“If 0-2 and 1-2 are bad luck for every hitter (except Prince Fielder), the secret to hitting would be to prevent those counts from turning into an at-bat.”
If Tyler Colvin’s first full year in the majors, 2010, had been a college course–call it Hitting 101–he would have aced the qualifying exam (spring training), gotten a B on the midterm and a C- on the final, for an overall grade of C+. In 2011, he took the next course in the sequence but failed the midterm and slept through the final. He may get an opportunity to resume his academic career, but if he ever graduates it will probably be in a different uniform.
Colvin always had a low walk rate as a prospect, and people who stress the importance of that number have been expecting him to fail. Colvin did not disappoint them. I, on the other hand, am disappointed. I knew his approach to hitting was not up to major-league snuff, but I thought he might learn to hit in the course of his first couple of seasons, whereas the stroke, the power, the speed, the glove–those are things that cannot be acquired over time. Whatever your expectations of Colvin since the day he was drafted in 2006, it’s a terrible waste of talent so far, made keener by the slugging prowess–20 home runs and a .500 SLG–that he teased us with as a rookie in 2010.
The walk-rate folks might say that the ability to tell a ball from a strike is an important tool also, and either you have it or you don’t. Colvin obviously didn’t, and doesn’t. They would say his failure was fore-ordained. I am less of a believer in pitch recognition as a tool. I think there is a secret to hitting, and that Colvin, lacking either the native intelligence or the proper coaching, has not been able to follow the clues that lead to that secret. Once you have the secret, it’s actually not that hard to hit. Since some readers may find it strange to hear a blogger say that hitting major-league pitching is not that difficult, let me place in evidence this testimony of Lou Piniella’s:
Look, you’ve got to hit with men on base, that’s all there is to it. It’s really not that hard. I played 17 years. It’s not like I haven’t played up here. It’s not that hard. It really isn’t. I know everybody’s trying but it’s not that hard.
In any case, I didn’t say I could do it, just that someone with the physical wherewithal, like Colvin, along with the practical experience of swinging at a million pitches could do it by putting sound hitting principles into practice.
Here, then, at no extra charge, is my philosophy of hitting, and my attempt to provide the theory behind a “grinding” at-bat, as new Cub president Theo Epstein referred recently to the hitting approach that he likes. A good at-bat is not simply a matter of taking pitches. If you never swung at a pitch, your P/PA (pitches per plate appearance) would be above 3.0, probably the worst in the majors but within shouting distance of Ichiro’s 3.51. If you swung only at 2-strike pitches and succeeded in fouling off a small percentage of them–say one out of five–you might do better in P/PA than Yuniesko Betancourt (.316) or Vladimir Guerrero (3.22) or even Aramis Ramirez (3.32). You would not in this case be a hitter at all, just someone with a disinclination to swing who happens to have a bat in his hand but doesn’t necessarily know what to do with it. A hitter must know when to swing. More specifically, a hitter knows that a good time to swing is when the pitcher has determined to throw a strike.
When is a pitcher trying to throw a strike? (By strike I mean a pitch in the strike zone.) I’ll answer that question with a question. When do pitchers get yelled at? Because managers and coaches get upset when their pitcher throws too many ball fours, he is highly likely to at least attempt to throw a strike whenever the count stands at three balls. A pitcher also gets yelled at if he fails to throw strikes consistently on 0-0, since it’s awkward to miss the strike zone when a hitter is obviously taking, as he often is on the first pitch. While the hitter may not like to swing on 0-0, since it’s a terrible at-bat, the opposite of grinding, if he makes an out, still he expects it to be a strike, often a breaking-ball strike and not infrequently a hanging curve. A hitter should also expect a strike, or at least an attempted strike, on 1-0, since the pitcher doesn’t want to fall farther behind. Two and oh is an obvious hitter’s count, as is 2-1, since a pitcher will want to avoid 3-1. The counts that we would expect to favor the hitter, then, are 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and 3-2.
