Pitching with two strikes is something I feel is misunderstood. Given what we know about two strike hitting (see blog post on two strike hitting), pitching with two strikes is a pitcher’s dream. The odds hitters go back to the dugout with two strikes are upwards of 80%. They’re more susceptible to swinging and chasing pitches outside of the zone out of fear of the strikeout. With this, it would make sense for pitchers to be most aggressive in two strike counts.
Instead, we teach pitchers the opposite. We tell them to shrink the strike zone. We teach them to make perfect pitches on the corners of the strike zone because we’re afraid of giving up a base hit. We teach them to throw uncompetitive fastballs six inches off the plate or 55’ breaking balls that the hitter never even thought about swinging at. Instead of being aggressive in the strike zone and utilizing all of it to our advantage (hitters tend to expand the zone with two strikes), we make it smaller and give ourselves little room for error. If we know the very best hitters in the world struggle when they’re down in the count, why wouldn’t we go right at them? Why do we let hitters back into counts instead of finishing them off while they’re down? Why do we pitch out of fear with two strikes instead of pitching with confidence and aggression?
I know it’s not the greatest feeling in the world when you hang a 0-2 curve and it goes 380’ to left, but statistics will show you that balls put in play in 0-2 and 1-2 counts do minimal damage. The issue becomes when we let hitters back into the count. In 2018, Mike Trout hit 10 of his 39 homers with two strikes – but just two in 0-2 and 1-2 counts. JD Martinez hit 14 of his 43 homers with two strikes, but only hit four of them in 0-2 and 1-2 counts. Jose Ramirez hit 18 of his 39 bombs with two strikes – but only hit one in 0-2 and 1-2 counts (see a pattern?). Out of all the two strike home runs hit between these three, 35/42 (83%) were hit in 2-2 and 3-2 counts. Maybe we should rethink those “waste pitches” after all.
I love Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux’s thoughts about pitching with two strikes. See his thoughts below (image from @PitchingNinja).
Feel free to check out Maddux’s stats to see how this worked out for him.
Below are some ideas on how to pitch with two strikes:
- Make competitive pitches, force hitters to make decisions. Noncompetitive pitches (i.e. fastballs 6” off the black) don’t get swings or calls.
- Utilize the entire strike zone. Hitters expand the strike zone with two strikes, meaning they’re more vulnerable to swing (like Maddux said above). Hitters also like to hunt specific speeds in specific locations. Nothing is more uncomfortable than not knowing what’s coming.
- Throw the FB in and up for strikes and not for strikes. Create uncomfortable at-bats (see Donaldson vs. Bauer, Kluber vs. JD Martinez, Snell vs. Encarnacion). Moving the feet of hitters and changing eye levels will create uncomfortable swings and help set up future pitches.
- Pitch to your strengths. Don’t waste two curveballs in the dirt if you have no confidence in the pitch. Go after guys with your best stuff – not your worst.
- Know your swing and miss pitches/locations. These are especially useful in situations where you need a strikeout (ex: RISP <2 outs). Practice these pitches in your bullpens.
- Understand how your pitches play off of each other. Try to get your pitches to look as similar as possible coming out of the hand (hitters make their decision whether to swing or not around 20-24’). Your big loopy curveball isn’t going to play well off a low and out FB – but a high FB can.
- Mess with timing. Hitting is all about timing. Pitching is about upsetting timing. Using the slidestep, different tempos can help give pitchers more room for error by throwing off the internal clock in hitters (See Stroman, Greinke, Cueto).
- Put everything over the plate for pitchers who struggle with command.
- Create some sort of separation between your FB and BB/CH. Can be speed (6+ mph) or movement profile (see Lance McCullers power change, Greinke changeup from above). The more similar your pitches are, the easier it will be for hitters to make adjustments.
- Get feedback from your catchers/hitters on what pitched worked well/didn’t work well. Try to figure out what guys see well, don’t see well, had a tough time laying off, etc. The more you know about yourself and your arsenal, the better you can gameplan.
- Be aggressive. Pitch with confidence. The odds are in your favor when you get batters into two strike counts – pitch like it. If you’re constantly worried about giving up two strike hits, you’ll become paralyzed by your fear.
- If I tell you not to think about a pink elephant, a pink elephant will sure enough pop into your mind. Tell yourself positive, controllable actions (commit to this pitch, through the glove) instead of negative, outcome-based actions (don’t give up a hit, don’t waste this pitch).
Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns. Keep learning and growing – and get rid of your “waste pitches.”