Too Many Strike Outs

Unless the arbiters of baseball make some changes in how the game is played, we are in danger of seeing that sport becoming a relic of the past.  As a child, I was in awe of the players, and the game sparked my enthusiasm much of which I have maintained in my adult life.  But in the last few years, and especially this year, the pitchers appear to be winning the duel between them and the batters.  Batting averages have plummeted well below .250, an average less than one hit in four at bats.  The New York Yankees, also know as the Bronx Bombers, are bombing out more than they are hitting home runs.  As a team, their current strike out or fan rate is 25.3 percent, slightly higher than the major league average of 24.1 percent.

Perhaps the greatest thrill of baseball is the sound of the bat making contact with the baseball.  Even if the ball results in an out, the crack of the bat, putting the fielders in motion when they sometimes make great plays, is exciting.  In my day as a childhood fan, every once in a while, you would see pitcher duels between two great hurlers.  Because you were seeing a rivalry between the best pitchers in the game, as a fan you knew you were witnessing something special.  These games offered their own brand of excitement even if the players on both sides struck out.  Now, because the ratio of strike outs is so high, it doesn’t seem to matter who is pitching.  Because of the high frequency of strike outs, I would maintain much of the thrill of the game is lost.

So, what can be done about this problem?  When we were kids, we discovered what a spitball was, the adding of saliva or a moist substance to make the ball move in an unpredictable manner. The rumor mill has it that pitchers may very well be using some substance, such as tar or rosin, that causes the ball to spin more or move erratically making it more difficult to hit.  Recently, in a Zoom conference with reporters, Gerrit Cole, Yankee ace pitcher, was asked if he used Spider Tack, a sticky paste that can greatly increase the spin on pitches.  He sidestepped answering the question when he said: “I don’t know quite how to answer that, to be honest.”  One would have expected him to simply reply “no” if he didn’t use it. His response, however, left the reporters doubtful of his innocence in this area. 

The problem is not that the practice of pitchers doctoring the ball to increase its spin rate is forbidden, which it is in baseball.  Rather the use of such substances has been widespread and accepted by the teams.  However, if the use of Spider Track or other substances is causing the increase in strike outs, then Major League Baseball (M.L.B.) need attend to the matter ASAP.  Umpires need to check all the equipment a pitcher brings to a game such as his glove, cap and uniform–resulting in a steep fine and/or suspension for a specified time–if that pitcher is in violation of the rules.  If the enforcement of this policy results in fewer strike outs, then it is clear that we have found a solution to the issue at hand. 

If the strict enforcement of the above rule does not significantly alter the strike out rate, then baseball need look elsewhere.  Here I can offer one of two options or both: 1) Move the pitcher’s mound further from home plate (i.e., from where the batter stands) and/or 2) Make a narrower strike zone by decreasing the size of home plate.  I’m sure either of these suggestions would be hotly debated, especially by current pitchers, but they, like the rest of us, need to understand that the greater balance between pitcher and batter makes a far superior entertainment than when the pitcher invariably wins the battle. 

To conclude, pitchers are currently overwhelming batters making baseball less exciting than in the past.  I think the best resolution for all involved would be to strictly limit any doctoring of baseballs by pitchers with the hope that the strike out rate decreases.  Regardless, one of the most important elements in baseball is when fans hear the sound of a bat whacking a baseball resulting in either a great play by a fielder or a hit.  I am sure baseball enthusiasts will be delighted when M.L.B. finds a way to make the hitter’s role more productive than it is presently.

The Hub Bids Youk Farewell

It was with a certain amount of sadness that I saw Kevin Youkilis play his last game at Fenway Park this past Sunday, June 26.   Although I only met him one time on a Red Sox Cruise in January of 2004, I have felt an emotional bond with him.  In particular, he is Jewish, and there simply are not a great number of Jewish players that have made it to the big leagues.  He also was a modest guy who was just beginning to make his presence on the Red Sox team.  I found it quite easy to talk to him as he was not at all distant.  We talked about his desire to play third base for the Sox though, at that time, Bill Mueller was starting.  I wondered, but more to myself, than to Kevin, whether he could play any other position in the infield.  Little did either of us know that he would shift to accommodate Mike Lowe, who was obtained with Josh Beckett from the Florida Marlins, from third base to first base.

