In his final years, Hank Aaron was alternately inspired and worried about the state of baseball.
He marveled at the accomplishments of great hitters like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and his fellow Atlanta Brave, Freddie Freeman. Yet he also fretted about the myriad changes in development and approach that pose an existential threat to the sport.
And he certainly wasn’t shy about sharing those thoughts.
The former all-time home run leader, trailblazer and arguably the greatest hitter of all time died Friday morning at 86, a legend revered unanimously throughout the game.
Aaron returned that love, too, paying tribute annually to the players who won the award that bears his name, which since 1999 honors the game’s most prolific hitter.
“I was talking to someone the other day,” Aaron said on a December video call after Freeman won the 2020 Hank Aaron Award, “and they said, ‘Have you ever seen anybody play first base like he does?’ And I said, ‘No, I haven’t.’ And I played 23 years.”
Hank Aaron eyes the flight of the ball after hitting his 715th career homer in 1974. (Photo: Harry Harris, AP)
Yet Aaron also realized there may never be another player who could hit like he did – prolific power, a high average and a paucity of strikeouts.
At the 2018 World Series – the last time he fielded questions as Major League Baseball announced his award – Aaron expressed concern about baseball in the so-called “three true outcomes” era, when players swing for the fences, care not about strikeouts and above all hope the pitcher walks them before they punch out.
Teams averaged 5.01 strikeouts per game in 1974, Aaron’s last full season. By 2019, it had increased 76%, to an all-time high of 8.81 strikeouts per game.
Seven of the 10 most prolific strikeout seasons have occurred in the last five full seasons. Mark Reynolds is the all-time single-season leader, with 223 in 2009.
Aaron? He never struck out more than 97 times in a year.
And at age 37, in 1971, his home run total of 47 nearly matched his strikeout total of 58, an unthinkable feat in any era.
“No, it's embarrassing, really. It always was embarrassing to me,” Aaron said of the modern strikeout scourge before a 2018 World Series game. “I never struck out a hundred times. And that was something that I felt like if I did, I walked back to the bench, I didn't crack my bat on my leg or try to chew it up.
“But, no, I felt quite embarrassed. And I think, the game has changed, really, to be honest with you. This game has changed and it has changed for the best sometimes for some players.”
Particularly pitchers. The 100-mph fastball is no longer the anomaly but, almost, the rule. Secondary pitches are nastier than ever, with beguiling cutters, sliders and even changeups far nastier than they were in Aaron’s era.
Then again, there were roughly a third fewer teams in the heart of his career, which meant seeing the very best with greater frequency. In fact, Aaron took at least 25 at-bats against 13 Hall of Fame pitchers over the course of his career.
“It was quite embarrassing to me if I walked up to the plate, even facing pitchers like (Don) Drysdale or (Sandy) Koufax and those guys, if they got me one time, I felt I could go home and sleep well at night,” he said. “I felt very well that I had a very good night striking out once a night rather than four times.”
He certainly slept well almost every night. Ad it’s fair to say we may never see another hitter like him again.
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