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In Defense of the Whiff

Diamondbacks slugger Mark Reynolds strikes out at a record rate. Big deal

Baseball peoplejust love productive outs. You ever see a big league dugout after someone movesa runner to third on a routine ground ball to the right side? It's like MardiGras. High fives! Hugs! Confetti! Charles Lindbergh didn't get the welcome thata baseball player gets for hitting a timely dribbler to second base.

And there's morethan just dancing in the dugout. Announcers sing hosannas to productive outs.Hardened newspapermen write lyric poems. Managers complain incessantly that theproblem with baseball (the problem with the whole damned country) is thatplayers are not selfless enough. General managers will paymillions—millions!—for men magnanimous enough to move a runner over and heartyenough to hit a sacrifice fly deep enough to score 'em from third.

Well, I don't wantthis to come out wrong, but ... a pox on the productive out. Give me MarkReynolds.

Reynolds is theDiamondbacks third baseman who last season became the first player in bigleague history to strike out 200 times in a season. He struck out 204 times, tobe exact, and as the old-timers will tell you (and tell you and tell you), 204strikeouts is more than Joe DiMaggio had in the 1940s. The whole war-torndecade.

But Reynolds wasunabashed. "It's the way I hit," he said shortly before setting therecord, and he shrugged.

He came into thisseason still swinging away. On Sept. 22, against San Francisco, K-Mark tied hisrecord by striking out against Matt Cain. Same game, he broke the record byswinging and missing against Madison Bumgarner. A couple of innings later, forgood measure, he struck out against Brandon Medders. (With 211 strikeoutsthrough Sunday, he has a real shot at 220 for the season.)

"So what?"was his testy response to the media after the Giants game.

So what? isexactly right. That night Reynolds also hit a run-scoring double (his 100th RBIof the season) and scored his 93rd run of 2009. Later in the week he hit his44th home run—only Albert Pujols has hit more. With 24 steals, Reynolds is oneof only three third basemen (Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones are the others)to have hit 40 homers and stolen 20 bases in a season. And he is in theNational League's top 10 in slugging percentage, total bases and, the tellingBill James statistic, runs created.

How is itpossible? Well, the dirty truth is that strikeouts get a bad rap. Of coursethey can bury players. The more times you strike out, the fewer balls you putin play. The fewer balls you put in play, the fewer chances you have to be aproductive hitter.

But there is a newgeneration of hitters—Reynolds, Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, Jack Cust, Carlos Pe√±aand Jason Bay, to name a few—who draw so many walks and hit the ball so hard(when they hit the ball) that they are wildly productive even if they strikeout 150 or 200 times in a season.

Reynolds, 26, isthe king of Generation K. The Diamondbacks chose him in the 16th round out ofVirginia in 2004, and scouts thought his addiction to swinging and missing—hehad 322 strikeouts in 333 minor league games—would doom him. But this seasonReynolds had hit .424 when he hit the baseball in fair territory. And he hadwalked enough to keep his on-base percentage in the more-than-respectable.350s.

He is relentless.He may walk back to the dugout after one third of his plate appearances, but hedoes not let it get him down. In June he struck out three straight timesagainst the American League ERA leader, Zack Greinke. The fourth time up he hita long home run. Four days later, Reynolds was 0 for 3 against Seattle'sbrilliant Felix Hernandez, and his fourth time up he hit a long home run.

Of course,Reynolds cannot escape the strikeout stigma. As good as he has been, peoplekeep asking him about the whiffs. "We all want him to be a productiveplayer and strike out less," Arizona manager A.J. Hinch conceded afterReynolds's record-breaking game.

Yes, baseballpeople do love those productive outs.

Well, here's arare cheer for unproductive outs. Reynolds might not hit many sacrifice flies(two this year), but he also doesn't hit into double plays (only eight—21 fewerthan Miguel Tejada, who is the hardest player in the National League to strikeout). Reynolds might not move runners over, but he was fifth in the league inextra-base hits. Does anyone really want him shortening up that swing so he canhit a few more groundouts?

They used to saythat Babe Ruth was more exciting to watch striking out than anyone else hittinghome runs. Well, with the right hitters strikeouts are still thrilling. Theyare the story of a man refusing to yield. Reggie Jackson struck out more thanany other player in baseball history. His response? "A billion people inChina don't care."

You know what?With a hitter as good as Reynolds, nobody in America should care either.

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Strikeouts can be thrilling. They are the story of AMAN REFUSING TO YIELD.