Pay attention to the count, baseball's hidden treasure

Sluggers Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn can count on being much better hitters with less than two strikes.
Sluggers Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn can count on being much better hitters with less than two strikes. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, May 27, 2010

How do you watch a baseball game?

To enjoy the sport fully, you have to grasp the huge importance of the ball-strike count -- especially the power of "strike two."

The count is where the strategic heart of the game is found. That's where every iota of study and intuition about your enemy comes into play. That is where veteran big leaguers live, constantly anticipating what pitch will be thrown next, or should be thrown, depending on the count. Only then can we start to watch baseball the way it is experienced in the dugout.

My education started long ago watching baseball in Puerto Rico and Cuba. I was puzzled. Crowds cheered, and often roared, on a call of "ball" or "strike" or a mere foul ball. These are the boring pitches on which "nothing happens," according to some. Were fans in those baseball-as-religion countries crazed with enthusiasm?

"No," I was told. "We just understand the game."

And I suspected that I didn't. That's when I began to grasp that the count was baseball's open secret, the hidden key, the game-within-the-game that players themselves obsessed about. You don't wait for the action. You anticipate it -- through the count.

To grasp baseball better, digest one vital but little-known fact that has only been discovered in recent years as copious data about ball-strike counts has finally become easily available online.

With less than two strikes, the average hitter is a superstar in every count. It doesn't matter whether the scoreboard says 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 0-1, 1-1, 2-1 or 3-1. In those counts, the average big leaguer is a .339 hitter, comparable to Stan Musial, and is a .549 slugger, comparable to Hank Aaron.

Last season, in those eight "hitter's counts," the MLB average, respectively, was .339, .340, .368, .395, .317, .332, .339 and .352. You barely need to distinguish between them. If the next pitch is hit into play, watch out. The results will evoke "The Man" and 'The Hammer."

So, don't slumber through a game thinking, "This bum'll never get a hit." Oh, yes he may. As long as he hasn't got two strikes yet.

By one of those lovely baseball symmetries that nobody can explain, almost exactly half of all plate appearances end with less than two strikes. Happy hitters! But the other half reach strike two.

Once that happens, the whole sport changes. On the two-strike counts of 0-2, 1-2, 2-2 and 3-2, batters hit .156, .171, .189 and, finally, if they can reach a full count, .233. In every at-bat last season that reached a two-strike count, the MLB average was .186, with pathetic on-base and slugging averages of .259 and .283.

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