St. Louis Cardinals fans have made a big deal about the strikeouts racked up by outfielder Randal Grichuk this season and last.
But I don’t get why they’ve singled out one player all of the sudden. Strikeouts have become far too common through the Cardinals organization from top to bottom over the past several years. And, for that matter, they’ve become far too acceptable across major league baseball.
This isn’t a Grichuk problem. It’s an everybody problem.
Grichuk has struck out about 29 percent of his plate appearances so far this year. That’s not even the most on the team. Paul DeJong has struck out 32 percent of the time compared to walking once in 85 trips to the dish. DeJong has had a smaller number of at-bats, so maybe that’s why he gets a pass. But Tommy Pham has a 25 percent strikeout rate. Jedd Gyorko has struck out 22 percent of his plate appearances. Dexter Fowler has a 21 percent strikeout rate. It continues in the minors where top prospect Harrison Bader has struck out about 27 percent of the time and third baseman Patrick Wisdom has struck out 31 percent of the time.
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I hate strikeouts as much as anyone. But let’s not point fingers at one player for missing connections. Let’s try to figure out how to make all the players contact the ball more often.
I remember back in the late 1980s when two-sport star Bo Jackson would hit titanic home runs in between spectacular whiffs. Jackson would argue it didn’t make a difference if he made an out by swinging and missing or by hitting a fly out. An out is an out.
I couldn’t disagree more.
If a team has a runner at third base and nobody out, a lazy fly ball or a three-hop ground ball to the second baseman are all it takes to turn that baserunner into a run. A strikeout doesn’t help the effort to score a run at all. There is value in contact. But major league teams have placed so much value on developing power that they’ve abandoned working on trying to score runs through solid fundamental play.
In the past, the Cardinals made a living out of drawing a walk, stealing second base, going to third on a ground ball behind the runner and then scoring with a sacrifice fly. They scored runs in bunches by employing the hit-and-run.
The people who run major league baseball are so consumed with making the game more offense-oriented that they’ve distorted the way it is supposed to be played. Sure, it was exciting watching Mark McGwire hit home runs. But was it more exciting than watching Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith drive opposing pitchers crazy by stealing bases.
Making contact isn’t all about talent. A lot of it has to do with technique. If the current crop of Cardinals players shortened their swing with two strikes, made an effort to hit behind the runners and just, generally, showed more situational awareness the team would score a lot more runs.
The way players are being taught is partially to blame. But the other part of the equation is that professional ballplayers don’t care about playing a well-rounded game because hitting home runs is what earns players big contracts.
I’m not sure what the answer is because it’s hard to teach players to play more sound baseball once they have already reached the major league level. Grichuk isn’t the problem. He’s a symptom of the larger issue. And it’s a real shame that the Cardinals aren’t making the most out of his talent.
Grichuk was called up as a very young player when rookie Oscar Taveras struggled at the major league level and the St. Louis outfield was depleted by injuries. He didn’t learn plate discipline with 600 at bats in Class AAA Memphis like Stephen Piscotty. Now he’s paying the price by trying to learn to lay off of sliders delivered by the best pitchers in the world at the highest level of the game.
It’s easy to make Grichuk the scapegoat. But you can’t teach his quick bat speed and tremendous power. The Cardinals just need to find a way to harness it before it’s wasted.