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The count of counting counts

When I was young, an old baseball scout told me there were two tricks to looking like the smartest baseball fan in the crowd. The first, he said, was always watching the outfielder after a fly ball was hit. This will tell you how well the ball is really hit. If you see the outfielder racing back, yes, the ball was hit well. If you see him standing in place, no, the ball was not hit well. This, he said, would keep you from screaming madly on routine fly balls and basically looking like a yutz.

The second thing he told me was this: Always watch the count. He said that the whole secret of baseball, all the mysteries, all the intrigue, all the hesitant swings, all the home run blasts, all the perfect pitches on the outside corner ... all of them can be anticipated and appreciated by simply following the count*.

* I got a similar lesson from an old big league pitcher, Al Fitzmorris. He began his career as an outfielder and a hitter, and that didn't work out too well for him. So he became a pitcher, and a successful one. He won 77 games in the big league with, as he calls it, limited stuff. But Fitz never stopped wanting to be a hitter, and years after his career ended he summed up his stalled hitting career this way: "I would have been fine if I could have started every at-bat with a 3-1 count."

There are a few simple tricks that most baseball fans innately use when following the count. Everyone knows that a 3-1 count is good for hitters -- "Big pitch coming here," is what announcers usually say -- and everyone knows that pitchers have a big advantage when the count is 1-2 ("Got him in the hole"). Everyone knows that batters need a green light to swing 3-0, and pitchers don't want to throw anything too good on 0-2, and that the runners may be going on a full count.

But, the scout told me, the deeper you delve into the count, the more you can learn about this great game. And so, I decided to delve deep. Real deep. Deeper than any sensible person would delve. I used the wonderful baseballreference.com to break down every count combination this decade -- 2000-2008. And I tried (at times unsuccessfully) to see what I could learn from these combinations.

I should say, for those of you scoring at home, that there have been 1,690,302 action pitches this decade (not counting the start of the 2009 season). By action pitch, I mean pitch where something happened: Hit, walk, error, hit-by-pitch, sacrifice, strikeout, groundout, flyout, lineout and every other goofy thing you might see on the APBA unusual play charts*.

*Which I understand are gone now ... I never really played APBA Baseball, so I don't know. But I always liked the concept of an unusual plays chart. I want one of those for my life.

So here's what follows: The count, the percentage of the time that count is the action pitch and what batters hit on that pitch (the basic batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). The numbers, as I say later, are a bit misleading, but they still can give you a good sense for how the game works.

Here we go:

Action pitch: 12.5% of the time -- one out of every eight at-batsBatters hit: .338/.344/.547

There is probably more grumbling at the park about batters swinging at the first pitch of an at-bat than any other time. The Kansas City Royals once had a prospective owner meet with manager Tony Muser and suggest to him that his batters needed to stop swinging at the first pitch. This, of course, is ludicrous. About one of out every five home runs hit in the game are hit on the first pitch of an at-bat.

Then again, about one out of every five double play grounders you will see are also hit on the first pitch. And that's why there are so many complaints.

To get this out of the way: The offensive numbers listed above -- all the numbers here -- can be misleading because they only count balls that were HIT IN PLAY. Foul balls do not count. Swings and misses do not count (except when there are two strikes). Pitches that are called balls do not count (except when there are three balls). And so on. So the batting averages are naturally going to be much less with two strikes. And on-base percentages are going to be much higher with three balls.

Still, there are some cool things to see. There are real advantages, for instance, for batters who put the ball in play early in the count. Once they get two strikes on them, the averages go way down.

Here's a statistic you can ponder if you like:

OPS for batters putting the first pitch in play: .891OPS for batters who do not put first pitch in play: .739

So, for someone to decide to never swing at the first pitch ... no, that's probably not the best strategy.

Action pitch: 9% of the time -- one out of every 11 at-batsBatters hit: .317/.326/.485

Well, this was a bit of a surprise to me: Batters would hit quite well when behind one strike. And this gets into what I was saying about hitting early in the count: As you can see, there is not a drastic difference if the batter is hitting behind 0-1 or ahead 1-0.

Action pitch: 7.6% of the time -- one out of every 13 at-batsBatters hit: .339/.340/.563

See? Batters do hit with a bit more power when ahead 1-0 -- they are also a little bit less aggressive -- but the point here is that the game does not shift dramatically to the pitcher until he gets two strikes on a batter. You always hear people say how important it is to get that first-pitch strike ... and it is hugely important. But getting that second strike is what turns an at-bat around.

Action pitch: 7.7% of the time -- one out of every 13 at-batsBatters hit: .162/.173/.236

Now you can see the pitcher taking control. There are different philosophies about what to do with an 0-2 pitch. There are some pitching coaches and pitchers who think that this is absolutely the time to go for the strikeout pitch ... the nasty slider tailing away, the split-fingered fastball in the dirt, the fastball up around the eyes. But there are others -- and I tend to agree with this -- who think that batters are so defensive at 0-2, that this is perfect time to go get them with a pitch over the plate (especially with pitch counts being SO important in today's game).

This might be the most amazing statistic in this whole bit: Batters on an 0-2 count hit home runs once every 79 at-bats.*

* My favorite pitcher, Greg Maddux, gave up 11 home runs in his entire career 0-2 -- that's in more than 1,600 at-bats. No, he did not like wasting pitches. Here's another good Maddux statistic: He only walked 45 batters in his entire career after getting ahead 0-2. Maddux had a 32-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio after he got ahead 0-2.

Action pitch: 2.7% of the time -- one out of every 37 at-batsBatters hit: 351/.351/.625

Well, this is a interesting situation ... batters very, very rarely put the ball in play on a 2-0 count. In fact, batters don't put the ball in play much more on a 2-0 count than they do on a 3-0 count. When they connect, though, they do connect hard ... batters bang home runs once out of every 16 at-bats.

