Pay attention to the count, baseball's hidden treasure

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, May 27, 2010; D01

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.

How bad is that? Mario Mendoza, for whom the Mendoza Line was named -- signifying the worst imaginable big league hitter -- batted .215 with a .245 on-base and .256 slugging average.

Take Adam Dunn for example. He studies pitchers endlessly so he can anticipate -- okay, "guess" -- what they'll throw or where. He'll look for a pitch or a zone or both -- like "low changeup." With less than two strikes, when he can pick and choose, he's batted .381 in his 10-year career with a home run every 11.3 at-bats. With two strikes, he hits .151 with a homer every 30 at-bats.

Knowing the exact degree to which "strike two" changes the game may be new. But it doesn't change the sport. For 100 years, every batter has wanted to avoid two strikes and every pitcher wants to get ahead in the count. It is just in the grain of the game.

When I showed these numbers to Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, he said: "Makes sense. Once you get two strikes, they have to defend the whole plate against all your pitches at any speed. I guess that would be make it a little harder, wouldn't it?"

Nevertheless, knowing how dramatically every change in count alters what's likely to happen next makes the game more exciting and illuminating to watch. Too bad it took me until this season for the "strike two" insight to finally click in. I searched Google, and my Sabermetric tomes, to see who else was preaching "strike two."

Finally, I got a hit. In 2004, using "a pen and a pad of paper," Bill Felber amassed data on 5,000 plate appearances, then devoted one of the 13 chapters of his "The Book on the Book" to "The Most Underappreciated Words in Baseball: Stee-rike Two."

Since then, with every-pitch-of-every-game tools such as, others may have mined the field. Still, in locker rooms, this new info brings blank stares. Ballplayers still think the game's most important pitch is "strike one" on 0-0. Oh, boy.

True, strike one is important. After an 0-1 count, the MLB average drops from .262 to .232; after a 1-0 count it rises to .278. By all means, keep telling pitchers to "get ahead early."

However, the difference between 1-0 and 0-1 has less impact on the eventual outcome of an at-bat than a change of a ball or strike in several other counts, such as 0-1, 1-0, 1-1 or 2-0. Greg Maddux sensed this. He thought 1-1 was the most important pitch -- not 0-0 -- because "2-1 and 1-2 are different worlds." At 2-1, you have to come to the hitter more. At 1-2, you can use all your tricks to "expand the zone." Mad Dog was on the right track.

But, in fact, the most transformational count of all is 2-1. If you do nothing else, watch that pitch. Measured in OPS, it has twice as much influence on the ultimate results of an at-bat as 0-0. Above all, the tale of the 2-1 pitch illustrates how, as the count changes, the hitter at the plate seems to change identity before our eyes.

For example, the current player whose career stats come closest to duplicating the '09 MLB norms of .262 batting, .333 on-base and .418 slugging is Cleveland's Jhonny Peralta. The Nationals' Willie Harris, since he came to Washington, is our Mr. Average.

Yet, as the count changes, so does their ability to "sit on" a favorite pitch or ignore any ball not in their "happy zone." As a result, in a span of minutes, they morph into different hitters.

On a 2-1 count, the average hitter is already "ahead of the count" and happy. In fact, such a guy has so much leeway to "guess hit" or "zone" that, if he puts the next pitch in play, he'll generate an .833 OPS -- equivalent to Orioles star Nick Markakis.

The true drama arrives if the count changes to 2-2 or 3-1. Hold on to your batting helmet. At 2-2, our average hitter plummets to the level of a backup player (a .618 OPS), like the Nats' Wil Nieves last season.

But if the count reaches 3-1, our Mr. Mundane suddenly becomes better (1.090 OPS for all hitters on 3-1 counts in '09) than anybody who ever lived, except Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

Feel free to gasp. Every time you see a ball added to the count, the hitter just added 77 to 257 OPS points. Every time he gets an additional strike, his OPS for the rest of that at-bat just dropped by 122 to 215 OPS points. No change in count is inconsequential.

So, the next innocent foul ball you see may not be innocent at all. If a vet like Liván Hernández gets a slugger like Alex Rodriguez to pull a slow curve foul on a 1-1 pitch, taking the count to 1-2, then he just turned A-Rod from an all-star (.885 OPS after all 1-1 counts) into a utility man (.694 after all 1-2 counts).

The permutations are endless. But the central theme never changes. In all counts with less than two strikes, an average hitter is as good as Musial or Aaron. And a good hitter becomes a monster -- often better than Ruth. But as soon as the count gets to two strikes, all but the greatest hitters are reduced to scrubs.

"Baseball is only dull to dull minds," Red Barber famously said.

But then, as an announcer, Red had an edge. He always had to know the count.

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