Royster Strikes Out

The Milwaukee Brewers are bad, downright awful, in fact. Having already lost over 100 games this season, they’re the worst team in franchise history–even worse than the 1969 Seattle Pilots (64-98). And even less likely to leave behind a bestselling epitaph.

Their offense is pretty pathetic, last in the league in runs scored, and 14th out of 16 in OPS. But faced with a series which actually meant something–three games against the San Francisco Giants this weekend, games with NL Wild Card implications–manager Jerry Royster chose to make his team even more feeble than it already is. Royster benched All-Star shortstop Jose Hernandez in order to prevent him from breaking the single-season major league record for strikeouts in front of the home crowd.

Hernandez has struck out 188 times this season, one short of the record Bobby Bonds set in 1970. With a week to go, he’s a lock to break the record if he plays at all. But Royster didn’t bench his shortstop to avoid the record, as Florida Marlins manager John Boles did by sitting Preston Wilson during last season’s final week. The manager of the Brewers is simply trying to protect his player, upset because Hernandez was being booed at Miller Park for NOT striking out, among other things. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Fans in the right-field stands assembled what looked like 188 ‘K’ placards, which were removed at an usher’s request.”

They do know their strikeouts in Milwaukee. Last year’s team set a major-league record for striking out with 1399, led by Hernandez (185) and Sexson (178). This year they’ve cut down considerably (1079 with a week to go), which is even one less thing the Milwaukee faithful have to cheer about. Royster doesn’t see it that way, however: “I don’t think he deserves any treatment like that. What he deserves, if he gets it, is the strikeout record. Also what he deserves is praise for the way he’s played. He’s getting none of that. He’s only getting where people are trying to humiliate him… We won’t avoid the record. I will help him avoid being humiliated.”

Somebody else will have to nominate Royster for the Humanitarian of the Year Award. I’ll take issue with the fact that he can’t even lose right. Hernandez, who’s hitting .282 AVG/.351 OBP/.473 SLG/824 OPS with 24 HR, is the team’s second best hitter. Without him the enfeebled Brewers managed only three runs and 14 hits over their three games with the Giants. Not that one hitter would have definitely made a difference against the Giants, but Hernandez’s presence in the lineup rather than rookie Bill Hall (hitting .158 through the end of the series) couldn’t have hurt the team, and was merited given the circumstances of games with playoff implications. Is the integrity of the schedule too much for Milwaukee to handle?

Royster, who may well get fired at season’s end anyway, deserves some grief over this. A seven-year contract to manage the Brewers ought to be sufficient punishment.

As for Bonds’ record, it will likely fall to Hernandez during the Brewers’ series in Houston. It’s amazing that that the mark has stood for 32 years, given that strikeouts rates have increased about 20% in that span. Here are the National League rates of K’s per team per game, taken at five evenly spaced intervals from the time Bonds set the record until now:

1970: 5.88 per team per game

1978: 5.10

1986: 6.01

1994: 6.32

2002: 7.01

The stigma against strikeouts isn’t what it used to be; it’s worth noting that of the top 40 single season totals, only two of them happened before 1970, and one of them was Bonds’ previous high of 187 in 1969 (the other was previous record-holder Dave Nicholson’s 175 in 1963). Several players have come close to breaking the record in this span, including Wilson, former Brewer Rob Deer (who didn’t play several games during the season’s final week in 1987, when he finished with an AL record 186), Pete Incaviglia, and Jim Thome. It was bound to fall sooner or later.

Postscript: Score an error for me on the Preston Wilson comment; it was 2000, not 2001 when Wilson struck out 187 times. Furthermore, while Boles vowed to bench Wilson down the stretch to avoid the record, he did back off somewhat. The Marlins outfielder played in 161 games for the season, with two pinch-hitting appearances in the final week.

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