In the game of football, the line of scrimmage is the ultimate battleground throughout the course of a game. The goal of the offense is to prevent the defense from penetrating the line of scrimmage in order to open up running lanes and protect the quarterback so he can have more time to throw. The goal of the defense is the exact opposite: blow up the line of scrimmage to clog running lanes, put pressure on the quarterback, and force him to make bad decisions under duress. The team who can consistently control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball wins, while teams who struggle to do either have trouble competing for 60 minutes. This constant battle between the offense and defense is a great way to illustrate a similar battleground on the baseball field: the war of the strike zone.
Just like football, the pitcher and hitter are constantly competing for control of the strike zone. Pitchers are trying to pound the zone early and often so they can get hitters into counts where there are more strikes than balls. Hitters are trying to hit good pitches in good counts where there are more balls than strikes. Pitchers who get ahead are able to put pressure on the batter by making them expand the zone and swing at pitches that initially look like strikes. Hitters are trying to get into counts where pitchers are going to throw their most predictable (and straightest) stuff.
To explain why controlling the count is so important, let’s look at some numbers by count from the 2017 MLB season. When hitters were working with two strikes, they batted .177 (0-2: 0.152, 1-2: 0.159, 2-2: .181, 3-2: .216). When hitters were ahead in the count (more balls than strikes), they batted .366 (1-0: .341, 2-0: .360, 3-0: .414, 2-1: .349, 3-1: 364). In three ball counts, the OBP was .702 (3-0: .946, 3-1: 698, 3-2: 462). In two strike counts, the OBP stood at .244 (0-2: 0.160, 1-2: .166, 2-2: .187, 3-2: .462). If you subtract the 3-2 count (a neutral count), OBP falls to .171 with two strikes.
Based on this data, we can assume a few things:
- Pitchers thrive when they get to two strikes quickly (0-2 BA: 0.125, OBP: .160, 1-2 BA: .159, OBP: .166).
- Hitters do their most damage when ahead in the count (no BA in hitting plus counts was below .341).
- Three ball counts are a hitter’s dream and a pitcher’s nightmare (hitters get on base more than 70% of the time in three ball counts).
- The only time when batting averages sunk below 0.300 was when the count went to two strikes. The worst BA in any non-two strike count was .330 in 0-1 counts. The best BA in a two strike count was the 3-2 count (.216).
Let’s dive a little further. Two counts I want to emphasize are the 0-0 count and the 1-1 count.
The first pitch is crucial to the direction the at-bat will take. Pitchers are going to throw their best pitches in their highest strike percentage locations in 0-0 counts. They want to get to two strikes as quickly as possible. They’re not going to nibble around the strike zone – they’re going to go right at you with their best stuff.
To avoid falling into two strike counts, most hitters are going to be very aggressive in 0-0 counts. They know the pitcher is going to throw the ball over the plate early in their at-bat. By hopping on pitches early in the count, they reduce the likelihood they’ll see an offspeed of breaking ball later in the count. In 2018, the MLB BA on cutters/sliders and curveballs was .267 and the BA on changeups was .279. On 4 seam and 2 seam fastballs, MLB hitters batted .348.
In 2017, MLB hitters batted .348 on 0-0 counts and slugged .585. 2017 batting champion and AL MVP Jose Altuve (.346 BA) hit a staggering .449 in 0-0 counts. 2017 AL MVP frontrunner Aaron Judge was just as exceptional batting .400 in 0-0 counts. Mike Trout, another pretty popular name in baseball, batted .447 in 0-0 counts. When we look at all three players in two strike counts, they barely combine to scratch .200 (Trout didn’t even touch .200 in 0-2, 1-2, or 2-2 counts).
As a pitcher, this does not mean 0-0 counts are time to nibble. According to research done by Jerry Weinstein, 92.7% of first pitch strikes lead to an out or strike one. 69% of strikeouts begin with a first pitch strike, while 70% of walks start with first pitch balls. If you throw a first pitch strike, there is an 80% chance two of your first three pitches will be strikes. Considering what we know when the best hitters in the world get to two strikes, this is a huge advantage for pitchers.
Aside from 0-0 counts, 1-1 counts are arguably the most important count in baseball. To illustrate this, let’s look at some numbers for what happens after 1-1 counts. If the pitcher throws a strike and gets the count to 1-2, hitters struggled batting .159 with a .166 OBP. If the pitcher throws a ball and lets the hitter work back into a plus count, BA and OBP jumps to .349 and .351 respectively. In the matter of one pitch, we’re looking at a difference of .190 in BA and .185 in OBP.
As a pitcher, 1-2 counts are where we thrive. We can throw our best swing and miss pitches without worrying about whether we’ll walk the batter or not. Hitters can’t be as selective and must battle off a variety of pitches to work themselves back into a favorable count. In 2017 in 1-2 counts, Altuve batted .235, Judge batted .172, and Trout batted .188.
In 2-1 counts, the options for pitchers are limited in their arsenal based on what pitches they are most confident in throwing for strikes. We know that hitters get on base nearly 70% of the time when the count gets to three balls. We also know that in 2-2 counts, hitters batted .181 at the MLB level in 2017. As a hitter, we don’t have the pressure of fighting off a wicked curveball when the thought of going back to the dugout on strikes isn’t in our mind. Plus counts are where we do our damage. In 2-1 counts in 2017, Altuve batted .444, Judge batted .621, and Trout batted .486. If we’re doing the math from the averages above, that’s a .209 difference for Altuve, .449 for Judge, and .298 for Trout.
To summarize what we’ve talked about:
- The line of scrimmage to football is what the strike zone is to baseball. Teams who win their respective line of demarcation win games.
- Pitchers dominate when the count gets to two strikes.
- Hitters do damage when there are more balls than strikes and when they aren’t in two strike counts.
- 0-0 counts dictate at-bats. Pitchers who throw strike one succeed. Hitters who hop on a good pitch early have success.
- There is a huge difference between a 2-1 count and a 1-2 count. Winning the majority of 1-1 counts is crucial.
Coaches: Put a premium on controlling the strike zone in your practices. If you don’t emphasize the importance of hitting in plus counts or getting to two strikes quickly, don’t be surprised when your team can’t do either in games. Below are some ideas on how to do so:
- Practice hitting in a variety of counts (0-0, 1-1, 2-0, 0-2).
- Talk about approaches in each count (what pitches/locations they’re hunting).
- Keep it simple in the box – if you’re looking for everything, you’re not going to be ready for anything. One speed, one location.
- Have pitchers practice throwing with counts to RHH/LHH.
- Figure out what pitches/locations they are most confident when they need a strike, strike out, or ground ball.
- Manipulate the count, baserunners (RISP) to create certain situations.
- Develop multiple pitches that can be thrown with confidence in 0-0 counts.
- Pitch backwards in hitter plus counts.
- Create incentives (not having to do field work, team captain for scrimmage, etc.) for those who rise to the challenge and execute in certain counts.
- Keep track of how your team performs in certain counts throughout the season. Especially keep track of 0-0 counts and 1-1 counts.
- Record your team and the other team’s walks/strikeouts.
- Winning teams: Your walks/how many you strike out – their walks/how many times they struck you out = positive number. Losing teams: Same equation yields negative number.
Information used in this article from the 2017 MLB season can be found below.
Feel free to reach out with any questions or concerns. Keep learning and growing.