of choking up, looking for the ball away from you first and looking for the fastball first. But hitters don't do that now."

Brady Anderson, a roving coach for the Orioles, was a major league outfielder from 1988-2002. "When I first came up, I'd play right behind second base on Alan Trammell with two striKes because he became a slap hitter with two striKes," Anderson said. "I'd do that with a lot of hitters with two striKes because a lot of them became slap hitters. [As a left fielder], I used to play Kenny Lofton right behind third base for his first four years in the league because he became a slap hitter with two striKes. Then he developed power. By the end of my career, if I played shallow, just about everyone could hit it over my head with two striKes."

Starlin Castro
Sometimes it's embarrassing. The Cubs' Starlin Castro tried to hide his head after this strikeout.

Chris Davis said, "When I was with the Rangers, they always preached that I had to put the ball in play. But I don't want to just put the ball in play. I want to do as much damage as I can. That's something that comes with being a power hitter: You are going to striKe out."

The way the game has evolved, a striKeout is now treated as just another out, no worse than a weak ground ball to the second baseman or a pop out to third. And there is proof that you can win, at least in the regular season, even with a lot of striKeouts. Last year, when the A's were the AL West champs, they won 94 games and their hitters set the American League record for most striKeouts in a season. This year, the Braves have a healthy lead in the National League East but are close to a pace that would have them joining the 2010 Diamondbacks as the only teams to striKe out in at least 24 percent of their plate appearances.

If you win, you can live with all the K's.

"If a 3-4-5 hitter comes to the plate with one out and a runner at first, and he gets behind 0-2, and he shortens up and tries to put the ball in play, he might hit a ground ball that turns into a double play," Baker said. "The next guy up might have gone deep, so he might have cost his team two runs. Do you think it's a good idea to ask Bryce Harper to swing at 50 percent? The same thing goes for Chris Davis and a bunch of other hitters. Asking Pablo Sandoval to not swing hard is ridiculous. It's ingrained. This is who they are as hitters. I'd rather him hit 30 homers with a lot of striKeouts than hit 14 with 60 RBIs, and not as many striKeouts. We can deal with the striKeouts as long as there is production."

What really bothers veteran managers and coaches is that players are striKing out far too often in key situations, such as when there is a runner at third with less than two outs. They are striKing out instead of moving the runner from second to third with none out. They are swinging on 0-2 the same way they swing on 3-0. And, to some, they are swinging at too many pitches.

Jason Castro
Jason Castro and the rest of the Astros are on a record-setting pace for team strikeouts.

"The high striKeout rate is due to the high chase rate. Hitters are so determined to get a hit, they can't see the forest for a walk," Maddon said. "You have to take a walk, but so many guys are chasing balls out of the striKe zone. They're not missing fastballs over the middle of the plate. They're missing elevated fastballs. They are chasing breaking balls, sliders out of the striKe zone. I mean, chasing truly bad pitches that are out of the striKe zone."

Not enough walks? The Phillies went four straight games this season without a walk for the first time since 1919-20. And the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright became the first pitcher in major league history to striKe out 35 batters in a season before he gave up his first walk.

And yet there is another school of thought -- that hitters today are being too patient. Frank Robinson said, "I've never seen so many belt-high fastballs taken right down the middle on the first pitch. That might be the only pitch you get to hit."

In 2004, Dunn strucK out looking an astounding 72 times. Ted Williams never strucK out that many times total in any season. The Mets have asked outfielder Lucas Duda, who is big and strong, to swing the bat more, especially in RBI situations, but he hasn't; through Monday, he had 11 homers and 23 RBIs. And in a stretch that began in early April and ran into late May, Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki went 114 consecutive plate appearances without swinging at the first pitch.

"I think we have to be more aggressive as hitters," Baker said. "The common theory, the Billy Beane theory, the theory used by the Red Sox and Yankees, was to work a deep count, be patient and get the starting pitcher out of the game. But I think in today's climate, you have to be more aggressive or you're going to striKe out more often. We faced Jordan Zimmerman of the Nationals recently. We beat him, 2-1. He pitched eight innings and threw 85 pitches. We all went up there hacking, looking for the first fastball that we saw. Our thinking was, 'If he gets ahead in the count, there's a good chance we're going to striKe out.'"