Command PostDecember 10, 2007
Dirty Jobs: part 2
By Joe P. Sheehan

Last week I looked at how pitchers approached each count, based on the amount of fastballs thrown and where they were thrown. Today I'm going to wrap up the topic, looking at what generally happens after the pitcher releases the ball and the hitter has to make a decision.

The most basic decision a hitter has to make at the plate (after determining what pitch is coming) is whether to swing or not so the next facet of each count I looked at was how often hitters took a pitch in each count. To remain consistent with the other results I've found, I only looked at fastballs and the table below shows how often fastballs were taken in each count, along with how often the pitch was either a ball or a strike. The most obvious thing is how often 3&0 fastballs are taken, especially for strikes. I realize there are a lot of good explanations/reasons for this behavior, but it seems that hitters are sacrificing a huge opportunity by taking so many pitches in these situations. A 3&1 count is still a hitter's count, so the actual loss of the strike doesn't hurt the batter too much, but they are ceding one their most potentially productive counts by showing pitchers they rarely swing in in it. A generic 3&0 pitch is a strike only 60% of the time, compared with the average across all counts of 63%, but that's not nearly enough of a difference to justify taking 93% of pitches.

Count    Take%  Called Strike%     Ball%   Called Strike/Ball Ratio
3&0      93%    59%                33%     1.77
0&0      71%    32%                40%      .81
2&0      59%    28%                31%      .90
1&0      57%    24%                33%      .71
0&1      54%    12%                42%      .28
0&2      53%     5%                48%      .09
1&1      47%    12%                35%      .33
3&1      45%    17%                28%      .60
1&2      43%     5%                38%      .14
2&1      40%    11%                30%      .36
2&2      35%     5%                30%      .18
3&2      25%     4%                21%      .20

If the batter is able recognize a 3&0 pitch as a fastball out of the pitcher's hand he's at even more of an advantage. 3&0 fastballs are strikes 67% of the time, which is higher than the average for fastballs among all counts (64%) and when batters do swing at 3&0 fastballs, they are very successful, posting the highest Slugging Percentage by swings (TB/Total Swings) for any count. I would think that success would encourage more swinging on 3&0, but it apparently doesn't. I know that I'm making this sound overly simplistic, and there are certainly valid reasons why different hitters might not swing at a 3&0 fastball, (among others, they could be looking for a specific pitch or a specific location), but I think there's an element of risk-aversion on the part of the batter to avoid "wasting" a 3&0 count and making a visible out right then.

I'm not sure how much more I'm advocating swinging at 3&0 fastballs, but if the whole point of a hitter's count is to force the pitcher into throwing more fastballs, then taking almost all of those fastballs can't be a good decision, especially when the pitch is nearly twice as likely to be a strike than a ball. Taking the pitch might not be as big of a problem as I'm making it out to be because even though a 3&1 count is a (slightly) worse hitter's count than 3&0, in terms of seeing fastballs, the two counts are very similar. This leads to the question, in which count is it worst to take a strike in? The table below has the FB% for each count, along with the FB% for the count that results from taking an additional strike and the difference between the two. Obviously it's suicide to take a called third strike, so those bottom four counts aren't very interesting, What is interesting is the top of the chart. Taking a 3&0 strike leaves the batter in roughly the same position he started in, at least in terms of possibly seeing a fastball. The lack of a "penalty" for taking a strike combined with the potential of getting a walk might contribute to the higher than normal take-rates in 3&0. The similarity in terms of seeing fastballs between 0&1 and 0&2 further emphasizes how important first pitch strikes are for a pitcher. 0&2 is obviously a better pitcher's count because the batter has a smaller margin for error, but in terms of fastball selection, once that first strike happens, the batter has a huge hole to dig out of.

Count   FB%     FB%-Called   Diff.
0&1     48%     47%          0.00
3&0     78%     76%         -0.02
1&1     49%     44%         -0.05
1&0     59%     49%         -0.10
2&0     70%     59%         -0.10
0&0     59%     48%         -0.11
2&1     59%     47%         -0.13
3&1     76%     61%         -0.14
1&2     44%      0%         -0.44
2&2     47%      0%         -0.47
0&2     47%      0%         -0.47
3&2     61%      0%         -0.61

Going back to the first table for a second, another interesting element is how the frequencies of taking a fastball for a called strike organize the counts based on the number of strikes a hitter has. When hitters have two strikes, regardless of the number of balls he has, there is only about a 5% chance of him looking at strike three. When he has one strike, there is about a 12% chance of taking strike two and with zero strikes and zero, one or two balls, a there is about a 28% chance of the batter taking strike one, but in a 3&0 count, that percent nearly doubles to 59%.

I mentioned that batters had the best results in 3&0 counts, and I based that on the slugging percentage per swing in each count. This is very similar to slugging percentage for balls in play, except swinging strikes and foul balls are added to the denominator. This is a more granular metric than anything else I've seen and measures the value of a swing. To give a feel for the size of these values, the league average (for all types of pitches) is .273, Alex Rodriguez led the league at .324 and among non pitchers, Jason LaRue was last, posting a .114. .270 and above is a pretty good performance, while below .180 is poor. (These are different than the values I posted on Saturday which were slightly off). This isn't a measure of the absolute value a player, but measures the value of one swing of his bat, something like his skill for recognizing which pitches to swing at and then hitting those pitches hard. The table below shows the SLGSWING in each count (for fastballs), and the rankings of the counts is very similar to how they've been ranked with other metrics.

3&0     0.381
3&1     0.333
2&0     0.298
2&1     0.267
3&2     0.256
1&0     0.247
0&0     0.233
2&2     0.205
1&1     0.202
0&1     0.192
1&2     0.190
0&2     0.163

The original question that prompted this article asked about classifying 2&2 and 0&1 counts and the way hitters and pitchers approached each count. I would call both counts pitcher's counts but in an 0&1 count, the fewer strikes gives hitters a much bigger margin for error and allows them to be relatively selective about which pitch they swing at. However, an 0&1 count also allows pitchers to be less concerned with forcing a strike than they are in a 2&2 count. 0&1 has some advantages for both batters and pitchers, although the pitcher's advantage is dominant. In a 2&2 count, the batter and pitcher are under different pressures. A batter can't afford to be very selective because he only has one strike left, but a pitcher doesn't want to throw a ball and go to 3&2. The batter is again in a worse spot, making it a pitcher's count, but if 0&1 is a count where both the batter and pitcher are under pressure to maximize their advantage, in a 2&2 count it seems like both players are under pressure not to screw up.


I'm just curious, what is your sample for the data? '07 season, or does it date further back?