Joe DiMaggio, paragon of discipline

Reading The Slurve this morning — and you do all subscribe to The Slurve, do you not? You are people of wisdom and discernment, are you not? — I found myself meditating on strikeouts and stigmas. If there’s one thing that we at The American Conservative are likely to agree on, it’s that America has become stigma-averse and needs to get back in the stigmatic game, so to speak. And why not start with strikeouts?

As even casual historians of baseball know, for much of the game’s history the strikeout was something to be avoided at all costs. When a batter got two strikes on him, he was expected to shorten his swing, choke up on the bat an inch or two, and just make contact with the pitch. The idea was that if you swing and miss nothing good could happen, whereas if you put the ball in play several good things (from the batter’s point of view) can happen: a base hit, a fielding error, a throwing error, a baserunner advancing on a fielder’s choice. Striking out was stigmatized because it takes these possibilities off the table.

Babe Ruth’s disregard for such prudential thinking was legendary in his day: purists were shocked at his refusal to change his swing with a two-strike count. Yet the Babe’s highest strikeout total for a single season was 93, a total exceeded by 136 players in 2012. (That same year, 1923, he got 205 hits, walked 170 times, and had an OPS of 1.309 — pretty much an average year for him in the 1920s.) Joe DiMaggio eschewed strikeouts so vigorously that until the last years of his career he had more home runs than strikeouts, and finished his career with 361 homers and 369 strikeouts. Adam Dunn strikes out that many times in a year and a half.

Again, all this is well-known. The question — or the first question I’ll ask here, anyway — is whether high strikeout rates are a problem. Was DiMaggio being too careful? Should he have accepted more strikeouts in order to have a chance to hit more homers? In general modern sabermetric analysis is okay with strikeouts, though some people dissent when hitters get into Adam Dunn territory. But the evidence here is not conclusive, and it’s certainly possible to imagine statheads arguing for some corrective plate discipline — especially if umpires keep calling high strikes, which is to say, come closer to respecting the strike zone that’s actually in the rule book.

There’s another issue here, too, an aesthetic one: In my judgment, a game with fewer strikeouts is a far more interesting game. Whether sabermetric canons of batting efficiency support cutting back on strikeouts or not, aesthetic canons — my aesthetic canons, anyway — say: More balls in play means more action and more fun.

So here’s my second question: If batters keep swinging from the heels, and umps keep calling high strikes, and front offices start getting concerned about high strikeout rates, and fans lose interest in watching C. B. Bucknor ring batters up, can a stigma against strikeouts be effectively restored? Hitters have been strikeout libertines for so long now that it’s hard to imagine a more strait-laced ethic reigning again. The last person to hit over 20 home runs and have fewer strikeouts than homers was Barry Bonds, in 2004: 45 homers, 41 strikeouts. It might be impossible to get anyone to see Bonds as a model of rectitude, but let’s try, shall we? And let’s see whether an act that has lost its stigma can regain it. That would be quite encouraging to those of us who share a conservative disposition.