LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Braves hitters struck out a franchise-record 1,289 times in 2012, and manager Fredi Gonzalez knows they could whiff even more after adding outfielders B.J. and Justin Upton, who had 301 strikeouts between them last season, and third baseman Chris Johnson, who had 132.
Gonzalez smiled and put a positive spin on the subject: “I know that they’re not going to hit into double plays."
Strikeout totals have soared around baseball in recent years, and Gonzalez takes some comfort knowing sabermetric analysts say strikeouts aren’t as bad as traditionalists believe, that striking out isn’t significantly more harmful than making an out any other way.
The fact remains: teams that strike out most tend not to advance deep in the postseason. No World Series champion has ever struck out as many as 1,200 times, and of the last eight teams to reach the World Series, seven have ranked fifth or better in fewest strikeouts in their respective league, including four that were first or second.
The Braves ranked 13th in the NL in fewest strikeouts. Two of three league teams with more strikeouts were the sub-.500 Pirates and 107-loss Astros. The other was the Nationals, who had the majors’ most wins (98) and fourth-most strikeouts (1,325).
“People in SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) and Fangraphs and all those people say it’s not that big a deal,” Gonzalez said of strikeouts.
Instead he wants to focus on an extremely athletic and potent outfield comprised of the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward, all potential 25-25 players (stolen bases and home runs). All have also had seasons with more that 150 strikeouts apiece, including last year’s career-high totals of 169 for B.J. Upton and 152 for Heyward.
Justin Upton has five consecutive seasons with more than 120 strikeouts, including 152 in 2010 for the whiff-king Diamondbacks, who set a major league record with 1,529 strikeouts. That was the only team to ever have five players with at least 130 strikeouts, including ex-Braves Adam LaRoche and Kelly Johnson.
No other team has even had five players with 120 strikeouts, but this Braves team could.
Four players on this team had more than 130 strikeouts in 2012: B.J. Upton, whose 169 with Tampa Bay tied for sixth in the majors; Dan Uggla, whose Braves franchise-record 168 ranked ninth; Heyward (152) and Chris Johnson (132 with Houston and Arizona). Justin Upton had 121.
It’s worth noting, Juan Francisco had 70 strikeouts in 205 plate appearances for the Braves, and has 121 strikeouts in 386 career plate appearances with Cincinnati and Atlanta. He’s competing with Johnson at third base, and the Braves might also use them in a platoon with Johnson moving over to first base to give Freddie Freeman an occasional day off.
Freeman had 129 strikeouts in 149 games last season. If he'd struck out once more, the 2012 Braves would have been the fifth team in history with four players with at least 130 strikeouts. Atlanta became the third team with three players with at least 150 strikeouts, joining the 2010 Diamondbacks and 2001 Brewers.
Before Arizona’s whiff-tastic 2010 season, the only teams to ever have four players with as many as 130 strikeouts were the 2002 Cubs and the Tigers in 1991 and again in 1992. The quartet with each of those Detroit teams was Rob Deer, Cecil Fielder, Travis Fryman and Mickey Tettleton.
The Braves never had four players with as many as 120 strikeouts in a season until 2012.
One big reason most Braves aren’t too concerned with the potentially huge strikeout totals is power. This team could field one of the deepest and most power-laden lineups in franchise history, with five players who’ve hit at last 23 homers in a season including three who’ve hit 28 or more.
Only 11 teams have ever had five players with 25 or more homers in a season, and Atlanta’s record is four, last done by the 2006 Braves with Jeff Francoeur, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and LaRoche.
In 2012, Heyward hit a career-high 27 homers and Freeman hit 23, both at age 22. McCann, who hit 24 homers in 2011, had had his fifth consecutive 20-homer season last year despite playing only 121 games Uggla had five consecutive seasons with more than 30 homers before hitting a career-low 19 in 2012.
And now they’re joined by the Uptons in the prime of their careers. Justin had a career-high 31 homers in 2011, and B.J. hit a career-best 28 last season.