Last night’s Nationals game was a fun one, as far as sparsely-attended midweek May games against terrible opponents go. With the score 3-2 and two runners on base with one out, closer Sean Doolittle blew away two consecutive Orioles quad-A hitters with mid 90’s fastballs to lock down the victory. After the last strike 3, Doolittle turned towards centerfield and uncharacteristically let out a guttural scream while Pedro Severino pumped his fist behind the plate. It was a fun display of emotion from both and provided the Nats a signature moment in the young season.
Would the moment have been more fun had Doolittle acquired the last out through a routine pop up? Would Doolittle have reacted in the same way if he was forced to wait for an outfielder to catch the ball? Would it have been more or less satisfying for the fan watching on tv?
There’s been quite a bit of hand-wringing this season about the drop of “balls in play” across Major League Baseball. Pitchers are getting better and batters are caring less if they make contact. Strikeouts are up. Ground balls and pop flys are down.
Is this a reason for worry? Last night’s experience with Sean Doolittle suggests that it’s not. Strikeouts are fun. There’s something immediate and primal about a strikeout. It’s instantaneous satisfaction. When Dootlittle let go of the ball, it could have been a walk off home run or game ending swing and miss. The fan gets the answer right away. That’s the essence of sports. It’s the baseball equivalent of shot at the buzzer or 4th down throw into the end zone. That’s why Doolittle let out his scream. The game went from uncertainty to finality in a fraction of a second. It was exciting.
It also provides Doolittle, and the fans, the the gratification of conquering an opponent. Baseball is unique among sports that the majority of the action is Mano a Mano. It’s an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. Ninety percent of the time, its just pitcher against hitter. We repeat until one team has 27 outs. It’s a series of individual duels bundled into one “game.” A strikeout is the purest form of that duel.
Strikeouts provide us our best moments. Think about Stephen Strasburg striking out the side in the 7th inning of his first start. People would have cared less had he induced 3 straight ground balls. Max Scherzer’s 20 strikeout game in 2015 is another great franchise moment. Plenty of Nats pitchers have compiled 20 outs via ground balls and pop flies, but you never bother to remember them. Teams track “K’s” on the scoreboard–they don’t track ground balls. Fans stand and applaud when a pitcher gets two strikes–they’re not doing it because they’re rooting for a pop fly.
There’s a line in “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner encourages his young pitcher to avoid strikeouts and get more ground balls because they’re “more democratic.”
Well, democracy is boring. Give me to the Dictatorship of the strikeout. There’s a reason Napoleon is in every history book.