Of Chris Carter, strikeouts, and cockroaches


A broadcaster's throwaway comment about a batter's tendency to swing and miss leads to a bizarre and disturbing trip down memory lane.

I was listening to Michael Kay call the Astros-Yankees game on the YES network Monday night... yeah, I know, nothing good ever comes from a story that begins with those words, but please, stay with me -- this isn't one of those shoot-the-hapless-broadcaster columns. Kay was bothered by Astros outfielder/designated hitter Chris Carter's strikeout total, which now has reached 49 in 28 games. Kay did a quick bit of math to project Carter's strikeout total over the full season, properly arriving at a figure north of 200, and questioned if playing him was worth it.

Carter, initially drafted by the Chicago White Sox back in 2005, has already been traded three times without quite establishing himself in the major leagues. His main tool, power, is obviously attractive, as those three deals would suggest, but the rest of the package is a bit lacking. Last season he received an extended chance to show what he could do with the A's. Called up shortly before the All-Star break, he hit .346 with five home runs in his first nine games. That wasn't sustainable, of course, and in the 58 games he played thereafter, Carter' hit another 11 home runs in 192 at-bats, but struggled to keep his batting average up amidst his many strikeouts -- in September he whiffed in 32 of 61 at-bats, hit .148 for the month, and it was off to Houston.

Like most of his teammates, Carter began the season in a funk, going 1-for-19 with 10 strikeouts over his first five games. In game six he commenced a six-game hitting streak and has hit reasonably well since then, hitting .244/.333/.500 in 99 plate appearances spanning 23 games. He's still striking out in about 40 percent of his at-bats, but since he's averaged .357 on balls in play in that time it's all working out for the Astros over that stretch.

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Still, as Kay's question suggests, the stigma that has long been attached to strikeouts still exists. When I was a kid, Barry Bonds' dad Bobby was still playing. He spent the first seven years of his career with the Giants, but after that he was traded roughly every two minutes. The answer usually had something to do with how his team couldn't abide all his strikeouts. He averaged 154 per 162 games played and set the single-season record of 189, since obliterated by Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, and five others. He also had tremendous power and speed and scored 110 runs a year, but the Ks were all anyone was ever willing to talk about. People got downright mono-focused on the whiffs. You could be having a very pleasant baseball conversation with the smartest people you knew and bringing up Bonds would provoke the onset of tunnel vision. You, Albert Einstein, and J. Robert Oppenheimer could be having a perfectly pleasant conversation about anything -- lepidoptery, say, or the best Alfred Hitchcock musicals -- but Bonds would drag the whole thing into the weeds.

You: That Bobby Bonds is pretty good.
Dr. Einstein: Och, those strikeouts.
You: But he hits 30 home runs and steals 30 bases pretty much every year.
Dr. Oppenheimer: Yeah, but he strikes out so much.
You: But he takes 80 or 90 walks every year and his batting averages aren't terrible. He even hit .300 one year!
Dr. Einstein: Those strikeouts kill too many rallies. Ich werde jetzt etwas zitieren berühmten Goethe sagte, aber Sie werden es nicht verstehen, da Sie kein Deutsch sprechen.
Dr. Oppenheimer: Took the words right out of my mouth.
You: How about we drop it and go bowling instead?

Have you ever been out-bowled by a hundred-year-old German man of peace? Embarrassing.


I want to pause here for a story that may initially seem unrelated, but seems to me to have some bearing on the present case. In my family there was a beloved great uncle. We did not see him often, but when we did he was full of bonhomie and money. He came bearing gifts, full arms preceding his 300-pound body. He liked baseball and science fiction and was seemingly always very busy in a non-specific way, arriving from or about to depart on one trip or another. He was a veteran of World War II, and spoke in disgusted fashion of walking the ruins of Hiroshima, where he had been stationed as part of the army of occupation. To a child, his life seemed very busy, very eventful, maybe even a little glamorous.

Around the time I was 14 he died unexpectedly. His affairs had not been put in order, and it fell to my immediate family to dispose of his belongings. A few days after the funeral, my mother unlocked the door to his Bronx apartment and I entered for the first time since my great aunt, his wife, had died several years before. We were greeted by the cloying odor of naphthalene, which proved to pervade every room within. That aside, at first glance everything was the same, exactly the same. There was a dish of candy on the coffee table. It had been there during my last visit. The colored mints were stacked into a small ziggurat, just as they had been -- literally as they had been. They were the same mints in the same dish in the same place that I had seen them a half-dozen years before. Decay had fused them into a single piece.

