Q&A: Honeycutt on the art of the strikeout

Dodgers' pitching coach discusses some of today's top K artists

December 3rd, 2016
"I just love the game, and the coaching part never left," said Rick Honeycutt of the break he took between playing and coaching in the pros. (AP)

Hitters are striking out in record-setting numbers.

Individual pitchers, however, aren't coming close to compiling record-setting strikeout totals.

Since the beginning of 2000, hitters have struck out so often that they have accumulated the 11 highest single-season strikeout totals since the creation of Major League Baseball.

But in 2015, , with 301 strikeouts, became the first pitcher since '02 to reach the 300 level, when the D-backs' Randy Johnson (334) and Curt Schilling (316) exceeded that plateau.

Pitchers are throwing harder than ever, and hitters are swinging harder than ever. But the strikeout totals are more spread out, given the nature of a game where pitchers are working less.

It is not like it was in the 1970s, when 9 of the 37 seasons in which a pitcher struck out 300 batters were amassed -- including five times by Nolan Ryan.

Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt discussed the art of the strikeout in this week's Q&A:

MLB.com: Is there still a fascination with strikeouts?

Honeycutt: A pitcher needs to come up with something that you can correctly contact, and something that you can get a swing and miss with. [Pitchers] that have two pitches that [they] get swings and misses with -- or Kershaw that has three pitches that are swing-and-miss pitches -- become the elite of the elite. Going back to your question, sure. I think anybody loves strikeouts. At the same time, using Kershaw as an example, [pitchers] have to learn to manage the game, pitch-count wise, even if [one] is a strikeout pitcher.

MLB.com: It seems pitch counts are such a part of the game now that strikeouts aren't quite what they used to be for an individual, but hitters are striking out more than ever.

Honeycutt: That's just the difference in hitters today. Everybody had a two-strike approach years ago. Not everybody has a two-strike approach anymore. They feel they're getting compensated for power as a hitter. Still, the toughest teams are the teams that just continue to battle and put the ball in play, drive the pitch count up. There are two philosophies, I guess, in getting the right player that has that type of mentality, compared to guys that are basically all-or-nothing [hitters].

MLB.com: What distinguishes Kershaw from other guys that makes him so much more of a strikeout guy?

Honeycutt: In 2015, he had 301 strikeouts, and he had right at 100 strikeouts with each of his three pitches -- fastball, curveball and slider. That shows the balance he enjoys. There are great fastball guys. is ... a strikeout guy, but he basically does it with one pitch. A lot of people have two plus pitches that they go to, but to have three is extraordinary.

MLB.com: Well, to strike out 300 batters in today's game is ...

Honeycutt: Pretty extraordinary.

MLB.com: We're past the Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton days, right?

Honeycutt: And Clayton did not do it in 300 innings like Schilling did, the year that he did it. You have to go back quite a ways before people were having that type of dominance [with] strikeouts.

MLB.com: Who are other guys you'd put in the Kershaw category, as far as being guys that you consider to be strikeout guys?

Honeycutt: I think you're seeing the emergence of a guy like , [who] has multiple pitches that create [those] opportunities. He has, first and foremost, the fastball, and then he has a good breaking ball and he has a pretty good changeup. He's just probably not going to have an equal number with each pitch because he doesn't use the other pitches quite as much, but I think he has the potential to do that. Whereas is pretty much fastball, and I guess it's his slider. has a fastball and a couple different breaking balls.

MLB.com: What about or in the American League, have you been able to see them?

Honeycutt: I have seen Sale quite a bit in Spring Training. We share the training complex with the White Sox. Both those guys have made adjustments since they came up. You saw Price, where he came up basically with his fastball and slider, then incorporated the changeup into his equation. The backdoor slider has become a very big pitch for him. I think Sale is using his changeup a lot more, plus he's got the great fastball and a great breaking ball to go with it. And now, he's incorporated his changeup into that mix. Again, it's those type of pitchers that have plus fastballs, and then start getting a breaking ball, who make it extremely tough for a hitter. You can't sit on any pitch.

MLB.com: So the power arms are there, but the strikeouts, for a particular pitcher, aren't?

Honeycutt: The game is changing. There's just so much power. Arms coming, being developed and coming up at early age. You're seeing that ability of guys. It's crazy though, to me, to see how much power and then you still have guys that don't have the ability to get strikeouts -- even with 96-mph-plus fastballs -- because hitters get timing down. If pitchers make mistakes, the hitters are able to still make the adjustment.