And you know, if I was a batting coach, I would want my batters to be a bit more aggressive on 2-0. Because here's something else ... pitchers only very, very rarely hit a batter with the count 2-0 (one out of every 179 or so at-bats). That tells me they are simply looking to get a pitch over the plate to get back into the count. It sure seems to me that 2-0 is an underutilized opportunity for hitters.

Action pitch: 8.8% of the time -- one out of every 11 at-batsBatters hit: .325/.330/.512

This is more or less a repeat of the first pitch. I have heard scouts and players say that, generally speaking, the most important pitch of the at-bat is the third pitch. And there does seem some truth to that. Most of the time (roughly 54% of the time), batters face a 1-1 count going into the third pitch. And the next pitch will, pretty often, determine the fate of the pitcher and the batter. Look what happens if a pitcher gets a strike:

Action pitch: 13.6% of the time -- one out of every 7 at-batsBatters hit: .177/.185/.263

Yes, pitchers are dominant in the 1-2 count. And this is actually the most common situation in baseball ... a 1-2 count action pitch. And the batter is all but helpless. But when the third pitch is a ball ...

Action pitch: 5.6% of the time -- one out of every 18 at-batsBatters hit: .337/.338/.554

Yeah, that's a sizable difference. Batters hit 160 points better and slug twice as much when that third pitch is a ball rather than a strike. Batters may not know these numbers, but they instinctively know how much their chances go up when the count goes to 2-1.

Here's a fun experiment: Next time you're at a game, watch the batter's reaction when the count goes from 1-1 to 1-2. They will, often, hit their bats with their hands or kick at the dirt or gripe at the umpire. I've never counted but I would bet that batters visibly react more than half the time.

Action pitch: 2.4% of the time -- one of out every 42 at-batsBatters hit: .390/.958/.780

A few facts about the 3-0 pitch.

1. Batters put the ball in play on 3-0 only about 7% of the time. In fact, over the course of a season, you will only see batters put the ball in play about 300 times on 3-0 ... that's about 10 times per team, per season. it does seem like in today's game lots of batters get the green light on 3-0, but the numbers say that you really don't see them hit the ball on 3-0 very much.

2. When you DO see them hit it, there's a good chance you will see them hit it a long way. Batters hit 3-0 homers roughly one out of every 10 at-bats.

3. Jim Thome, in his long career, has only put the ball in play 58 times on 3-0. He has hit SIXTEEN home runs. For the record, that's one homer per every 3.6 at-bats.

4. Or how about Mike Piazza. In his whole career he only put the ball in play FOUR TIMES on 3-0. That's all. Four times. Apparently nobody was throwing Piazza a good pitch 3-0. And that was a good idea: Two of them were home runs.

5. Batters almost never get hit on the 3-0 pitch -- one out of every 640 plate appearances.

6. Very, very few base runners try to steal on the 3-0 pitch, for obvious reasons, but those that do are ultra-successful -- 89%. What's interesting is that the 3-1 pitch -- which has conventionally been called the perfect pitch to steal on -- is anything but: Only 61% of base stealers are successful on 3-1.

Action pitch: 12.9% of the time -- one out of every 8 at-batsBatters hit: .194/.199/.299

You will often hear announcer say "He evened the count at 2-2." But there is nothing really even about a 2-2 count. The pitcher is still firmly in control. If a pitcher consistently can make it so the action pitch is always 0-2, 1-2 or 2-2, he will do very nicely for himself and make quite a lot of money.

Action pitch: 4.9% of the time -- one out of every 20 at-batsBatters hit: .355/.691/.638

Well, here is the ultimate hitter's pitch ... I've called a few home runs over the years, wowing friends and impressing strangers, but it's really not that hard. When you see a good hitter at the plate (or a lousy pitcher on the mound) and a 3-1 count, go ahead, make the call. If you want to play the 3-1 homer game yourself ... here are a few good players to consider:

Josh Hamilton: .611/.833/1.167Chase Utley: .444/.713/.852Adam Dunn: .392/.777/.908Alfonso Soriano: .435/.694/.848Jermaine Dye: .406/.656/.767

Action pitch: 12.3% of the time -- one out of every 8 at-batsBatters hit: .229/.468/.381

A couple things interest me here. One, I find it interesting that one out of every eight or so at-bats goes to a full-count. That seems like a lot to me ... that means you should see, seven to 10 full counts every single night. I wonder if that number has gone up through the years. I have no idea how to find out.

Also, it really is telling -- again and again -- that hitters really do swing defensively with two strikes. In total, with two strikes, batters hit .190/.257/.293.

I think that's one of the takeaway as a baseball fan. Pitchers do not (and should not) give up many two-strike hits. And they certainly should not give up two-strike extra base hits.

Another takeaway is that until the pitcher gets two strikes, the advantage* is with the hitter. Batters hit .334 and slug almost .600 when not facing two strikes.

* Of course, it's tricky when you say the hitter has an advantage ... even Ted Williams, the purest hitter who ever was, was retired more often than he reached base (his .482 on-base percentage is the best ever, but it means he also had a .518 out percentage). But this is something that's tricky about baseball -- pitchers always have an advantage. You will hear announces say all the time: "This just goes to show you that good pitching beats good hitting." I have no idea what this means ... it is literally true, but bad pitching also beats good hitting. Pitching beats hitting. That's the game. That's why even when a manager makes what seems an obviously dumb pitching move, it is still likely to work.**

** This "still likely to work" rule is not in effect when it comes to Royals manager Trey Hillman, who has now gone EIGHT DAYS since pitching Joakim Soria. EIGHT DAYS. Maybe he's saving Soria for private functions, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and so on.

And the last takeaway is this: I spent way, way too much time on this.


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