Did you know that Dave Kingman has a fan website? He does! It takes you through his upbringing (1948-63, The Early Years), his time with the Alaska Goldpanners, even the 10 games he played for the California Angels. The site is not what we in the biz might call "optimized to enhance the user experience." It appears to have been designed on a Commodore Amiga 500 -- there are flashing doo-wads everywhere, like an old MySpace page - and the host of the site, who makes it clear that his site has the "expressed oral consent of Dave Kingman," crows that it has reached 8,150 hits in two years. (That two-year anniversary date: Oct. 28, 1998.) But don't worry, an update is coming. The most recent post on the site affirms that "Keep checking back as the site will soon undergo some major changes!" That post went up Oct. 18, 2005.
It's still a blast to click around the site. Dave Kingman is one of those baseball players spoken of in whispers, a certain sort of awe; he is a slugger from another time, another planet all together. He was the favorite player growing up of Jim Thome and Mark McGwire, and this Mets fan site is full of stories from people who speak of him as if he were a Martian who visited earth for a few years, wowed everyone and then flew off to his home planet. This was a man whose power was so prodigious that he was given the nickname "King Kong." THIS GUY. What must the world of baseball have been like when Dave Kingman was known as a primal, strapping force? He was 6-foot-6, 210 pounds, which is big … but that's 100 pounds less than a starting pitcher for the Yankees. He wasn't that big.
Dave Kingman was known for two things: Hitting massive home runs and striking out all the time. This made him a folk hero, but also incredibly polarizing -- and it sort of made sure that no one would ever take him all that seriously. During the years of Kingman's career, 1971-86, if you hit a ton of home runs but put together a low batting average, this was a cause for mockery. In 1979, Kingman hit 48 homers, which put him among the top 10 home run-hitting seasons of all time, and had a league-leading .956 OPS (which would have been tops in the National League last year), but all anyone wanted to talk about was how he struck out a Majors-leading 131 times. (He somehow only finished 11th in NL MVP Award voting that year.) In 1982, he led the league with 37 home runs, but that was noted less than the fact that he had a lower batting average (.204) than the man who won the NL Cy Young Award (Steve Carlton). In 1976, he had 30 home runs at the All-Star break and might have challenged Roger Maris' record if he hadn't been injured in the second half; imagine how baseball history would be different if freaking Dave Kingman ending up being the all-time single-season home run leader.
(Kingman was also known for being retrograde and pig-headed about women reporters, even by the standards of the time, which should also be noted as part of the historical record and will not be ignored here.)
The point is this: During an age when there weren't many home runs hit, Kingman could hit them, but nobody cared because he struck out so often. In his final season, the one in which baseball collectively agreed that he just struck out too much to continue to play, Kingman K'd 126 times.
That wouldn't have even gotten him in the top 40 in strikeouts last season.
The lack of power in baseball over the last few years has been so dramatic that even the most casual baseball fan should notice it. Nelson Cruz (140 strikeouts) led the Majors with 40 home runs last season, a figure that wouldn't even have gotten him in the top 10 a decade earlier. (And 2005 was considered, at the time, a bit of a return to Home Run Normal after the craziness of the preceding years.) Giancarlo Stanton didn't play a game after Sept. 11 last season … and his 37 homers still led the National League (By five!). Everybody has their theories about why homers are vanishing, whether they involve PEDs, balls no longer juiced, bigger ballparks or just a shift in the gravitational pull of the Earth. But the fact that it's happening is undeniable.
What's more fascinating, though, is that strikeouts have exploded. This is the opposite of the way we've traditionally thought about baseball. Strikeouts were the result of "selling out" for the homer, the bailiwick of Dave Kingman, and Rob Deer, and Adam Dunn, and Jack Cust -- those sorts of players. When you swing as hard as those guys did, of course you struck out; you made the tradeoff. But now, strikeouts are everywhere and don't even come with the side benefit of homers. Ryan Howard led the Majors with 190 strikeouts last year but only hit 23 homers; Marlon Byrd had 185 with 25, Ian Desmond 183 with 24, Chris Johnson 159 with 10. Austin Jackson struck out 144 times -- a figure Kingman reached only twice in his career -- and only hit four homers. Four homers on 144 strikeouts. How does that even happen?
And yet we don't think of those guys the way people thought of Kingman. They might be seen as bad hitters -- B.J. Upton (sorry, sorry, Melvin Upton) struck out 173 times last year, far more than Kingman ever did, but is known more for general incompetence than being unusually strikeout-prone -- but they don't have that Constant Whiffer designation. We have normalized the strikeout, even as we've waved goodbye to the homer. The idea of a Home Run Specialist has basically disappeared; the last one I can even remember is Jim Thome, who, of course, was only a Home Run Specialist once he got old. We get all of the strikeouts and none of the homers anymore. The "Three True Outcome" players are getting scarce.
The closest thing that exists to Kingman now is Mark Reynolds, a sad, down-brand version of Kingman. Reynolds has struck out at a rate in his career that would shame Kingman; he owns the first (223 in 2009), fourth (211 in 2010), sixth (204 in 2008) and 12th (196 in 2011) most single-season strikeouts in baseball history. (He has actually already passed Carl Yastrzemski in career strikeouts even though he's played 15 fewer seasons; he's only 11 behind Rob Deer, who played three more seasons.) But Reynolds hasn't hit more than 23 homers in five seasons even though he still zooms past 120 strikeouts every year and is no longer a regular starter. (This year he's a potential platoon player at first base for the Cardinals.) Reynolds may have his uses, but he's just another strikeout guy: Toss him in with the rest of them.
It makes you pine for Kingman. (The player, not the person.) It makes you want to appreciate the player he was, to look past all the strikeouts, which, in the end, didn't turn out to be all that bad. (For crying out loud, Derek Jeter ended up striking out more in his career than Kingman did.) He was someone who hit homers when few others were hitting them, with a prodigiousness that was awe-inspiring, that made you want to call him Kong. When Dave Kingman played, he was mocked as an all-or-nothing hitter, a human oscillating fan. He was a bit of a joke. But if you took Kingman's numbers and gave them to a hitter playing today … well, we might just award him the MVP. We'd probably even praise his batting eye. The game is constantly changing, and what looks strange and an aberration today might be totally normal in 10 or 20 years. Dave Kingman struck out 131 times but hit 48 homers and was considered a punchline. Austin Jackson strikes out 144 times and hits four homers and is a key player for a team with World Series aspirations. What a world.