A pitcher can also get yelled at for not missing the strike zone. A veteran pitcher who is good at reading his adversary’s mind can sneak an 0-2 pitch by the hitter on occasion, but it is generally a no-no to serve up something hittable on a count that calls for an offspeed pitch in the dirt. “Why didn’t you bury it?” A pitcher hears those words as soon as he reaches the dugout if the manager hasn’t already gotten the point across during a trip to the mound. If the hitter lays off the 0-2, the next pitch is also unlikely to be a strike. A pitcher’s control is not perfect and he may throw a strike on 0-2 or 1-2, or he may, as we said, try to sneak a fastball past a hitter who is being very cautious about swinging. The hitter has to be ready for anything on those pitcher’s counts, but he should be expecting a pitch that is a bit off the mark and that expectation should make him less likely to swing. This gets us to the crux of our hitting philosophy. Given a tendency among all pitchers to miss the strike zone when the count is 0-2 and 1-2, a count of 2-2 or even 3-2 should be within reach of a smart hitter in just about any at-bat. We are beginning to glimpse how a grinding at-bat is accomplished.
The table below ranks the twelve possible hitting counts according to whether they favor the hitter, or at least whether they favor good hitters. The batting average in the second column is the cumulative 2011 BA, per hitting count, of fifteen pretty decent hitters in the NL Central: Pujols, Berkman and Freese from the Cardinals, Braun, Fielder and Weeks from the Brewers, Votto, Bruce, Phillips and Stubbs from the Reds, Walker and McCutchen from the Pirates and Ramirez, Castro and Pena from the Cubs.
The data seems to bear out our analysis above based on pitchers getting yelled at, if we assume that a high BA indicates that the hitter is swinging at strikes while a low average suggests the opposite, that he is chasing two-strike pitches out of the zone. At least we can say that the data is consistent with our prediction, based on pitchers’ trying to throw strikes or trying to miss, of what the good counts are for hitters. I am a bit surprised to see 1-1 at the top of the list of favorable hitter’s counts, but the data sample is not huge, and the top four cumulative batting averages in this table are nearly the same. A safe generalization is that any count with less than two strikes is hitter-friendly. Among two-strike counts, 3-2 is more favorable than 2-2, while 0-2 and 1-2 are to be avoided. Only one hitter, Prince Fielder, among our NL Central group of fifteen is comfortable enough hitting from behind to hit safely on 0-2 and 1-2 at a rate higher than .250 (actually .279 in Fielder’s case). The average hitter among this group has less than a one-in-five chance–a .171 chance, to be precise–of getting a hit if the count stands at 0-2 or 1-2 when the pitcher throws the final pitch of the at-bat.
If the table seems to imply that a good hitter, when faced with an 0-2 count, becomes a .159 hitter, that is not quite accurate. If he takes a strike or otherwise makes an out, another hitless 0-2 at-bat is recorded in his player page at baseball-reference.com. (All of the numbers in this article are derived from the Standard Batting: Splits: 2011: Count/Balls-Strikes data for each hitter at this indispensable site.) But if he takes a ball, the count moves to 1-2, and his 0-2 BA is not touched, since this was not an at-bat that reached its result at 0-2. For the sake of getting a decent pitch to hit, the hitter is advised not to swing at the 1-2 pitch, either. At 2-2, he can breathe a little easier: his expected BA (based on the group-of-15 column in the table) is now above .200, and will jump to .236 if he can wait out one more ball and run the count to full.
Colvin’s numbers for 2010 and 2011 in the table show the same general arc as the numbers derived from the “group of 15.” When he faces a count of less than two strikes, and the pitch results in an at-bat, Colvin hits well (in 2010 at least). When an 0-1 or 0-2 pitch results in an at-bat for Colvin, he fares poorly.