I had only started to think about the implications of the candy dish when a cockroach ran down the arm of the chair I was sitting in and disappeared into the cushions beneath me. I jumped up, hoping that I had incorrectly identified the bug, that it was some other, more benign insect. I scanned the room, and somehow what hadn't been obvious before was painfully apparent: I saw a roach respiring on the wall, another wandering over the surface of a copy of one of Monet's Water Lillies, roaches hurrying across the living room floor like it was an intersection of West 42nd Street. We were completely surrounded.

As we moved through the various rooms of the apartment, it became apparent that this was an infestation of nigh-biblical proportions. They were in every pocket of the man's clothes, exploring between the bedsheets and spelunking within the pillowcases. If you opened a book and spread the pages, a roach would fall out. Everywhere you looked, you found their leavings -- egg cases, abandoned legs and antennae, chitinous scraps of carapace that snowed on you if you moved something too quickly. The smell was due to someone unknown having come in and, in what was apparently a misguided attempt to treat the plague, dumped moth flakes everywhere.

It was a disgusting scene, but revulsion was neither my dominant emotion then nor is it now in recalling that place, and I will have failed if I leave you only with a crawling-skin, horror-movie sensation of being overrun by creeping pestilence. The feeling that I most want to impart to you is one of great sadness, not because someone I cared about was gone, but that he had proved to be so much less than what I thought of him, that his life had become so pathetic, so stagnant and decayed that it was literally being devoured by vermin. Here was someone, I realized, who I thought I had known but was in truth a stranger to me, a man who had died years before he was dead.

At the time, I could only dimly imagine how one could allow that to happen himself. Now that I'm older, I have a better sense of just how easily the foundations of one's life can be shaken or destroyed. The trappings that seem permanent foundation-pieces of our comfortable existences are flimsy, insubstantial, imaginary, and can be taken away from us with the merest unthinking gesture.


You thought this was going to be another sabermetric rant on how a strikeout is just another out, right? I can play that tune if you want to hear it, but we know how it goes. Michael Kay may even know how it goes -- Chris Carter is putting an awful lot of pressure on himself to be successful when he makes contact. However, hitters from Reynolds to Dunn to Bonds to Vince freakin' DiMaggio have shown that such things do happen. You can name your Jackson -- Reggie or Bo -- same deal. Yes, you may lose something because of the absence of so-called "productive outs," but you also gain something in that these hitters rarely ground into double plays. Bobby Bonds averaged nine GDPs per 162 games played. Carter has hit into just one GDP this year. Strikeout master Rob Deer hit into just 38 double plays in a 1,115-game career, or roughly the same number Derek Jeter hits into before breakfast (while on the DL, no less).

I know I'm reading way too much into Kay's questioning, but baseball has a long history of condemning the Bill "Swish" Nicholson types while singing "Up with Joe Sewell." Ralph Kiner said that you had to grip it and rip it because "Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat" (generally misquoted as "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs") and Mickey Mantle said that if he hit like Pete Rose he'd wear a dress, but it probably wasn't until Reggie Jackson became one of baseball's biggest stars while striking out 150 times a year that strikeouts lost just a little of their negative connotation. Still, Kay sounded very glum, almost as if Carter's strikeouts were not just a flaw in his game, but a personal failing. I thought, "Carter has been productive enough regardless. Besides, they're just strikeouts, not a moral lapse. Giving up on your life and becoming a vassal to cockroaches, that's a moral failing."

In an ideal world, a team's best players hit like DiMaggio -- Joe, not Vince -- and make great contact while also hitting the ball into the gaps and over the fences. Unfortunately, the modern analogue of the DiMaggio is pretty rare. Hitting styles have changed; hitters now go for the fences on 1-2 counts instead of choking up and just trying to stay alive. Even Mike Trout struck out once a game last year. I'm not saying that Carter is a Trout, nor am I saying that he would be a starter on a good team, but it's very easy to imagine him, with appropriate spotting by his manager, doing good work as a 400-at-bat player on a division-winning team.

Even if that happens, Carter will still be striking out at high rates. I just prefer to see his successes, to whatever extent he has them, as the sign of an imperfect player overcoming his weaknesses. The strikeouts are something he works around rather than is defeated by, and the Astros are not merely tolerating him, they're trying to wring value from a player that three other organizations had already dismissed. That's something to be celebrated, not condemned. I know, because I've seen the opposite.

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