Is it now okay to K?
That’s baseball’s universal symbol for the strikeout, which once ruined Mighty Casey of Mudville fame and has been considered a necessary evil for sluggers ranging from Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron, to Barry Bonds and nowadays to Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge.
But in 2018 you don’t have to be a power hitter to strike out. Seemingly everybody across baseball does, especially the Philadelphia Phillies, who often have nearly as many strikeouts among their 27 outs as balls hit to the fielders.
Yet, as far as Phillies manager Gabe Kapler is concerned, strikeouts simply come with the territory of working the pitcher and testing his complete repertoire.
“The way we try to run our offense, we want to see as many pitches as possible,” said Kapler, whose club struck out 15 times in last week’s 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees, the fifth time already this year they’ve fanned that often.
“Anytime you see 6-7-8 pitches, you’re in a two-strike count and sometimes going to punch out”, he added. “But if we can put the ball in play more often at the end of those two strike counts that’s when you have a really good team.”
You can debate if the 2018 Phillies are a really good team, but the fact remains only the lowly San Diego Padres have struck out more in the National League (796 times).
Kapler’s club is averaging 9.3 strikeouts a game this season. But since they’re currently second in the N.L. East and in the wild card, he can live with the high strikeout rate.
“A lot of people believe the way you get a competitive advantage right now is to not strike out,” said Kapler, who averaged 40 strikeouts during his 12-year playing career, never more than 74.
“My point is everybody has a different value system for offense. Mine personally is as long as you’re at the end of those long at-bats, walking sometimes and doing damage—doubles and home runs– the strikeouts are more acceptable,” he explained.
However, not everyone feels the same way about striking out. “Guys are trying not to strikeout,” insisted outfielder Aaron Altherr.
Altherr has only struck out 71 times in just 187 at-bats this season, fourth-most on the team. The Phillies outfielder also understands that when they are at the plate, they must make adjustments to succeed.
“Pitchers are making adjustments and we have to make adjustments,” he said. “Try to find something that works for you to put the ball in play more often.”
Otherwise, you’re making life much simpler for the pitcher, who doesn’t have to worry about somebody booting a ball or making a bad throw. It’s almost like the days when King and his Court softball legend Eddie Feigner used to dominate opponents needing only a catcher, first baseman, and shortstop.
Meanwhile fundamentals like moving the runner, hitting to the opposite field—especially against the kind of pronounced shifts so prevalent these days—and basic base running seem to have become almost an afterthought.
“I don’t like striking out,” said Maikel Franco, the toughest Phillie regular to fan with just 36. “Sometimes strikeouts happen because you try to do too much and do overswing. For me, I just try to get a good pitch to hit and do what I have to do to get us a win.”
With that being said, sometimes you simply have to tip your cap to the pitcher on the mound.
“When a guy’s got a 97-98 mile per hour fastball and a pretty good breaking ball that’s hard to hit when he’s throwing the ball where he wants to,” said Rhys Hoskins, who’s gone down on strikes 77 times in 72 games following a rookie season with 46 K’s in 50 games.
“Obviously, our job as hitters is to try to figure out how to do adjust to that.”
While Hoskins and the Phillies try to figure it all out, the strikeouts keep mounting. But as long as the wins are also mounting Gabe Kapler will live with it, at least for now.