You’ve gotta put the ball in play

When I was a kid, I played organized baseball for a total of six years. For the large majority of these years, I sat on the bench and watched the other kids play. The reason was simple enough: I couldn’t put the bat on the ball with any regularity. To put it bluntly, striking out never helps your team. There’s a reason why “striking out” has entered into our lexicon in a negative sense: Nobody wants to come up empty in a given situation. But it happens.

About ten years ago, I went to a baseball fantasy camp in Vero Beach, Florida. After decades without playing baseball, I was going to play several games over the course of three days. So I bought some cleats and a batting glove, and tried to remember some of the finer points of the game. And I made a solemn vow to myself that striking out was not an option. I realized that it killed my enjoyment of the game as a kid, and it would do the same to this fleeting shot at redemption if I let it.

In the five games that were played, I came to the plate a total of 17 times. And yes, I did count, because baseball is all about statistics, isn’t it? In all of those at-bats, I only struck out once. I wanted, above all else, to just put the ball in play and–with that one exception–that’s what I did. All of the frustrations I felt as a kid were washed away, and it felt better than going to Confession ever did.

The player above, Jared Sandberg, also had a problem with striking out (and yes, he was the nephew of Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg). He made his way up through the ranks of the minor leagues, and played in the majors for parts of three seasons. In 2001, after spending most of the season at Triple A Durham, he came to the majors in August and hit .206 for the season. He also struck out once in every three plate appearances, giving the Devil Rays (as they were known at the time) nothing to get very excited about.

Sandberg spent the first month of 2002 back at Triple A, but was recalled to the majors in May. His strikeout total for the season ranked him fifth in the American League, even though each of the players above him had far more plate appearances than he did. He did hit 18 home runs, but a .229 batting average is not a ticket to job security in the major leagues.

Sandberg had one final chance in 2003. Again, he failed to put the ball in play on a regular basis, striking out once in every three plate appearances. He spent all of 2004 at Triple A Durham, and continued to play in the minors until the 2007 season. Since then, he has served as a manager in the Rays minor league system. Whether he will move up the ranks the way his uncle has still remains to be seen.

Perhaps there were other reasons that Jared Sandberg didn’t catch on in the majors. But, as I said, striking out never helps the team. It ends an inning, or it takes the steam out of a rally, or it burns an out and makes it harder for the other hitters to put runs on the board. Putting the ball into play leads to unpredictable results. But the result of regularly failing to do so is far more predictable.

2 thoughts on “You’ve gotta put the ball in play

  1. Striking out isn’t fun but it’s essential. Good players look at failure as a feedback mechanism to help make adjustments throughout a game or season. Don’t forget, the salten of swat broke the strike record the year he hit 60 bombs. Aaron struck out twice for every homerun he hit as well. Sanberg didn’t live up to his potential not because he struck out to much, but because he never learned from them

  2. Thanks for reading. I’m reminded of the Aerosmith song that says “You’ve got to lose to know how to win.” You’re right, individuals can–and must–learn from striking out. But the team isn’t helped by it in the least. It’s also a pitcher’s best friend (except for the double play, of course).

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