Barber: Boom or bust for A's hitters

The Oakland Athletics' Matt Olson throws his bat down after striking out against Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo with the bases loaded during the first inning aturday, Sept. 2, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)


OAKLAND - Because the A’s remain, at their core, a young and unproven team, it’s hard to guess exactly what they’ll be this season. I mean, we know they’ll play in the decrepit Coliseum, and we know they’ll wear kelly-green throwback jerseys on home Fridays. They introduced the jerseys Friday at their new offices in Jack London Square, after which players and coaches mingled with the media in sort of a non-alcoholic mixer.

But the A’s lineup and starting rotation remain works in progress. This team could go in various directions in 2018. There are couple givens, though.

Count on many, many home runs, and many, many strikeouts.

Forget the traditional scorecard when the Athletics play. Most at-bats can be catalogued as either “feast” or “famine.” The A’s blasted 234 long balls in 2017, fourth in the major leagues and just nine short of the team record set in 1996, when Mark McGwire clubbed 52 while powered by nothing less natural than Ovaltine and raisins. They also struck out 1,491 times in 2017, easily the most in franchise history.

That’s a lot of hard swinging and missing and sometimes connecting. And the A’s were no outlier. The HR/K trend is the kombucha of Major League Baseball.

Aided in 2017 by baseballs that were wound as tightly as Bobby Knight — just ask the Giants’ Johnny Cueto and Oakland’s Jharel Cotton, among the many pitchers who missed time because of finger blisters — major-league teams averaged 1.26 homers per game last season, an all-time record. They also averaged 8.25 strikeouts, breaking that futile mark for the 10th consecutive season.

You don’t have to go to Russia for a hacking scandal, there’s one right here in America.

But here’s the weird part. Baseball managers and hitting instructors, while not exactly embracing the strikeout, have come to tolerate it from their batters.

“It’s kind of gone along with the analytic side of things, and understanding when it’s OK to do those things and when it’s not,” said Matt Olson, the young A’s first baseman who hit 24 home runs and struck out 60 times in just 189 at-bats last year.

Olson is right. It took the numbers crunchers to point out that a home run is unquestionably the most desirable outcome on every plate appearance, while a strikeout frequently is no worse than a weak fly ball or soft bouncer.

Some guys were ahead of the curve. “When I was a player, Dusty Baker used to tell me, ‘If you think you’re gonna ground into a double play, strike out,’ ” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “I don’t know that that applies.”

But it’s coming into fashion. Part of the response has been mechanical. More and more hitters are changing their launch angles, swinging in an upward trajectory meant to produce long flies. Exhibit A: Yonder Alonso. In his first seven MLB seasons, his personal best for home runs in a season was nine. But Alonso shifted his launch angle dramatically last year — people chart these things — and he had 22 home runs by the time the A’s traded him to Seattle early last August.

More important than mechanics, though, has been a simple change in mindset.

“It’s never gonna be a positive vibe around a strikeout,” Olson said. “But I just remember growing up, and even throughout my high school years, striking out was like, don’t do it. You’d do anything to avoid making that happen. I personally believe that when I was thinking that way at the plate, I was kind of throwing some at-bats away. Because I’d take a 1-0 fastball and just try to put it in play, where I look back on it and I may have gotten a pitch that I could have driven somewhere.”

And now?

“I do think the league has kind of gone away from that two-strike mentality,” Olson observed. “Or like we’d always say, ‘choke and poke’ — just try to put something in play.”

The coaches have a hard time articulating their position on this, because no one wants to condone hacking and missing. It would be a like a football coach explaining that, you know, all in all, fumbles aren’t that bad.

But talking to Melvin, to A’s hitting coach Darren Bush and to several players, the picture was pretty clear. Not everyone gets the green light to bash it like Babe. Khris Davis (43 homers and 195 strikeouts in 566 at-bats last year)? You bet, especially when you factor in Davis’ team-co-leading 73 walks. That selectivity is crucial. In contrast, Ryon Healy’s 25 bombs and meager 23 walks weren’t enough to justify his 142 Ks, which might help to explain why the A’s traded him to the Mariners in November.

Most important, hitters have to know the situation. If there’s a runner on third base with one out, or a man on second with none out, you’re expected to put the ball in play. At other times, go ahead and take a mighty swing on 0-2.

I asked Bush if he worried that the newfound acceptance of high strikeout numbers would encourage his young hitters to lose their discipline.

“Not really, because the guys we have that you’re talking about, they don’t have to try to hit them. They have power,” he said. “They just have to put good quality swings on the ball.”

The players sounded liberated by the trend. Without someone watching over their shoulders and counting every K as a demerit, they can free their minds to see and hit the ball.

From a fan’s perspective, though, I can’t say I love it. I know, I know, we’re all supposed to love the long ball. It’s an exciting moment when a ball leaves the yard, of course it is. Sluggers will always be our biggest baseball heroes. All those strikeouts, though. Do you really want to see 16.5 of them a game, as we did in 2017? As opposed to, say, the 11.6 per game that occurred in 1993?

Home runs and strikeouts both qualify as brash, loud statements. But they are fleeting. The sustained excitement in baseball comes with runners on base. The guy on taking a lead off first. The distracted pitcher casting side-eye glances. The crack of a line drive, the runners in motion, that suspended moment when you hold your breath and wait for the throw to home plate. It’s the best.

But hey, that’s just me. It’s not Major League Baseball in 2018, and it’s certainly not the A’s. The days of choke-and-poke are dying. It’s whale-or-flail now.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.