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Column: Can Braves win a title with all those Ks?

- Associated Press - Friday, May 31, 2013

ATLANTA (AP) - They might want to consider setting up a wind farm at Turner Field, because there sure is a stiff breeze coming out of that place most nights.

The first-place Atlanta Braves keep swinging away _ and missing, a lot of the time _ which raises an intriguing question as baseball heads into the dog days of summer:

Can a team that strikes out with such regularity actually win a championship?

In all likelihood, no.

The numbers just don't stack up for the Braves, not if the umpires keep shouting "1-2-3, you're out!" at such a staggering rate.

Going into Friday night's game against NL East rival Washington, the Braves were on pace to whiff 1,476 times this season. That would be the second-highest total in baseball history, surpassed only by the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks (1,529), though it must be noted that woeful Houston is having even more trouble making contact at the moment, so Atlanta could wind up settling for third on the infamous list.

Of course, the Astros have no chance of making the playoffs. The Braves, on the other hand, were cruising along with the biggest division lead of any team in baseball, making it easier and easier to believe you can spell championship with a K.

"Are we going to strike out 27 times in a game?" the biggest offender, Dan Uggla, said before going out to take some extra batting practice Friday. "Somebody's going to make some contact somewhere. We can strike out 25 times and hit two homers and win 2-1. We can strike out 26 times and hit one homer and win 1-0."

The Braves knew what they were getting into when they signed B.J. Upton and traded for his little brother Justin last winter, adding them to a lineup that already included big swingers Uggla, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman. Those five players combined for 739 strikeouts last season, so this isn't exactly a surprising development.

The problem for Atlanta is that Uggla, Heyward and B.J. Upton are all hitting below .200, which has caused their strike zones to expand even more than usual as they try desperately to swing their way out of the slumps. Upton's average (.146) was lower as of Friday than any other qualifying hitter in baseball, and he was pace to whiff 190 times. Uggla's strikeout rate computes to a staggering 202 over a full season.

"We weren't banking on us striking out as many times as we have already this year," Uggla conceded, though he was quick to add, "We're still in first place."

Indeed, when the Braves do get their bat on the ball, it tends to go a long way. Atlanta was leading the NL in homers and ranked among the top five in runs. So maybe there's something to this all-or-nothing approach.

"It's all about run production," National manager Davey Johnson said.

But one thing about baseball: They keep some pretty thorough records.

Taking a few hours to pore over the numbers and with some help from our good friends at STATS, I was able to determine that only eight teams in the entire history of the game have won the World Series after leading their league in strikeouts. More troubling if you're a Braves' fan, only two of those teams _ the 1976 Cincinnati Reds and 1926 St. Louis Cardinals _ were from the National League.

Of course, strikeouts are a much more accepted part of the game that they once were. Everyone has gotten comfortable with the idea of taking plenty of Ks if it increases the chances of knocking one of the park. Plus, this is a golden age of pitching, with dominant starters often followed to the mound by a bevy of hard-throwing relievers.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the 10-highest team strikeout totals in baseball history have all come since 2001. If the season ended today, the NL playoff field would include three teams that rank among the top five in the league. Over in that other league, Boston leads the East despite the second-most strikeouts (and, really, it's the highest among bona fide AL teams, since the Astros are little more than a Triple-A franchise).

Given that, maybe Atlanta's strikeout totals aren't quite all as staggering as they seem to be, so I crunched a little more.

Some factoids:

_ While the Oakland A's won the AL West last season fanning 1,387 _ the third-highest total in baseball history and most ever by a playoff team _ they were quickly eliminated in the playoffs. Strike one for the Braves.

_ The last four World Series champs have ranked 15th, 16th, 12th and 13th in their league strikeout totals. In other words, the teams that go all the way know how to do something other than hit homers, a good fallback to have in the postseason, when teams can shorten rotations and it's rare to face a pitcher you can knock around. Strike two for the Braves.

_ Roughly a third of the way through the season, Atlanta is getting rung up at a pace 21 percent above the NL average, a figure that has no historical precedence for a champion in baseball's modern era. Strike three, the Braves are out.

The most recent World Series winner to lead its league in Ks was the 2004 Red Sox, who finished 14.6 percent above the AL average that season. The five teams that accomplished the feat before the Sox ranged from 7.1 percent to 16.4 percent above league averages. You have to go all the way back to the 1920s to find the only teams higher than the Braves when compared to overall numbers.

In the early years of the live-ball era, Babe Ruth and the slugging New York Yankees showed that it made a lot more sense to swing hard and not worry so much about making contact, as long as it increased the chances of hitting the ball over the fence.

In an interesting twist, the Yankees weren't the first team to lead the league in strikeouts and win the World Series. That would be the `26 Cardinals, who fanned an NL-high 518 times (23.3 percent above the league average) before beating New York, of all teams, in the series.

Not to be outdone, the Yankees struck out a then-whopping 610 times the following season, nearly 44 percent above the AL average. Didn't seem to hurt them. With Ruth hitting 60 homers and Lou Gehrig adding 47, New York wiped out Pittsburgh in the World Series and is remembered as one of the greatest teams in baseball history. (In 1928, the Yankees won their second straight title after leading the league in strikeouts, though only 20 percent above the AL average).

This ain't the Roaring Twenties.

Chances are, if the Braves don't start putting more wood on the ball, their season will end like so many others over the last two decades.

With another postseason defeat.

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Associated Press freelance writer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd contributed to this report.

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