Frank Robinson went by the nickname "Pencils" during his playing career because of his skinny legs, but that might have been his only flaw. Robinson's résumé includes 586 home runs, a Triple Crown, a Rookie of the Year award, Most Valuable Player honors in both leagues and trailblazer status as the first African-American manager in baseball history.
The biggest blot on Robinson's record came with Cincinnati in 1965, when he struck out 100 times for the first and only time in his career. He entered the 162nd game of the year with 99 strikeouts and whiffed against San Francisco's Bobby Bolin in his next-to-last at-bat of the season to go over the top.
Robinson can live with the transgression because he had changed his batting stance that season and encountered some unexpected hiccups. He's just glad he didn't make it a habit.
"We hated striking out when I played," Robinson said. "A strikeout was a nonproductive out, and it didn't help the team at all -- that's the way we looked at it. I probably would have cut my wrists if I had struck out 100 times every year."
Robinson embodies the prototype as a power hitter with the ability to make consistent contact, but he had lots of company during his era. Among the Hall of Fame sluggers with overlapping careers, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Johnny Mize, Al Kaline and Billy Williams never struck out 100 times. Willie Mays and Ernie Banks did it only once, near the end of their careers. Stan Musial's single-season high was 46 strikeouts. Joe DiMaggio topped out at 39 whiffs, and Yogi Berra peaked at 38.
Of course, we're talking about some of the elite hitters of all time. But as strikeout totals rise and the failure to make contact becomes more pronounced, hitters with the ability to put the ball in play and add some thump are becoming an even more prized commodity.
Scan the list of players with the lowest strikeout-to-at-bat ratios this season, and you'll find it populated by singles-hitting leadoff types from the "pesky" school of offense. The four toughest big leaguers to strike out this season: Milwaukee outfielder Norichika Aoki and old standbys Marco Scutaro, Placido Polanco and Juan Pierre.
The most imposing presence in baseball's 2013 "toughest to fan" club is Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre, who generates several highlights a year by swinging so hard that he drops to his back knee in his follow-through. But he's become more proficient every year at making contact, and his 10.8 percent strikeout ratio this season is 15th best in the majors. So what's Beltre's secret?
"He's so good at going the other way on fastballs and breaking balls, and he has such an ability to fight off a good pitcher's pitch with two strikes to stay alive," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "And maybe sometime, in the sequence, he gets a mistake and he's able to do something with it. You wonder how much the ballpark comes into play, too. If the ball travels to right-center field in Texas, does it allow him to stay on the ball longer, see it longer and still have power to go out of the park the other way?"
Beltre hit 13 of his 36 home runs last season with two strikes, so he's not exactly assuming a defensive posture late in counts. Rangers hitting coach Dave Magadan thinks Beltre and Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler share a dislike for strikeouts that's so deeply rooted, they instinctively ratchet up their concentration as an at-bat progresses.
"I think part of the equation is the want to not strike out," Magadan said. "There are some guys who don't see the difference between a flyout, a groundout and a strikeout. Adrian and Ian just have it in their mindset that striking out is not a good thing. They feel like they've been defeated, and if they put it in play they at least have a chance to get a hit. They have a distaste for striking out and feel like it's a big negative."
Over the past decade, Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Lee, Magglio Ordonez, Vladimir Guerrero, Victor Martinez, Joe Mauer, Pablo Sandoval and Kinsler have all shown an ability to pile up extra-base hits while avoiding 100 strikeouts. But Albert Pujols stands above the crowd. Pujols ranks seventh in MLB history with a .602 slugging percentage and topped out at 93 whiffs his rookie year. He hasn't come close since then.
Pujols shared his displeasure with swings and misses in a 2007 interview with ESPN.com. "I get pissed when I strike out," he said. "I get mad. At least if you put the ball in play, a guy can make an error, and you give your teammates a chance to drive you in and score a run. When you strike out, you don't even give yourself a chance."
During his peak years, Pujols was a rare combination of bat speed, strength, plate coverage, plate discipline and consistent mechanics.
He didn't have to swing as hard as most players to send the ball a long way. And he was perfectly content to settle for a ground-ball single up the middle or to right field when the occasion called for it.
The mere mortals have to be a little more industrious. Luis Gonzalez, who hit 354 homers over 19 big league seasons, struck out 102 times as a rookie with Houston in 1994 and never whiffed 100 times after that. During Arizona's championship season in 2001, Gonzalez hit 57 homers and struck out only 83 times.
Gonzalez traces his indoctrination in contact hitting to the long hours he spent watching fellow Tampa native Wade Boggs, one of his boyhood baseball idols, foul off 3-2 pitches on the black. With time, he developed his own appreciation for the value of a good "two-strike approach." Gonzalez had a lengthy discussion with Arizona manager Kirk Gibson about it in 2010, when Mark Reynolds, Adam LaRoche, Justin Upton, Chris Young & Co. were flailing up a storm and the Diamondbacks finished with a staggering 1,529 strikeouts.
So what, precisely, is a two-strike approach? It typically means spreading the legs apart a little more, hitting from a wider base and maybe going into a bit of a crouch -- à la Pete Rose. And lots of big leaguers, just like all those earnest kids in youth leagues, will choke up on the bat to varying degrees. Farrell said that Boston first baseman Mike Napoli chokes up a "good inch to an inch-and-a-half" and looks to hit the ball the other way with two strikes.
"In the minor leagues, they always tell you to choke up and put it in play," said Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino. "I'll choke up a fraction just to give myself more bat control. People don't notice it, but a lot more guys do it than you think."
The Big Hurt and Little Pedey
Frank Thomas walked 270 more times than he struck out during a 19-year career with the White Sox, A's and Blue Jays. He had the advantage of an extraordinarily discerning eye at the plate but also developed a consistent philosophy with help from longtime Chicago hitting coach Walt Hriniak. Under Hriniak's tutelage, Thomas focused on hitting the ball up the middle and to right-center field early in counts rather than trying to pull it. His higher-strikeout seasons came later in his career, when he lost bat speed and became more pull-conscious.
"I was a [batting average] guy," Thomas said. "I cared about staying on the baseball and shooting it to right field. I didn't care about hooking the ball, and Walter didn't like you to hook the ball. He said that was the easy way to hit and the cheap way to hit, and you didn't stay through the ball as much. That was very key early in my career -- to stay middle-away."
Thomas and other players who took pride in low strikeout totals talk about the changing mindset in baseball -- how it's more permissible for players to swing and miss these days. Because the financial rewards are abundant for players who hit with power and there's so little stigma attached to striking out, the big whiffers have little incentive to change. Thomas, who retired in 2008, sees the phenomenon at play routinely in his role as a baseball studio analyst in Chicago.
"Adam Dunn is a guy I watch now," Thomas said. "He has great hand-eye coordination, but he's looking to hit every ball out of the ballpark and that's why he strikes out so much. He could cut down on half his strikeouts. He's that talented. But no one has said anything to him about all the strikeouts, so he continues to do it."
A natural gift for making contact helps. Boston's Dustin Pedroia stands 5-foot-8 and takes a big hack, yet keeps the bat head in the zone for a long time and has the ability to adjust to different pitches. It's a tougher proposition than ever, with so many starters throwing in the mid-to-upper 90s and specialist relievers available for every occasion.
"I don't like striking out," Pedroia said. "I'm sure every hitter doesn't like it. But sometimes you go back to the dugout and say, 'He beat me on that one. He made his pitches in his location, and he got me.' It just happens."
Some hitters just happen to be afflicted with the bug more than others. Rising strikeout totals have become a trend in baseball. But Pedroia and his contact-hitting brethren will gladly take a pass.