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What count matters most?

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Watching Phil Hughes strike out David Wright on a borderline 3-2 pitch yesterday made me think of the differences that one pitch can make. Instead of one on, none out, it was one out, none on - a pretty big difference. In fact, according to BPro's Run Matrix, the run expectancy for the inning dropped precipitously, from .90 runs to .28. That one pitch made a difference of more than half a run.

It got me thinking about the difference between counts, such as 1-2 vs. 2-1, 2-2 vs. 3-1, etc.

The following are the differences in OPS+ after the respective count is reached (throughout MLB in 2008):

0-1 vs. 1-0 = 69 vs. 126 - 57 point difference

0-2 vs. 1-1 = 28 vs. 88 - 60 " "

1-2 vs. 2-1 = 42 vs. 121 - 79 " "

1-1 vs. 2-0 = 88 vs. 172 - 84 " "

2-2 vs. 3-1 = 68 vs. 194 - 126 " "

2-1 vs. 3-0 = 121 vs. 251 - 130 " "

The largest differences concern three ball counts (because it skyrockets on-base average). In 2008, batters had just a .621 OPS (68 OPS+) after a 2-2 count. It rose significantly (to 1.075, or 194 OPS+) after a 3-1 count. That 2-1 pitch is huge. It allows the pitcher to either get even (and on 2 strikes, makes the batter protect the plate), or give the hitter a huge advantage because 3 balls is just one pitch from being walked. So in terms of equivalency, they turn from Joey Gathright into Barry Bonds.

But an even larger difference occurs on a 2-0 pitch. A strike (2-1) causes hitters to remain very good (.820 OPS, or 121 OPS+), hitting as well as Nick Markakis, but a ball, making the count 3-0, makes a hitter better than Babe Ruth (1.269 OPS, or 251 OPS+).

To conclude, that one pitch in an at-bat, inning or game can make a big difference in the eventual outcome. The umpires need to be on top of their game because one call either way can turn a hitter from replacement level into a Hall of Famer.