Every day after work, I listen to the Colin Cowherd podcast. It’s a sample from that day’s show, usually about 42 minutes long or so. My commute home is about 36 minutes, so it works out pretty well. Cowherd as a radio host has been polarizing, but I think his presentation is the best. He uses relatable angles to talk about his views on topics and makes his points in ways that no other host does.
On his Feb. 27 show, he was ragging on Russell Westbrook (which is a daily thing). He said that some players get the calls because they have gained respect from officials. When great players drive to the basket, they get calls not because of fouls – but because they’ve earned respect. Players like Westbrook, who settle for jumpers and who struggle to gain universal respect, don’t get fouled a lot. He illustrated this point by saying:
“Rod Carew, the greatest hitter I ever saw, along with Tony Gwynn, rarely struck out looking. Umpires respected him so much that if he didn’t think it was a strike, they didn’t call it.”
This kind of random baseball thinking is one of the things I want to do for fun on this site. Baseball nerdery. Along with sports media and related topics, let’s talk baseball.
So, was it true? How can we investigate Cowherd’s claims? Did Rod Carew really never strike out looking?
Play-by-play data from Baseball-Reference is spotty when it comes to denoting strikeouts looking. Play-by-play descriptions of the California Angels were only available for the 11 seasons from 1973-83. I would’ve gone further, but nonetheless I think that time period fits well because it’s largely his prime. If Cowherd’s take that umpires didn’t punch out Carew is accurate, this is the large part of his career where he would’ve had the most street cred at the plate.
Carew Rarely Struck Out
This isn’t groundbreaking. Carew is a legend, a Hall of Famer who collected 3,053 hits and a lifetime .328 batting average. To get a feel of how good he was and how rarely he struck out, here’s his K rate during those 11 years (1973-83) compared to the American League average:
So, he struck out way less than what a normal big leaguer should. But how many of those (rare) strikeouts were called strike 3s??
Here’s a breakdown of Carew’s strikeout percentage and what percentage of those strikeouts were looking:
Of the 539 times he struck out over 11 years, 175 of those saw him look at strike 3. That means his percentage of strikeouts looking was 32.47%. In the Baseball-Reference league batting encyclopedia, I looked up broad, league-wide stats year-by-year. This helped me gain a historical context for Carew’s percentage of strikeouts looking.
How Carew Stacks Up Historically
Now that we know that of Carew’s strikeouts he went down looking 32.47% of the time, let’s look at that number compared to the AL average over a long period of time. Was he punched out looking by the umpire more often than the league average?
Well, we’re not sure. And here’s why. Data pulled from play-by-play accounts that describe what we’re looking for (league average strikeout looking rates) only go back to 1988. This means we are forced to compare Carew’s strikeout looking rate during 1973-83 to the AL average from 1988-2017. It’s a different era.
But we’ve come this far, so let’s do that:
From 1988-2017, American League players collectively struck out 439,385 times. The chart above says roughly 26% (actually 26.05%) of those strikeouts were looking. From 1988-2017, AL players struck out looking 114,460 times.
Of Rod Carew’s strikeouts in his 11-year prime, he struck out 539 times – 175 of those were looking. Carew struck out looking 32.47% of the time – more than 8% more often than the league average. Albeit, in a different era.
So was Cowherd right? Maybe, but probably not. Unfortuantely, Baseball-Reference doesn’t paint a 100% clear picture for us.
Carew struck out at a remarkably low rate, but more than a third of those were looking, higher than the league average over a 30-year span. If the umpires in the 1970s did respect him enough to never punch him out, the numbers don’t show it. In truth, he was even better at never striking out swinging.
* I showed my work here. Feel free to check it out!
More Rod Carew Strikeout Nerd Stuff
- Between 1973-83, Carew never struck out looking 3 times in a game. He struck out looking twice in a game just 9 times.
- Just once did he strike out looking three games in a row: June 29-July 1, 1974.
- In 1975, Carew won the 5th of his 7 batting titles and struck out looking just 8 times.
- On September 22, 1978, Carew struck out looking twice: once in each end of a doubleheader.
- Infamous umpire Don Denkinger (here’s his blown call in the 1985 World Series) tied for the lead by punching out Carew 9 times. Larry McCoy also got Carew 9 times.
- An umpire named Fred Spenn, who was a replacement umpire from the 1979 umpires strike, rung up Carew 5 times in 1979.
Maybe you just had to be a bad umpire to get Carew looking.
He’s Got Jokes
Whether you got the Sandler “Hannukah” joke or not, there’s no denying that this is a timeless comedy classic: