Thursday, May 15, 2014


                You’d hardly know it to look at me now but I was a little guy growing up, and acutely aware of the athletic limitations that attached to my stature. Thus, one of my early sports heroes was Nellie Fox, a little guy who made good (very good) on the Major League Baseball stage.
             Little Nell played second base for the Chicago White Sox for most of a long career. He was known mostly for two things:  an ever-present cheek-full of chewing tobacco so large that it made him look unbalanced, and an almost-unerring ability to hit the baseball. In his 19 years in the Bigs (1947-65) he struck out just 216 times, and never more than 18 in any season. His strike-out rate of once in 42.7 plate appearances ranks third on the all-time list, behind two players (Joe Sewell and Lloyd Waner) who performed during much-earlier eras.

                Fox’s ability to make contact was partly inborn, of course, but also partly learned. Knowing that someone his size wasn’t likely to hit many home runs (he’s listed officially at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds but his height really was closer to 5-foot-8), he used what was called a “bottle bat,” one almost as thick in the handle as in the barrel, and choked up on it a good two inches. The bat’s weight (34 or 35 ounces) and shape enabled him to get “good wood’ on a ball even when he didn’t strike it cleanly, and the choke increased his bat control.  The upshots were 2,663 career hits, 12 All-Star Game selections, the 1959 American League Most Valuable Player award and his election to the game’s Hall of Fame.

                 As you might suspect, I bring up Fox’s name for more than nostalgic reasons. As Simon and Garfunkel yearned in song for Joe DiMaggio’s grace of style and movement, I yearn for Nellie’s ball-hitting ability at a time when the strikeout—the whiff, the Big K—has become baseball’s signature play.  Major Leaguers today are fanning with abandon, grabbing some bench at a rate unprecedented in their sport’s annals. In 2013 the 30 MLB teams each averaged about 7.6 strikeouts a game, capping a rise that began in the 1920s, and this season promises to continue the trend.

Relatedly, overall batting averages have declined for seven straight seasons (to .253 last year from .269 in 2006) and scoring also has waned.  We are in the midst of a Decade of the Pitcher unmatched since the 1960s, when a dearth of runs forced the last major change in the game’s essential math, the 1969 lowering of the pitchers’ mound to 10 inches above field level from 15. The way it’s going, having pitchers throw from below ground level might not be enough to reverse things.

Now as then the hitters’ woes stem mostly from advances in pitching, not so much in the brilliance of the individual performers (the likes of Koufax and Gibson are nowhere to be seen) but in their method of utilization.  Whereas in former days complete games by pitchers were common, managers now employ their arms sequentially, meaning that hitters must begin adjusting to different deliveries each time at bat from the sixth or seventh inning on. That just about every team today has a bullpen full of relievers who stand 6-foot-4 or taller and can throw a peach through an oak tree makes the batsman’s job tougher yet.  Add in the development of the slider, which looks like a fastball coming in but dives at the last moment, and you wonder how anyone manages to hit the ball.

But changes could—and should—be made do to redress the offense-defense balance that keeps people interested in what’s up on the field. Both are things that just about every fan notices but still go largely unremarked because of their ubiquity. One is the de facto expansion of the strike zone, which makes just about every at-bat a guessing game for hitters.

The rule book says the strike zone is 17 inches wide (the width of home plate) and in height from the midpoint between the shoulders and the belt to the bottom of the knees. A few years ago some umpires talked openly about “their” strike zones, as though its boundaries were arbitrary. You don’t hear that any more but you certainly see it. Some umps call the “high” strike and some don’t, most add a couple of inches to the plate’s outside edge whichever way a batter stands, and the zone’s usual height is from the belt to mid-shin.

The zone is supposed to vary with the height and stance of the hitter, but actually it seems fixed. I get a kick out of the way umps call strikes on the same low pitches whether the batter stands 5-foot-10 or 6-6. The low-ball-strike bias is especially helpful to slider pitchers, whose deliveries dip. Enforcing the rules on the books would give hitters a better shake.       

 The other change would be tougher to implement because it would affect the way batters go about their business. The notion that “chicks dig the long ball,” impressed during the steroids-and-homers-happy 1990s, remains alive and well in baseball despite the dip in the power supply. Just about every batter, it seems—little guys as well as big—swings for the fences no matter what the score or situation. And if the result often is a “K”—the most-wasteful of outs—well, that’s the price of glory.

It’s axiomatic in baseball that power hitters strike out a lot, but it’s not true. History’s three most prolific home-run producers—Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth—recorded as many as 100 strikeouts just once in their combined 62 seasons as big-league regulars, the  exception coming in Bonds’ 1986 rookie year. By contrast, “banjo” hitters commonly rack up 100 whiffs these days, and boomers like Adam Dunn and Chris Davis top or push the 200K mark. One free-swinging palooka, Mark Reynolds, struck out 834 times in a recent four-year span (2008-11), and the miracle is that he still is being paid to play the game.

 Most hitters today use light (31- or 32-ounce), whippy bats that are big in the barrel and narrow at the handle, grip them down all the way and put everything into every swing. The fact that the approach usually makes no sense tactically doesn’t seem to penetrate their brains, or those of their coaches’.

 C’mon guys, be more like Nellie. Get a bat with some heft, choke up a bit (as Bonds did in the later stages of his career), and strive for contact. The result will be more runs, not fewer. 

1 comment:

Dave Wise said...

If you watch a baseball game in which you aren't rooting for one of the teams the two most boring plays are the home run and the strikeout. I would rather see a bases-loaded triple with the fielders madly trying to get the ball to the infield that watch a ball sail into the stands. Same with the strikeout--I'd rather watch the fielders ply their trade than a batter whiff and walk back to the dugout. I still play softball and even those metal and composite sticks have a narrow grip which I enlarge with gobs to tape. Being a table-setter for the big guns like Nellie is no shame.