The Most Important Count in Baseball
Pitchers and hitters alike are told from the time they start playing the game of the importance of the ball/strike count. Hitters are often told to work the count in order to make the pitcher labor and throw more pitches, while pitchers are often told to get ahead in the count or that they should focus on throwing a first pitch strike. Regardless of your position, all players are concerned with the count and this is rightfully so. But often, this becomes simply second-nature to baseball players. They know they want to get ahead in the count if they are a pitcher or be ready to swing away in certain hitter’s counts. But many athletes I talk to don’t actually realize WHY they are so focused on the count. Hitters know they desperately want to stay away from 0-2 and pitchers want nothing to do with 2-0 or 3-0, but they sometimes don’t stop to think about the reason why such counts are bad.
The reason that the count matters to pitchers and hitters is because of its direct relationship with the probability of success (eg., getting a hit or getting an out). Again, all of us familiar with the game know from experience that a batter who is in an 0-2 count is significantly less likely to get a hit than a batter who is looking at a 2-0 or 3-1 count. But once a pitcher or hitter is in a 2-0 count or 0-2 count the odds are already stacked in one or the other’s favor. This blog is going to focus on the most crucial and important single pitch in any at bat—the pitch that is delivered with a 1-1 count.
The 1-1 count is so critically important because it is essentially the gateway to success. If the pitcher throws a strike when the count is 1-1 then suddenly the count becomes 1-2 and the pitcher is in a far superior position. But if the pitcher throws a ball the count suddenly becomes 2-1 and now the hitter has the advantage. No other single pitch in an at bat can cause such a dramatic swing in odds than that 1-1 pitch. To prove this, here are the Major League batting averages for the 2007 season for each count:
0-0 = .344
0-1 = .324
0-2 = .166
1-0 = .341
2-0 = .351
3-0 = .394
1-1 = .327
2-1 = .338
3-1 = .368
1-2 = .178
2-2 = .195
3-2 = .233
As you can see (and as you already know), the count dramatically impacts the hitters probability of getting a hit. On the opposite ends of the spectrum are hitters with a 3-0 count who are hitting an astronomical .394 and hitters facing an 0-2 count who are hitting a measly .166. This data shows that if a pitcher falls behind in the count to 3-0 he is now facing Ted Williams at the plate, but if he can get the hitter where he wants him at 0-2 he is facing Mario Mendoza (the namesake of the Mendoza line for those of you unaware). While the difference between those two counts is tremendous, there isn’t really much of a connection between them as one pitcher threw two straight strikes to get there while another threw three consecutive balls.
There is a connection, however, between two counts that can occur depending on whether the pitcher throws a ball or a strike during a specific count. This is what makes the 1-1 count so critical. Before we look at the stats regarding the 1-1 count it is important to also take into consideration the fact that a 1-1 count occurs rather early in the at bat. Two pitches have been thrown and both the batter and pitcher are relatively comfortable and settled into this at bat. The hitter has likely not seen all of the pitcher’s pitches and the pitcher might not know precisely where the hitter’s weak spot is located. That being said, the pitch that is delivered during the 1-1 count is the most important of any at bat because of the two possible positions the hitter will be put into after that pitch. If a pitcher makes a good pitch and gets a called strike, swinging strike, or a foul ball, the hitter is now in a 1-2 count where Major League hitters batted .178 in 2007. I think most pitchers would like those odds of getting an out. Conversely, if the pitcher misses the zone and throws a ball the hitter is now facing a 2-1 count where Major Leaguers hit .338 in 2007. Based on that one pitch, the batting average changes by .160, which is a tremendous difference.
Let’s further analyze a pitcher who was able to throw a strike during the 1-1 pitch and now the count is 1-2. That pitcher now gets to throw his best pitch—the one most likely to achieve an out. Often, that is a breaking ball out of the zone in the hopes that the batter chases it. The good news for the pitcher in a 1-2 count is that the hitter knows of the likelihood of a breaking ball and that makes the fastball even more effective. Even if the batter lays off the pitch, the pitcher is back to 2-2 where MLB hitters averaged only .195 and again the pitcher can make a good pitch on his own terms.
If, however, that same pitcher threw a ball during the 1-1 count and took it to 2-1, the hitter has a tremendous chance of getting a hit in part due to the fact that he knows the pitcher has to come into the strike zone in order to avoid taking the count to 3-1. The odds are that the pitcher has the best chance of throwing a strike with his fastball and therefore the hitter knows there is a good chance that a fastball in the strike zone is coming when the count is 2-1. Although it is true that if the pitcher is able to throw a strike and get the count back to 2-2, where statistically the average is back down to .195, something has to be said regarding the way the 2-2 count was reached.
A good way to look at the battle that wages between a pitcher and a hitter is by pretending there is an Albatross half way between home plate and the pitcher’s mound. With each pitch the Albatross creeps closer to either the hitter or the pitcher, thereby putting more pressure on one or the other. Certainly, if a pitcher throws two quick strikes the Albatross is on top of the hitter bearing down on him. But the Albatross can move from one player to the other, thereby making the same count feel very different. For example, imagine a situation where a pitcher throws three balls way out of the zone. The count is 3-0 and the pressure is squarely on the pitcher’s shoulders to get back in this at bat. But if he comes back and throws two good pitches for strikes to make it 3-2, he has the momentum and the pressure has likely shifted back to the hitter. In the same regard, if the pitcher starts an at bat off with two good pitches for strikes, the pressure is all on the hitter. But if the pitcher goes on to throw three balls now he feels the pressure to come back with a strike, due to not wanting to lose the at bat.
This analogy rings true to me in our 1-1 situation as well. A pitcher who went from 1-1 to 2-1 and then back to 2-2 has played catch up and likely feels more pressure in throwing his next pitch. Therefore, he might not want to risk throwing a breaking ball out of the zone out of fear that he will be behind once again. As such, the pitcher might throw another fastball in order to avoid the pressure that comes with a full count. This pitcher has now presumably thrown several fastballs in a row, giving the hitter a tremendous opportunity to get the barrel on the ball. But the pitcher who went 1-1 to 1-2 to 2-2 has been ahead in the count and might feel more comfortable continuting to put pressure on the hitter with another breaking ball or a ball out of the zone for that 2-2 pitch. While these are both 2-2 pitches the way the at bat reached the count was quite different, with the pressure being applied to the hitter or pitcher in different ways.
So what do you do with this information? Well I know that once I realized the tremendous importance of the 1-1 count and the position that you could wind up in depending on that next pitch, I tended to dig a little deeper for some extra focus in order to make a good pitch. If there is a day that you are having trouble throwing your off-speed in the zone then a 1-1 count might not be the best time to throw it. Instead, a well located fastball would probably serve you better and then you can unleash the breaking ball when you have the hitter at 1-2. Most importantly, I simply hope you all understand the importance of different counts and the way you reached that count, as it can help you determine the right pitch to throw and ultimately how to get the batter out.
Until next time,