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September 27, 2002

The Daily Prospectus

Don't Fear the Strikeout

by Dave Pease

Having resolved that pesky AL West issue, one of the most interesting races left is in Milwaukee. Brewers shortstop Jose Hernandez is fighting inconsistent playing time and a fickle manager to set the all-time strikeout record; as of today, he's stuck on 188, just one shy of Bobby Bonds' major-league season record.

It'd be close in any case, but going into the final series of the season with a 1.24 K/G rate, it'd be surprising if Hernandez didn't break the record, provided he gets the playing time to do it. Despite Hernandez having missed only two of the Brewers' first 153 games, Brewers manager Jerry Royster has held Hernandez out of five of the last eight contests, making noise about the media "kind of making a mockery" of the strikeout record. Royster is on record as saying that Hernandez won't play again this year "unless we need him", raising the question of how badly does a 55-104 team need any of its players? Chances are, Hernandez won't get a chance to break the K record, and that's a damned shame.

When did we become so afraid of the strikeout? As a founding member of the Rob Deer Fan Club, I'm probably not the most impartial observer here, but you've got to get lots of playing time to rack up all those Ks, and the fact that you're playing that much despite the strikeouts is something I'd be proud of. Look at it this way; since we know strikeouts are generally bad (they're an out, at least), Hernandez must be doing something right to stick in the starting lineup day in and day out. This is a guideline, not a rule; there are a few guys every year where lack of depth at a skill position, salary, or "intangibles" gets them 150 games played, despite their not deserving it--the Devil Rays excel at unearthing this type of player.

Hernandez isn't one of those guys. He's arguably putting up the best season of any shortstop in the league, and the best season of his career. His 24 bombs lead his position in the National League, he's getting on base at a good clip, and he's probably having the best year of any Brewer.

One look at the current strikeout king shows you that we haven't always been so afraid of the punchy: Bobby Bonds had a very productive career because teams were willing to look past his massive strikeout numbers and focus on the power, the speed, and the overall productivity. Hernandez also strikes out a lot, is way above average, and he's riding the pine--especially curious given the overall higher strikeout rates of this era.

If Royster thinks his shortstop is being unfairly maligned by the press for the K record, he could talk about how Hernandez has been the best Brewer, and the best shortstop in the National League this year, without telling even a white lie. Hernandez is 33, and this may very well be the best season he'll ever have. He'll never make the record books for anything else, so it'd be nice if the Brewers sent him out there for the last three games. He'd probably set the strikeout record, and he'd get a chance to tack one or two bombs on to his career-high HR total--a counting stat that really matters--while he's at it.

It's a shame he won't get that chance.

Dave Pease is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Transaction Analysis: ... (09/26)
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