Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS was a taut, tied affair headed into the bottom of the ninth inning. Each team had managed only a single run.

The Washington Nationals had the home-field advantage, ever more important now that the game was essentially sudden-death. On the other hand, their lineup had really struggled throughout the series, and the St. Louis Cardinals had superior bullpen depth, by a mile. By two miles.

In came Lance Lynn for St. Louis. He was having a rough October, thanks in large part to having been jerked around, used in relief but always expected to be ready to start. Nonetheless, Lynn is a very talented pitcher, and it seemed plausible he might pitch multiple innings and help St. Louis knock the Nationals out of the playoffs.

Jayson Werth, the Nationals’ leadoff man, led off the frame. He stepped in. Lynn pumped a pitch into the strike zone. Werth let it go by unmolested. Lynn threw another. Werth again stood stock still. Two strikes in no more than 20 seconds, and Werth’s back was to the wall. Freeze frame. If you were Jayson Werth, how would you have handled this situation? Consider what he faced: The league had an awful .196 OBP after an 0-2 count in 2012. Werth was quite a bit better, with a .258 OBP, but when the at-bat ended on that 0-2 count, that number was just .095 (compared to a league number of .157). Werth took another pitch. This one was called a ball. It was a huge pitch. After a 1-2 count, the league reached base at a .227 clip. By taking that pitch, Werth gave himself a 15-percent bump (three percentage points) in expected OBP. Werth took another pitch. Another ball. That one was even bigger. The league OBP after 2-2 counts was .289. Suddenly, Werth was in much less of a hole. You know the rest. Werth fouled off the next six offerings from Lynn, took a third ball, fouled off one more, then yanked the 13th pitch of the at-bat into the night for a walk-off home run.

In his book ‘The Book on The Book,’ (try to keep up), Bill Felber wrote as follows:

You know what I might do if I managed a big-league team and I knew that batters in an 0-2 hole typically hit .150? I might put the take sign on, that’s what I might do. Crazy? Not necessarily. At a point where the odds are seven-to-one that my batter will be retired, and fifty-fifty that it will happen without him making contact, an 0-2 take sign could be construed as perversely sensible. Together with the likelihood that pitchers holding an 0-2 count are probably going to go off the plate, I might succeed in my goal, which is to maneuver my hitter into a more favorable pitch count.

Felber wrote this in 2004, and published it in 2005. He didn’t have quite as much data (or quite as reliable data) with which to work as we have now. We should be able to dispense with Felber’s hedging and say conclusively which two-strike tack offers better odds to the hitter.

I don’t want to get bogged down in a game-theory discussion. That would lead us through ‘the batter should always do X until the pitcher changes his behavior, then always do Y, then start mixing X and Y,’ but in reality, that stage of the feeling-out process in at-bats happens in the minds of the batter and pitcher.

No, what we want to look at is to what degree a batter might be better off leaning toward taking an 0-2 pitch, rather than swinging. Here’s how we can do that.

In 2012, 48.7 percent of all pitches were in the strike zone. On average, batters swung at 63.7 percent of those, and of the remaining 36.3 percent of that subset, 13.7 percent, on average, were called balls. What do these numbers mean?
As Felber noted, pitchers will be much less likely to throw a strike in an 0-2 count than in any other. So let’s say that 48.7 percent zone rate becomes 37.5 percent. The book ‘Scorecasting’ found umpires are markedly less likely to call a third strike than either of the other two, so take that 13.7-percent rate of pitches in the zone taken for balls and make it 20 percent. If our batter doesn’t swing, then, he has a 30 percent chance of striking out in doing so (37.5 percent are in the zone, but one in five of those (or 7.5 percent of all pitches) are called balls anyway). He has a 70-percent chance of being left facing a 1-2 count. How has he done for himself?

He’s going to get on base at roughly a .159 pace doing things this way. Hmm. That’s stunningly close to the .157 OBP batters had on 0-2 pitches in 2012.

For me, Felber’s hypothesis dies here. It’s clear that no strategy nearly as drastic as giving the ‘take’ sign is going to effect a positive change in a cornered batter’s chances to reach base. The very idea seems to be from another generation now: This book came shortly in the wake of ‘Moneyball,’ at a time when saber-slanted bloggers, analysts and even some in front offices around baseball seemed to think we had unearthed enough information about the game to make all major and minor decisions from the dugout. Scouts and players didn’t have a lot of value as instinctive, intelligent agents in the 2004-06 stathead’s worldview.

I think we know better now. Programmed decisions are too rigid and predictable to work very well in the fluid and complex system that is a baseball game. For me, the best way to approach an 0-2 count–and the way I certainly think Werth approached his that night–is to treat it more like a 2-0 count.

In youth baseball and softball, there is always a lot of talk about protecting the plate with two strikes, and about forcing the ball to be in the right zone when ahead in the count. These are probably sound strategy notes at that level; I think the average BABIP probably stays around .450 until high school, so making contact at all has more value there. Moreover, no kid likes to walk back to the dugout having let strike three go by. And since youth umps have a tough job and crowds can be cruel, coaches might subconsciously want to make sure the at-bat gets resolved by someone swinging the bat.

In professional baseball, though, 95 percent of all batters should forget two-strike protecting. That deep in the count, you have already waited too long to worry about contact. You should lock into your favorite quadrant of the strike zone, prepare to drive a ball pitched there, and let absolutely any other pitch pass.

This is what youth coaches would want their hitters to do when ahead in counts, but it may be even more valuable in this situation. You have to figure the batter looking for a given pitch has a much better chance to hit said pitch hard than one trying to prepare for anything. Furthermore, if he’s willing to take all other pitches, he has a pretty good shot at getting to 1-2, and is that much more likely to see a good pitch on the next delivery.

Werth is remarkably patient, routinely among the league leaders in pitches seen per plate appearance. It seems as though he doesn’t really need to make a major adjustment to his approach when he gets behind, which helps explain his excellent numbers in those spots. More batters should follow his lead.

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