From the pitcher's perspective, getting bogged down in a long at bat is wearing physically and emotionally. "It puts a lot of pressure on you, especially when it's early in the game, and you're throwing stuff you were hoping to save for a later hitter," says a top-tier National League starter. "You're thinking, My god, it's started already. It's early in the game and you're already thinking about your pitch count instead of getting guys out." That this pitcher requested anonymity speaks volumes about the effectiveness of this technique.
Not that it's as simple as it sounds. Hitters often transgress the fine line between patience and passivity. At one time Cleveland Indians manager Mike Hargrove thought Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas was getting so concerned about working the count that he had become a defensive hitter. "He would pass up chances to drive in runs and help the team," says Hargrove. Says Thomas, "I know what a strike zone is, and I'll wait for a pitcher to throw me a strike. If he walks me, that's fine. I'll take it." Similarly, Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen wasn't sure what to make of the fact that he led the National League in most pitches seen (2,899) last season. "I kind of went, Hmmm, I wonder if that's such a good thing or not," he says.
Waiting does have its perils. Consider what happens when a team faces a king of the hill like Braves righthander Greg Maddux. When Maddux beat the Chicago Cubs 4-1 with a 78-pitch, complete-game masterpiece two seasons ago, first baseman Mark Grace had the longest plate appearance of any Cubs batter: five measly pitches.
Consequently, when Maddux is on his game, hitters tend to discount the count. "The best pitch you see from him may be the best pitch to hit," says Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Matt Williams. "That first pitch usually is your best shot." Maddux, for his part, doesn't disagree. "Hey, I have no problem throwing a lot of pitches," he says with a cheeky smile. "If a guy wants to go up there and be tentative, take a few and let me get ahead of the count, it's fine with me."
Moreover, some pitchers—Clemens is one—relish the challenge of going deep into the count, using the situation to their psychological advantage. "Sometimes if it's 2 and 2, and the batter fouls off a few pitches, I'll [deliberately] throw ball three and make it a full count," Clemens says. "Then the pressure's on both of us, and I'll feature a different pitch."
Still, plenty of hitters have thrived by practicing preternatural selection. Rickey Henderson, who joined the New York Mets in the off-season, may have batted a career-low .236 last season with the Oakland A's, but he led the majors in pitches per plate appearance (4.33) and in percentage of pitches taken (67.9), and consequently topped the American League in walks (118). These statistics, plus his .376 on-base percentage and 66 stolen bases, helped persuade the Mets to sign the 40-year-old outfielder to be their leadoff man. Yankees righthander David Cone says that former major leaguer Brett Butler was the master of taking the count to 3 and 2. "Sometimes," Cone recalls, "you could swear he was fouling off pitches on purpose just to annoy the pitcher."
Some hitters qualify for the pitch-count hall of fame on the basis of a single plate appearance. Facing Cleveland's Bartolo Colon last June 26, Houston Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez had the longest at bat of the '90s: a 20-pitch, 14-foul showdown that ended in a strikeout. Briefer but equally intriguing was a plate appearance two seasons ago by Phillies infielder Kevin Jordan. Stepping in against the Mets' Jason Isringhausen, Jordan fell behind in the count 1 and 2, then fouled off 10 straight pitches. Mets catcher Todd Hundley became so exasperated that at one point he deferred to home plate umpire Frank Pulli and asked where to call for the next pitch. Pulli's suggestion: "Right down the middle, because that's the last thing he's looking for." On the 14th pitch, though, Isringhausen threw a curve that bounced in the dirt. The ball eluded Hundley and enabled Rolen to score the go-ahead run. For good measure, on the next pitch, a full eight minutes into the at bat, Jordan ripped a two-run double.
A successful at bat need not be so prolonged. But just as patience can be a virtue in life, so it can be at the plate. "Wait for your pitch. Good eye. Make 'em throw strikes." Maybe there's something to those Little League commandments after all.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]