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The toughest player to strike out on every team

MLB.com @williamfleitch

With the increase in velocity by starting pitchers -- and perhaps more importantly, relievers -- as well as the fading stigma of a swing and a miss, strikeouts are as central to baseball as they have ever been. One can argue about whether that's a positive thing or a negative thing, but the facts are undeniable.

That places an increased value on players who can do the most basic of baseball activities: Put the bat on the ball. In 1941, Ted Williams had fewer strikeouts than homers. You won't be seeing that anytime soon. But these are the toughest players to strike out on each team, a topic that seems fitting in light of a record-setting 21-pitch at-bat on Sunday.

With the increase in velocity by starting pitchers -- and perhaps more importantly, relievers -- as well as the fading stigma of a swing and a miss, strikeouts are as central to baseball as they have ever been. One can argue about whether that's a positive thing or a negative thing, but the facts are undeniable.

That places an increased value on players who can do the most basic of baseball activities: Put the bat on the ball. In 1941, Ted Williams had fewer strikeouts than homers. You won't be seeing that anytime soon. But these are the toughest players to strike out on each team, a topic that seems fitting in light of a record-setting 21-pitch at-bat on Sunday.

They might not all be huge power hitters, or even close to stars, but they have a skill that's rarer and rarer every month -- and thus, they are more valuable than ever.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST
Orioles:
Manny Machado
The O's, always a strikeout-happy franchise, lead the AL in strikeouts this year, and they're a good bet to hang onto that spot. All those K's have masked an big improvement from Machado this year. Two years ago, he K'd 120 times to go with 48 walks for a 5:2 K/BB ratio. This year: only 15 K's with 12 walks. Everyone else on the Orioles is struggling, but he sure isn't.

Red Sox: Mookie Betts
It's a little unfair for a guy of Betts' talents to have such an excellent batted-ball profile, but he has had progressively better K/BB ratios each year of his career. He had two fewer walks than strikeouts in 2017; he may cross the threshold this year.

Yankees: Didi Gregorius
Remember when Gregorius was just supposed to be the slap-hitting defensive-minded Derek Jeter replacement? Even when he was hitting six homers a year he didn't strike out much, but to hold onto that skill while hitting 25 homers a year might be his greatest asset.

Video: MIA@NYY: Gregorius powers Yanks with two home runs

Rays: Mallex Smith
Considering Smith has little to no power -- he's still stuck on five career homers -- it's a good thing he puts the ball in play. Smith is a very 1980s player, actually: He steals bases, he hits a ton of triples and he just hits it on the ground and runs.

Blue Jays: Yangervis Solarte
The poor Padres sat around for years waiting for Solarte to become the star they were hoping for, and now that he's in Toronto, he's becoming that guy. Now that he's added power to his contact game, look out. Some guys just finally figure it out in their 30s.

Video: TOR@NYY: Solarte crushes a solo homer to right-center

CENTRAL
White Sox:
Jose Abreu
Abreu certainly seems like the type of player who strikes out a lot, but he really doesn't, at least not relative to the rest of baseball. His AB/K ratio has gone up every year of his career. But the fact that he is the pick for the White Sox is also a sign that the Sox might strike out too much.

Indians: Jose Ramirez
For all the discussion of the Tribe's fantastic rotation over the past few years, having a player like Ramirez -- who was a .219 hitter with little power as recently as 2015 -- blossom into what he has become has been just as pivotal. His batting average has gone down this year, but he's hitting into a lot of bad luck. Expect a turnaround soon.

Tigers: Victor Martinez
We might be nearing the sunset of Martinez's fascinating career, though his April bounceback has reminded us what we once had. The key to his success, this year and any other, is his ability to put the bat on the ball. He led the AL in AB/BB ratio as recently as 2013 and '14, and he still has that skill today.

Royals: Alcides Escobar
Not much has gone well for the Royals so far, but they do have the third-fewest strikeouts in baseball, even though it's not helping them score any more runs. Much like Escobar, who has always been a contact hitter; the issue is that even though he can hit the ball, he can't hit it hard.

Twins: Max Kepler
Kepler is among the team leaders in homers and walks, which makes his low strikeout total -- the lowest AB/K on the team by far -- all the more impressive for player who is still only 25.

Video: MIN@TB: Kepler crushes a go-ahead solo homer in 9th

WEST
Astros:
Alex Bregman
Bregman was thought to be on the verge of busting out, and don't let his relatively slow start fool you: He's walking more than he strikes out, and he has the lowest K-rate on the team, even lower than Jose Altuve's. Bregman is about to come around, and then, look out.

