K's an occupational hazard for Red Sox hitters
Striking out comes with the territory of deeper counts, swinging for fences
BOSTON -- When Mike Napoli singled in his final at-bat of Sunday's 12-4 loss to the Blue Jays, it marked the first time in four games that he didn't strike out at least once in a game.
At one point this season, he struck out in 16 of 17 games. With 50 strikeouts through the Red Sox's 38 games, Napoli could come close to breaking the all-time Major League record of 223, set by Mark Reynolds in 2009.
Napoli is on pace for 213, which would be the third-highest mark in Major League history and would break Boston's club record of 177 set by Mark Bellhorn in 2004.
Led by Napoli, the Sox could break the American League strikeout record of 1,387, set by last year's Oakland A's. Boston has fanned 317 times through 38 games. And that number isn't even big enough to top the Majors: the notoriously free-swinging Braves have 345, while the very young Astros lineup is on pace to shatter the AL record with 381.
All of this means very little to the Red Sox's players and coaches.
Because while Atlanta and Houston rank somewhere in the middle of baseball's best offenses, Boston is right near the top with 181 runs, while leading the big leagues in extra-base hits with 136.
For the Sox, striking out is a predicted failure.
"That's part of the philosophy," said hitting coach Greg Colbrunn. "When you see a lot of pitches, obviously you're going to strike out a lot. That's conducive to having more strikeouts. We have certain hitters that are a little bit more aggressive with two strikes, but those are the type of hitters we have."
While strikeouts continue to change the game -- entering May, league-wide strikeout numbers had been on the rise for six straight months -- the Red Sox have adapted, accepted the frequency in which they'll be whiffing and tried to work around it.
"We don't have many contact guys," said third baseman Will Middlebrooks. "We have guys who have pop. When you have guys up there who aren't just trying to poke a ball through the four-hole -- but they're hitting it off the wall, hitting it over the wall -- you're going to have your strikeouts.
"With those type of players, that comes along with that. In some situations, it's an all-or-nothing mentality."
It all starts with patience on the first pitch of an at-bat. No team swings at the first pitch as rarely as the Red Sox, who do it just once every five at-bats.
"There's a track record by a number of guys in our lineup that aren't afraid to get deep in the count," said manager John Farrell. "It's part of the type of hitter that we look to acquire."
The Red Sox have a 1.004 OPS in full counts this season, compared to the Major League average of .801.
"Me personally, I like to get involved in an at-bat," said Napoli, who has seven home runs this season and is tied for third in the AL with 33 RBIs. "The last thing you want to do, especially early in the game, is go in there, swing at the first pitch and get out. There are situations if I face a guy a lot, I'm more likely to swing first pitch. But me personally, I like to get involved."
Won't pitchers start to pick up on the Red Sox's approach and start taking advantage?
"You can sense that," Napoli said. "If a guy is getting aggressive, throwing strike one every time, you might be a little more aggressive. You get so many scouting reports on guys who throw strike one down and away or something. I mean, you know that kind of stuff.
"The key is trying to get good team at-bats and have that same goal of getting the guy out of the game."
The counterargument could be made that with the specialization of bullpens, it's been harder to score runs off relievers than it is to score off the starting pitcher. League-wide, starters have a 4.15 ERA, while the bullpen averages a 3.66 ERA.
But there's also the idea that getting into a 'pen quickly can force the opposing manager to play all of his cards early in a series, tiring the relievers as the games progress.
Farrell buys into that theory.
"It's clear that if you build a starter's pitch count and get into that bullpen -- hopefully earlier rather than later -- I think that's been proven over time that that correlates to success," Farrell said.
With Mark Buehrle on the mound against the Red Sox on Saturday, they fell out of their approach. Buehrle, who had allowed five runs or more in three straight starts entering the game, sailed through the Sox's lineup, finishing six at-bats on two pitches or fewer, as he held them scoreless over 7 1/3 innings.
Saturday's performance was exactly what the Red Sox have tried to avoid.
"We got aggressive on the first pitch, and Buehrle ended up throwing seven, eight innings," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has struck out in 34 percent of his at-bats this season, a career high. "So that's why our approach is to go up there and work the pitcher."
The Red Sox understand that playing the game this way is conducive to streaky hitting. Their failure to convert with runners in scoring position -- they're hitting .163 since May 2 -- will surely start to change.
Just as they converted those chances in April, they're missing them now.
But the process tends to trump the outcome. And the Red Sox's success in April gives them confidence in theirs.
They don't want to change.
"I preach, 'Stick to your routine,'" said Colbrunn, who had a career .289 average over 13 Major League seasons. "It's a fail-safe for hitters. Once you start changing lanes and all that -- that's one of the worst things you can do."