 I remember the sports’ announcers saying that Youk had not committed an error in so many games it was nearing a record when he played first base.  Furthermore, it was evident that he had proven his versatility and value to the Red Sox in his ability to play two positions, first and third base, with equal poise.  And yes, I remember that first at bat by Kevin when he hit the home run in Toronto and his parents beamed with pride at him back in May of 2004.  I also remember his teammates, led by Pedro Martinez, giving him, a rookie with his first hit, a home run, the customary initial silent treatment in the dugout and then, with a sudden burst of humor and enthusiasm congratulating him. 

 Kevin, himself, would admit that he did not have the natural talent of some of the greats such as Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter, but his determination to work extra hard at his craft would make him comparable to the best of ball players.  His determination was inspiring and it showed in his efforts to make some great fielding plays, typically having him wind up with a outfit covered brown with the dirt of the infield.

Kevin was the lone Sox with David Ortiz left that had been on the two World Series winning teams of 2004 (the greatest of years) and 2007 when he played first base with Mike Lowe at third base.   In 2011, he and Dustin Pedroia and other players were stymied with injuries.  We all hoped that both the bodily and mental health of the team would improve with a new manager, Bobby Valentine.  Rumors had it that under Terry Francona the attitude of the players had slacked off inasmuch as they were said to be drinking beer and joking around in the clubhouse on the day of baseball games played in the evening.  There had appeared to be a disunity of the players and, of course, we all know what happened:  They blew a huge lead in the wild card and lost to Baltimore in the final game eliminating them completely from competing in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, things did not go well for Kevin or the team as the 2012 season began.  Bobby Valentine criticized Kevin publicly saying he didn’t appear to being motivated to play his best or give it his all.  For a guy that gives it 150% this was hurtful and, although, Valentine did apologize, things just never appeared to be quite the same for Kevin.   Kevin was striking out a lot, a sign that he was simply not seeing the ball the way he had in the past.  There was a glimmer of hope when, in an away game, Kevin hit a grand slam but the next day he struck out a few times.  Soon enough he was out with another injury.  Initially, Nick Punto had taken his position but Valentine knew he needed  more firepower than Punto could offer so he brought up Will Middlebrooks from Pawtucket, a player thought to be a potential starter in a few years to come.

I have been a diehard Red Sox fan all my life, with the misfortune of coming from New Jersey and seeing them so often lose at Yankee Stadium in the ‘50’s.  Despite this fact, I found myself hoping that Middlebrooks would make outs and not look all that good.  I really wanted Youkilis to keep his job and shine.  But Youk had had a very slow start and was having difficulty at the plate.  He also looked just a shade slower in the field whether he played third or first base and he was making errors that he had rarely made in past years.

Meanwhile, while Youk was having difficulty at the plate, Middlebrooks’ starf was shining.  When the Red Sox played the Marlins at home, and they were losing 5 to 3, appearing that they would lose, once more, to a very mediocre team, Middlebrooks hit a two run homer to tie the score.  The Red Sox wound up winning the game by a score of 6 to 5 with Middlebrooks driving in 4 of the 6 runs scored.  It was at this point that I realized perhaps it is best that the Sox keep him insofar as it was quite obvious that he could hit major league pitching quite well.  Moreover, he appeared to be quite comfortable in the field and in the presence of his teammates.

It was pretty evident that there was now no place for Youk; the rumors began to circulate that he would be traded at some point.  And so, we all saw that last at bat by him, a shot to right centerfield against the Atlanta Braves.  It looked to everyone present including Youk that it would be caught but as it would happen the two Braves’ fielders got their signals crossed and the ball bounced in between them, at which point Youk took off and made a triple out of it.

We will all remember what came next: Bobby Valentine then pulled Youk for Nick Punto (the game was 9 to 4 Red Sox) and the two of them embraced, as Youk left third base.  On his way to the dugout, he received a huge standing ovation and, upon entering the dugout, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, with his other teammates, hugged him.  The crowed continued to cheer until he finally came out and took his hat off and waved, in acknowledgement to the fans, who continued to cheer.  At the end of the game, it was announced that Youk had been traded to the Chicago White Sox.