Angels: Andrelton Simmons
Mike Trout famously nearly made it all the way through Spring Training without striking out, but he's been racking them up since the season started. It's Simmons, long one of baseball's best contact men, who continues to set the contact pace.

Video: LAA@TEX: Simmons picks up his first homer of 2018

A's: Jonathan Lucroy
The power he once had -- he hit 24 homers just two years ago -- seems to be gone, but Lucroy has been all the A's could have hoped for when they snapped him up for cheap in the offseason.

Mariners: Ichiro Suzuki
Of course it's Ichiro: He has averaged more than 10 at-bats per strikeout six times in his career. He's not quite there this year, but he's closer than anyone else on his team.

Rangers: Adrian Beltre
Elvis Andrus is actually off to an extreme contact start -- just two strikeouts in 61 plate appearances -- but he's on the DL for the first time in his career with a fractured elbow. Thus, the call goes to Beltre, who, because he's a future Hall of Famer who is good at everything, is good at putting the bat on the ball as well. He strikes out once every six at-bats, which is below his career average ... but still the best on the Rangers.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

EAST
Braves:
Kurt Suzuki
You want bat control? Suzuki has struck out twice in 56 plate appearances. He'll lose his job when Tyler Flowers comes back, but right now, he's leading the Braves in OPS.

Video: ATL@WSH: Suzuki launches home run off foul pole

Marlins: Miguel Rojas
Rojas likes to keep the fielders busy; he hardly walks or strikes out or homers. He's a No True Outcomes sort of guy.

Mets: Adrian Gonzalez
Gonzalez once struck out more than 100 times in a season for seven straight years, but as he has become Old Adrian Gonzalez, he has become a contact guy; he has the second-best AB/K ratio on the Mets, one of the primary reasons he has been such a positive contributor so far.

Phillies: Maikel Franco
The Phils strike out a ton by design. Franco has clearly focused on putting the ball in play more this year … not that it's helping him get on base much more.

Nationals: Anthony Rendon
Rendon has elevated himself to near-superstar status over the past couple of seasons, and it's not a coincidence his K rate has dropped each of the past four years.

Video: NYM@WSH: Rendon hits an RBI double to left field

CENTRAL
Cubs:
Ben Zobrist
There was a stretch in the middle of his career where Zobrist struck out a lot, but he has curtailed it with the Cubs as he has gotten older.

Reds: Joey Votto
The correct answer to any question about the Reds is always Joey Votto.

Brewers: Hernan Perez
The Brewers are as much of a grip-it-and-rip-it team as any in baseball, so it's not much of a surprise their players -- even their stars -- strike out a lot.

Pirates: Corey Dickerson
So far this season, Dickerson is doing everything right. Maybe he should get released right before the season starts every year.

Video: PIT@MIA: Dickerson scorches an RBI single to center

Cardinals: Jose Martinez
Martinez has always been a contact hitter, but now that he has added exit velocity and launch angle, he has essentially become a monster. Martinez is now as key as anyone to the 2018 Cards.

WEST
D-backs:
Jarrod Dyson
Much like Smith, when you run like Dyson does, you just slap the ball and then run, run, run.

Video: SF@ARI: Dyson rops RBI triple off center-field wall

Rockies: DJ LeMahieu
The LeMahieu Plan has always been to offset his relative lack of power by hitting line drives and trying to avoid the strikeout. It continues to work for him at Coors Field, even if it might not work anywhere else.

Dodgers: Joc Pederson
So here's a surprise for you. Pederson was renowned for his strikeouts his whole career, even into last October. But here are his AB/K ratios every year of his career:

2014: 2.5
2015: 2.8
2016: 3.1
2017: 4.0
2018: 10.7

That's a massive jump. Either it's too early and too fluky, or someone got Pederson a bigger bat or something.

Padres: Carlos Asuaje
With all the young players the Padres have, a bunch of strikeouts is invevitable. Asuaje has the best strikeout rate on the team, if not much else.

Giants: Joe Panik
Perhaps this should be Brandon Belt, after his record-setting 21-pitch at-bat on Sunday, but he has a strikeout rate of almost 25 percent for his career. Panik, meanwhile, is below 10 percent since entering the league in 2014. If you're going to be a second-base exclusive left-handed hitter without much power, you better not strike out much. Panik doesn't. He's quietly off to the best start of his career.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.