“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game”
― Babe Ruth
During a recent attempt to play MLB The Show on PlayStation, I was reminded of how difficult it is to hit. I faced the challenge of only swinging at strikes and letting balls out of the zone pass without an offer. Striking out was not just a possibility with every plate appearance, it was an inevitability. While that experience occurred in a video game and I am well past my gaming prime, it actually mirrors the current state of baseball where most players strike out fairly regularly.
The top performer in 2016 was Joe Panik, who had 9.9 At-bats per strikeout, which is the worst ratio to lead the league, ever! The AL leader was worse as Jose Iglesias managed 9.3 AB/SO last year. In comparison, Daniel Murphy led baseball in 2015 with a ratio of 13.1 AB/SO. Who had the best season in history? That would be Willie Keeler who struck out 2 times in 633 PAs in 1899, which resulted in 285 AB/SO. Obviously, Keeler played in a different era, which did not have a homerun emphasis like today’s game.
Speaking of homeruns, who is the best at hitting homeruns and not striking out? While those stats are not necessarily exact opposites, they are the polar ends of the “feast or famine” approach that has defined the modern era. Are there any players who have managed to have more homeruns than their strike out total? Joe DiMaggio nearly accomplished that feat for his career as he struck out just 8 times beyond his 361 career homerun total, which includes 7 seasons where his homerun total exceeded his strikeouts.
Has anyone done better? How about twice as many homeruns as strikeouts? Not likely. What about 3 times as many homeruns as strikeouts? Lunacy. Take a look at Tommy Holmes in 1945 who had a Brady Anderson-esque season with the Boston Braves. He amassed 28 HR and 117 RBI, which was the type of season he never had before and never had after. What is so remarkable about that season is that he struck out just 9 times. That’s just over 3 HRs per Strikeout! Holmes lost out on the MVP award to Phil Cavarretta, probably due to the fact that Cavarretta played for the pennant-winning Cubs while Holmes languished on the woeful Braves. Holmes clearly had the superior season and I can’t resist stirring up a good ol’ Cavarretta-Holmes MVP debate! Here are some other notable seasons:
*Lou Boudreau enjoyed a similar breakout in 1948 with 18 HRs and 9 strikeouts
*Albert Pujols nearly achieved the HR>SO feat in 2006 with 49 HRs and 50 strikeouts.
*In 1998, Tony Gwynn, who was never a power hitter, hit 16 HRs while striking out 18 times in 127 games.
*Don Mattingly approached the feat as well in the mid 1980s, but fell short just a bit each time.
*George Brett‘s amazing 1980 season included 24 HRs and 22 K’s to go along with a career-best .390 batting average.
*Yogi Berra reached the plateau 6 times if you include his 1957 campaign with an equal number of HRs and strikeouts.
*Red Schoendienst copied Berra’s performance that same year with 15 HRs and 15 strikeouts split between the Giants and Braves.
*The most recent player to achieve this feat is Barry Bonds in 2004 when he hit 45 HRs, which eclipsed his strikeout total by 4.
*Ted Kluszewski, Johnny Mize, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, and Lou Gehrig are some of the other notable players to have kept their strikeout total below their homerun total.
Which player today has the best shot at hitting more homeruns than striking out? Victor Martinez approached the achievement in 2014 with a career year, but still struck out 10 times beyond his total of 32 homeruns and hasn’t been that close since. If Daniel Murphy can combine his 2016 power with his 2015 plate discipline, he could get close, but it would require yet another career year. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor, Robinson Cano, Nolan Arenado, and others would need a dramatic decline in strikeouts to have a shot at proving that you don’t have to go through famine in order to have a feast. For now, the accomplishment does not appear to be likely.