There is a famous line from the movie “Bull Durham” that emphasizes the simplicity of baseball: “You throw the ball, you hit the ball and you catch the ball.” In theory, this is the essence of the game, as a classic five-tool player has been expected to do all three of those tasks (along with baserunning) with ease.
As one of the greats, it is necessary to not only hit home runs, but also bat for average to keep the game intense. Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb and Willie Mays come to mind when discussing a classic five-tool player, all players who have become legends.
Enter the 2017 season, which was dominated by the extreme rate of not only home runs, but also strikeouts. Yankee rookie slugger Aaron Judge made a name for himself on the national level after hitting an impressive 52 regular-season home runs, breaking Mark McGwire’s record 49 from 1987. Judge was only second to Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 59. Both, like any other slugger, have become household names, appearing in countless ESPN headlines and social media trends.
What many fail to realize is the fact that the only statistic listed by MLB.com (keeping in mind there are hundreds of different stats in the modern era) that Judge actually led the league in was strikeouts, totaling 208 over the season.
This was a trend that was seen throughout the entire league, with a record setting 6,105 home runs, crushing the former 5,693 set in the midst of the steroid era in 2000. Strikeouts have also continued on an upward trend, with a total of 40,104, which is 1,122 more than last year.
While many ponder if these numbers are a result of altered baseballs or steroids, it might just be the desire to be a “superstar.” Recently, just as the art of bunting has been replaced with the clutch homer, batters seem more willing to strikeout swinging for the fences instead of taking a walk. In the last week of Stanton’s season, he had 30 at bats, resulting in two home runs, eight strikeouts and only one walk. His last at bat, after striking out, he walked back to the dugout to chants of MVP.
All in all, the biggest issue with the increased rates is the slow decline of respect toward a five-tool player. Casual fans do not talk about Charlie Blackmon or Jose Altuve, both players who are strong candidates for MVP in their respective leagues. Instead, fans go to games and expect to see the homers by Judge and Stanton and marvel at the exit velocity and distance the ball travels, chanting “MVP” afterwards. Sometimes, there are audible groans when they strike out.
The art of defense and baserunning is overlooked, with less recognition for players who prove to be great all-around baseball players. “Bull Durham” may have overstated the simplicity of the game, but many true baseball fans are now questioning if the complexity will ever be valued again.