www.redeyechicago.com/sports/sc-spt-0421-notes-rogers-baseball-20130421,0,2899677.column

redeyechicago.com

Difference in baseball is striking

Since 2005, number of strikeouts has increased 20 percent

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

2:40 PM CDT, April 20, 2013

Advertisement

Javier Baez is considered widely to be the best prospect in the Cubs' farm system. His counterpart for the White Sox is Courtney Hawkins.

Baez, a 20-year-old shortstop, and Hawkins, a 19-year-old center fielder, both have tremendous hitting skills. They entered the weekend with eight home runs in 105 combined at-bats though they already had struck out 47 times.

Hawkins, who had put the ball in play only eight times in 32 at-bats against right-handed pitchers, was averaging 2.33 strikeouts per game. While Baez was at a pace of "only'' 1.36 strikeouts per game, that still would give him 170 if he plays 125 games this year.

And these are the best hitters?

This is the modern game, where strikeouts continue to rise like floodwaters, with no imminent return to the once-familiar banks.

Last Wednesday in Seattle, the Tigers and Mariners battled for 14 innings, with a cast of 12 relievers following Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez onto the Safeco Field mound. The starters had 24 of the 40 strikeouts that marked only the second time in history that teams in a game had more than 18 strikeouts (the other was a 15-inning game between the Giants and Padres in 2001).

With Prince Fielder going 0-for-6 with five strikeouts, the Tigers' 21 strikeouts tied a club record, and they did it a night after they had fanned 19 times. One other thing — they won both games.

On Tuesday in Cleveland, the Indians' bullpen struck out 15 Red Sox hitters after Ubaldo Jimenez had been knocked out in the second inning. Cody Allen, Nick Hagadone, Rich Hill and Bryan Shaw fanned half of the 30 hitters they faced. Oh, and the Indians still lost.

"Getting a lot of strikeouts shows pure stuff,'' Indians manager Terry Francona said. "All those guys throw in the mid-90s with good breaking balls.''

Six of the Indians' seven relievers entered the weekend averaging at least one strikeout per inning. That's a part of a trend that has been in play since 2006.

Total strikeouts have increased for seven consecutive seasons, with batting average dropping six years in a row. The early totals suggest business as usual in 2013, with the MLB batting average at .252 (down from .255 in 2012) and teams on pace for a record 36,796 strikeouts. That would be a 20 percent increase since 2005.

The biggest change in the game during this time is testing for amphetamines and other performance enhancing drugs. But Francona is also right to point to power pitchers with "pure stuff.''

ESPN's Keith Law just updated his ranking of the top 50 prospects for the draft. Four of his top five are pitchers, with Oklahoma University's Jonathan Gray joining Stanford's Mark Appel at the top of the list.

Two of a kind: Miguel Cabrera and Joe Mauer were born one day apart in 1983, and both turned 30 last week. They have had quite a decade, both reaching the big leagues at 20 — Cabrera with the 2003 Marlins and Mauer with the '04 Twins.

While Mauer has slowed since the Twins moved from the Metrodome to Target Field, both have done the heavy lifting for the Hall of Fame. They have 12 All-Star seasons, five batting titles and two MVP awards between them, and both feel they have plenty left to give.

Their teams hope so. Including this season, Mauer is signed for $138 million over six years and Cabrera has another $65 million coming his way over three.

Mauer flew friends and family into Chicago to celebrate his birthday Friday, and got a bonus when the game against the White Sox was postponed before most players had left the team hotel.

"I don't want to make it too crazy, but it's a birthday'' Mauer told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "You're supposed to celebrate.''

When Cabrera turned 30 on Thursday, he was a .318 career hitter with 323 home runs and 1,140 RBIs. That's 19 fewer home runs than Henry Aaron had when he turned 30 but 19 more RBIs. He has a chance to take down Aaron's records but he will have to keep playing into his 40s to do it. Aaron retired at 42.

Cabrera says he isn't studying his situation.

"I just want to keep playing,'' he told the Detroit Free Press.

His next contract should be a doozy.

Missing man formation: Don Mattingly is convinced Matt Kemp is healthy for one of the few times the last two years but still took him out of the lineup Thursday.

Kemp wasn't happy to be benched but his .182 batting average didn't help his argument.

"I don't ever want to sit,'' Kemp said. "But, you know, I didn't make the lineup out, Donnie B. did. He told me I needed a night off. I respect him for that."

With Kemp as the biggest issue, the Dodgers scored only 41 runs in their first 15 games, the lowest total in the majors. They have lacked power and clutch hitting, with Kemp and Andre Ethier a combined 2-for-36 with runners in scoring position.

Yasiel Puig is off to a strong start in the Southern League (.333/.385/.625) but he wasn't promoted for this week's series at Baltimore, when a designated hitter is required. Mattingly's hoping Kemp snaps out of it soon.

"Maybe I should be a little more worried about bad habits in a sense, but I'm not really seeing that,'' Mattingly said. "I'm seeing more of simple things like you would if anyone else was struggling — not backing the ball up, not getting himself strikes, pressing a little bit.''

Secret weapon: When the Giants swept the Tigers in the World Series a year ago, they had the benefit of scouting reports written by former catcher Brian Johnson, who followed his doctor wife to Detroit and bases himself out of Comerica Park.

"I've seen the Tigers 240 times in three years," Johnson told Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle. "I see 75 to 80 games a year, so if I don't know how to beat them, there's something wrong."

Johnson says there were "a couple of things I thought were pertinent I wanted to make sure were emphasized," but says the winning scouting report was a collaborative effort involving "a bunch of us.''

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers