One of the things I remember loving about baseball as I grew up, learning the intricacies of the game, was that a batter who struck out four times in a game was referred to as wearing The Golden Sombrero. It’s exactly the kind of thing that convinced me that this wasn’t just a game, but a different world entirely.
This year, 30 golden sombreros have been handed out, the most recent going to Ryan Ludwick of the Cardinals. Rather than being embarrassed, the list of players who have whiffed four times in a night this season is actually quite impressive – Nelson Cruz, Justin Morneau, David Wright, Justin Upton, and even the mythical creature Jason Heyward have all performed the feat.
Besides being gifted with a free hat, these guys all have something else in common; in one night, they matched the season strikeout total of one David Eckstein.
The unsung hero of the 2010 Padres, Eckstein is having a season that is as bewildering as it is valuable. At age 35, he’s hitting .310/.370/.405, each of which would represent a career high if he was able to sustain this pace all season. And he’s doing it by hitting everything he swings at.
Always a high contact hitter, Eckstein has upped his game in the first two months of 2010. His rate of contact on pitches in the zone is 97.2 percent, but where he really shines is on pitches out of the zone, where he’s making contact 90 percent of the time. Even when pitchers get him to chase a ball out of the zone, Eckstein is putting the bat on it, either fouling it off or putting it in play. He’s swung and missed just 2.1 percent of the time, making it nearly impossible for pitchers to put him away.
Eckstein is on pace to strike out just 14 times all season long, and his offensive approach is invoking that of another San Diego legend. Perhaps most remarkably, he hasn’t even had to sacrifice the bit of power he does have, as his 13 extra base hits are nearly half of what he had in all of 2009.
When listing reasons why the Padres are surprising everyone by hanging around in the NL West, don’t forget to spread the credit Eckstein’s way. His success at slap hitting has given the Padres a valuable second baseman for the first two months of the season, even if its coming through highly unconventional means.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.