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Posted: Wednesday April 22, 2009 4:48PM; Updated: Wednesday April 22, 2009 5:13PM
Joe Posnanski Joe Posnanski >
INSIDE BASEBALL

The count of counting counts

Story Highlights

The deeper you delve into the count, the more you can learn about the game

Once a batter has two strikes, his averages go way down

The most important pitch of an at-bat may well be the third pitch

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Greg Maddux
During his Hall of Fame career, Greg Maddux very rarely let a hitter off the hook once he got ahead 0-2.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI

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:

First pitch

Action pitch: 12.5% of the time -- one out of every eight at-bats
Batters 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: .891
OPS 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.

0-1 count

Action pitch: 9% of the time -- one out of every 11 at-bats
Batters 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.

1-0 count

Action pitch: 7.6% of the time -- one out of every 13 at-bats
Batters 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.

0-2 count

Action pitch: 7.7% of the time -- one out of every 13 at-bats
Batters 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.

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