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Striking out has become an epidemic, even for non-sluggers

Kelly Johnson reacts after striking out against the

Kelly Johnson reacts after striking out against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, Apr. 27, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Baseball lifer Larry Bowa remembers former Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt once telling him that the last thing he wanted to do that season was strike out 100 times.

Bowa's point was that even for one of the best sluggers of his day, reaching triple digits in strikeouts would be embarrassing.

That's hardly the case anymore.

"Now, 100 strikeouts, hah," Bowa said. "That's normal."

Baseball has seen an uptick in strikeouts in recent years, and the trend of increased whiffing is continuing at a record pace this season. Teams struck out nearly eight times a game during the first month of the season, up from 7.55 times a game last year and 6.3 times as recently as 2005.

"It's becoming an epidemic," said Bowa, a longtime player, coach, manager and broadcaster who is in his first year as the Phillies' bench coach. "I'm astonished by it, just watching the first month, the number of strikeouts in baseball.

"I just think it's a mindset. If you're not embarrassed by striking out 160, 170 times, there is not going to be any adjustments."

Baseball people are split on the reasons behind the rise in strikeouts, thinking it's more a combination of factors, including a change in how hitters approach each at-bat.

Hitters are taught to work the count in hopes of driving up the starter's pitch count and getting into the bullpen as early as possible. In theory, that means more two-strike counts and more strikeouts.

In response, teams these days carry more relievers than they ever have and managers have become more specialized with how they use each reliever.

So whereas a decade ago, a hitter might regularly face the starting pitcher four times in a game, that hardly ever happens nowadays because of strict adherence to pitch counts. Managers also prefer to match a reliever's strength with a hitter's weakness.

"So the pitcher has the advantage a lot of times," Bowa said.

Another reason, according to longtime pitcher Jamie Moyer, is simply that the stigma of a hitter striking out is not the same as it once was.

"I don't think the strikeout is frowned upon as much as it used to be," said Moyer, who pitched from 1986 until 2012. "I guess in a sense there's not as much of an emphasis put on how many strikeouts you have."

When Moyer was a rookie in 1986, 38 hitters struck out more than 100 times that season. The number nearly doubled last year, when 74 hitters reached triple digits in strikeouts.

Houston's Chris Carter led the majors last year with 212 strikeouts, the third-highest single-season total behind Mark Reynolds' 223 in 2009 and Adam Dunn's 222 in 2012.

But those guys are home run hitters, and teams have always accepted strikeouts as the cost of business for seeing them hit 30 or more pitches over the fence.

What's changed of late is that it's not just sluggers striking out.

"I think 20 years ago, breaking into the game, if you got two strikes, your swing was shortened up, you went to hit the ball the other way, use the bigger part of the diamond," said Moyer, who last pitched in the majors at the age of 49. "Today, they just keep hacking."

Bowa agreed. "If you're a singles hitter and you're down 0-2, 1-2, it's not that tough to make a minor adjustment by spreading out a little bit, choking up a little bit, controlling your swing a little bit," he said. "But it's almost like an embarrassment if you choke up on the bat."

In baseball history, a player has struck out 189 or more times in a season on 18 occasions. All but one of them occurred during the previous 10 seasons. It's been only one month, but about a dozen players already are on pace to reach that figure this season.

"I've literally heard a player say 'an out's an out, so what difference does it make if you strike out or if it's a fly ball to leftfield?' " Bowa said. "But that's not true. A lot of good things can happen when you put the ball in play. Nothing good can happen when you take the bat back to the dugout."

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