Keep your eye on the ball: When strikeouts were more of an embarrassment

Remember when hitting .300 was the benchmark for determining a good hitter in baseball? These days, when someone is just barely over .300, they’re considered a “top hitter.”

Gone are the hitters like Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn and Larry Walker who consistently hit over .300 in a day when hitting home runs weren’t the ONLY thing to matter in baseball. As the game becomes more of a power-based one, batting average doesn’t get talked about on its own merit – instead, it gets lumped into a “slash line” of slugging and on-base percentage, reflecting the punctuation mark associated with displaying such stats (.xxx/.xxx/.xxx). Heck, “slashes” has become a NOUN in baseball stat speak now.

Major batting average records aren’t going to fall anytime soon, as opposed to not only home run records, but also strikeout records.

Remember a baseball player named Rob Deer? He played for the Brewers and Tigers in the late 1980s and early 1990s and hit a lot of home runs for those clubs. He’s not talked about a whole lot these days when it comes to successful players from that era because of a plate appearance stat that overshadows his home run hitting – the fact that he struck out in 36% of his career at-bats.

Back in the day, players really wanted to put contact on the ball and put it in play. Striking out for some of them was considered to be a blow rather than a something commonplace these days. Deer’s strikeouts appear to be a big chunk on a pie chart. So what about the opposite of this, in regard to today’s hitters? The active player with the lowest percentage of career at-bats resulting in a strikeout belongs to Andrelton Simmons of the Chicago Cubs with 10.351% of his at-bats resulting in a strikeout.

Andrelton Simmons is tough to strike out. His 10.351% total ranks 368th in MLB history in that department – among players with 1,000 games played and 1,000 at-bats. The next active player is soon-to-be-retiring Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina at 11.767% (460th). If you think Simmons and Molina are tough to strike out, yes, there are more than 300 players who have struck out less often.

The high number of strikeouts gets mentioned on “baseball stat Twitter” a lot, with Tony Gwynn’s low strikeout total being a comparison. Gwynn, whose .394 in the strike-shortened 1994 season likely won’t get matched for many years to come, actually ranks 42nd all-time in career at-bats resulting in a strikeout at 4.673%.

You mean, there were 42 established MLB veterans who were tougher to strike out than Tony Gwynn? Yep.

There are 17 hitters who struck out in less than 4% of their at-bats. Only eight less than 3%. Only one less than 2%, and that’s the all-time leader in this unique category: Joe Sewell at 1.60%. Sewell played in the American League at the same time as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and finished with a .312 average.

The next two bardest-to-strike-out hitters are in baseball’s Hall for Fame, and both elected by the Veteran’s Committee. “Little Poison” Lloyd Waner (young brother of fellow HOF’er “Big Poison” Paul Waner) only struck out 2.23% of the time. Nellie Fox is next up at 2.34% in a career that ended in 1965.

The benchmark at the No. 10 position on the list is 3.3%. Three other players who played in the 1950s, along with Fox, are in this category. Tommy Holmes, who ranked fourth at 2.44%, finished his career early in the decade, hitting .302 from 1942-52, mostly with the Braves. Dale Mitchell, who ranks No. 8 at 2.99%, ended with a .312 average in a career that went from 1946-56, mostly with the Indians. Don Mueller is No. 10 on the list at 3.35%; he played from 1948-59 mostly with the Giants, finished with a .296 average, and ended his career as a pinch-hitter with the 1959 Go-Go Sox.

You won’t find Holmes, Mitchell or Mueller talked about today. However, those are three 1940s and 1950s players who excelled at putting the bat on the ball and putting it in play, regardless of reaching base or not. They didn’t strike out a lot, and that was a big deal back then.

For those players who careers ended in the 1960s, along with Fox, only Red Schoendienst (4.08%, 22nd) and Vic Power (the first all-star from Puerto Rico at 4.09%, 23rd) rank in the top 25. Felix Millan, whose career ended in 1978, is 25th at 4.18%.

The next player after Millan to rank on this list whose career ended after 1970 is Glenn Beckert (4.67%, 41st). Bill Buckner is 46th at 4.82%, the only other player with service time in the 1980s other than Gwynn to rank in the Top 50.

Writing this inspired me to buy baseball cards of Mitchell and Holmes. I already have a Mueller. They’ll have their place in my personal collection, with a story to tell about their unique careers – and not to let them fade away.

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