Exposing 5 of MLB's Biggest Strikeout Machines
In the movie "Bull Durham," Crash Davis famously said "strikeouts are boring." He was encouraging his pitcher, Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, to throw a few pitches that might induce ground balls instead of trying to blow everyone away, but maybe it was a fortuitous line.
A brief look at Baseball Reference shows us that strikeout numbers have been steadily rising for over a decade. MLB has set records for strikeout totals in each of the past 12 seasons. Old school baseball fans and the hardcore purists say the artistry of the game has been lost as its moved toward more of a power game.
The modern game has evolved to one that relies on a lot of power pitching and power hitting. That combination has resulted in plenty of home runs but also a lot of strikeouts.
So, which hitters whiff more than anyone else in baseball? It depends on how you categorize it.
Some hitters are more valuable than others. Some make up for their K's with a high walk rate. Some haven't always been strikeout machines but are trending in that direction. I took a look at three categories to determine five of baseball's most notorious whiff artists: The active leaders in at-bats per strikeout, the active hitters with the highest career strikeout rates and the current season totals.
Texas Rangers RF Joey Gallo
Gallo is a three-true-outcomes type of player: He homers, he walks or he strikes out in most of his plate appearances. His 37.7 percent strikeout rate leads all active, qualified players. He walks in 14.4 percent of his plate appearances.
Gallo owns this title. He told ESPN's Jeff Passan in 2019 that he has been this type of player since he was a kid.
"I've always been that player," he said. "It's not like I was built to be that. It's who I've always been. I mean, 10 and under, 11, 12—I was hitting home runs. I struck out more than everyone. And I walked a lot because they pitched around me. If they made a mistake, I hit it out. If I wasn't feeling good, I struck out. Even high school was that.
"I enjoy home runs. When you think of baseball, the first thing you think of is a home run. Home runs are cool. That's what everyone likes to watch. That's what they show on the highlights."
The phrase "three true outcomes" was first used by San Francisco Chronicle sports editor Christina Kahrl on a message board in the 1990s to illustrate the three main results of the game outside of defense. She had no way of knowing that a three-true-outcomes player would become the modern archetype of hitters.
New York Yankees RF/DH Giancarlo Stanton
Giancarlo Stanton could also be considered a three-true-outcomes hitter, though to a lesser extent than Gallo. In 23 playoff plate appearances, 16 have resulted in one of the three outcomes.
His strikeout numbers are magnified because the New York Yankees have such major offensive woes, but he's always been a high-strikeout hitter. Stanton's 3.09 at-bats per strikeout rate is the third-worst among all active, qualified hitters.
There is no reason for the magnification for Stanton considering he is one of few Yankees hitting this season. He logged three straight three-hit games before going 1-for-3 Sunday against the Detroit Tigers in his new spot in the order, No. 2 behind DJ LeMahieu. He's hitting .333 with five home runs over his last 15 games.
His career strikeout rate has decreased over the past two seasons, and this season it's closer to his career average of 28.1 percent. He's a big power hitter in a lineup full of them. Sure, the Yankees are having their issues this season, but this is what the modern game is: Hitters 6'5" or taller weighing about 250 pounds, hitting for power and striking out a high rate.
Detroit Tigers CF JaCoby Jones
JaCoby Jones wanted to reduce his strikeout rate this season. So far, that hasn't happened. In fact, he's increased it this season. His career average is 32.3 percent, and it's up to 41.1 percent this season. Even more worrisome, his walk rate is way down: As of Sunday, he has struck out 24 times this season and walked just twice.
Jones is part of a troubling trend in Detroit. The rebuilding Tigers and the Rangers have struck out more than any other team in the league this season (305). As a group, the Tigers are striking out in 30.6 percent of their plate appearances.
While the K's seem to be contagious in Detroit, this is par for the course for Jones, and he's having a particularly bad season. He's lost his starting role in center field and is having to fight for playing time after opening the season by hitting .140 with a .380 OPS and the emergence of rookie Akil Baddoo.
Chicago Cubs SS Javier Baez
Javier Baez will likely be one of many talented free-agent shortstops available at the end of the season. His increasing strikeout numbers will probably play a role in any contract negotiations.
Like Jones, Baez is striking out in nearly 40 percent of his plate appearances, and he's walking in only one percent of them. It hasn't always been like this for the 28-year-old Baez. Between 2016 and 2018 his K rate was down in the mid-to-high 20s. But now he's taking fewer walks and striking out more than ever.
Baez might not have always been a strikeout machine, but it looks as though he's trending in that direction. His 39.6 percent clip this season is the highest in baseball. His .319 BABIP suggests that when he does make contact, he usually has success. But it's the lack of contact and the high chase rate that is cause for concern.
Baltimore Orioles 1B Chris Davis
It almost feels a little unfair to keep putting him on lists like this. It's sad to watch the production of such a successful player fall off a cliff in the way that Davis' has. He slugged 53 home runs in 2013 and 47 two years later. But Davis also led the league in strikeouts in 2015, and he was always striking out at a high rate.
Davis has a career strikeout rate of 32.9 percent, but it's been closer to 40 percent since 2017. In 2019, he struck out in 39.5 percent of his plate appearances. The league average was around 23 percent. Davis strikes out once in every 2.69 at-bats. We all know "Crush" Davis hasn't been crushing much in recent seasons, and the Orioles still owe him $17 million in 2021 and 2022.
Davis hasn't begun his 2021 campaign yet because of a back injury. His debut will likely come in late May. The Orioles aren't expected to contend this season, and Baltimore is probably a few years away from being a playoff team again, so it's not like they're relying on Davis anymore.