I am not saying that a hitter should turn his pitch-recognition tool on full blast when the count is 0-2 or 1-2, in order to avoid getting saddled with a futile at-bat. I doubt that a hitter really has such a tool, but if he does, he will use it on every count. What I am saying is that when the count is against him, a smart hitter will actively look for a particular pitch to take, just as in a hitter’s count he looks for a certain pitch to drive. On 0-2 or 1-2, a smart hitter looks for an offspeed pitch at the belt or lower, and will lay off that offering, because it is a pitcher’s pitch that is intended to dive down below the knees before it crosses the plate.
I never get the sense that Colvin is looking for a pitch to take. With two strikes, he is always protecting the plate, or swinging at anything close, or some such nonsense. It is pointless, because the next pitch will be the same thing in the same place. The count hasn’t changed. I suspect that if you asked Colvin what’s the worst that could happen in an at-bat, he would say a called-third strike. That’s wrong. A called-third strike is a normal, acceptable hazard of trying to get a better hitting count.
If 0-2 and 1-2 are bad luck for every hitter (except Prince Fielder), the secret to hitting would be to prevent those counts from turning into an at-bat. In the Count/Balls-Strikes table in Baseball Reference, every at-bat is tallied for one or another pitch-count. The table below consolidates this at-bat data, and shows Tyler Colvin with a disproportionate number of at-bats that are logged when the count is 0-2 or 1-2. For the group of 15 as a whole in 2011, 0-2 and 1-2 counts represent 22.5 percent of all at-bats. For Colvin , those counts represent 28.8 percent (2010) and 32.5 percent (2011) of all at-bats.
The pitch-count stats for each hitter are compendious in Baseball Reference, but they don’t quite give us the measure of a hitter’s patience that would be provided by a precise count of swings and takes. I can infer how many times a hitter took a pitch for a ball when the count was 0-2, but not for a strike; nor can I infer how many times he swung, since a foul ball would not impact the table data when there were already two strikes. In the table below, I present pitches taken for a ball when the count is 0-2 as a percentage–but a percentage of what, exactly? It’s not a percentage of all pitches with the count 0-2, because that’s just not in the data. As I said, I don’t have information about balls hit foul. I have to give the “pitches taken for a ball on 0-2″ count as a percentage of all plate appearances in which the count was ever 0-2. (That’s the “after 0-2″ row in the data table in Baseball Reference.) Pitches taken for a ball is arrived at by subtracting 0-2 at-bats from “after 0-2″ plate appearances. Here is the upshot: in 2010, Colvin saw 0-2 in 85 plate appearances. In 39 of those he made an out or got a hit (or was safe on an error or fielder’s choice, etc.) while the count was still 0-2. That leaves 46 times that he took a ball on 0-2. That is 54.1% of the 85 PAs, which does not seem terrible, but the average among the Group of 15 is 57.5%. Then on 1-2, Colvin’s take-a-ball percentage is only 44.4, while the group average is 52.2. Here is the table:
Looking at these aspects of plate approach in which Colvin is deficient by a few percentage points–but consistently so–we should remember the effect of an extra hit here and there on a batter’s season. One additional hit in every ten at-bats transforms you from a .150 hitter–that’s Tyler Colvin in 2011, the worst in the league–to a .250 hitter, like Colvin in 2010, a plausible candidate for rookie of the year. Add another hit every ten at-bats and you’re Albert Pujols in a good year. Colvin could solve his hitting woes by looking for pitches to take on 0-2 and 1-2 and trying to grind out an at-bat that is finally settled, for good or ill, on a full count. He might be more inclined to do so if he grasped that pitchers have different tendencies on different counts. I like to believe that the necessary insights seep into all hitters’ brains, even the duller ones, eventually; but Colvin may have missed his chance with the Cubs and will likely have to go elsewhere to learn the rudiments of hitting. If that happens, then from the Cubs’ point of view his tools did not overcome his bad approach, and the people who stressed his low walk rate were right all along.