Hitting in deep counts

This guy last played in 2011, so what's his picture doing here? Read the article and see. - Doug Pensinger

Does hitting performance change based on the number of pitches a hitter sees during a plate appearance?

Last week fellow Beyond The Box Score contributor Ryan P. Morrison wrote a piece on the selectivity of the Red Sox at the plate, to which a commenter asked "As an AB progresses, does it inherently favor the hitter?" I begin with the obvious--this data from Baseball-Reference shows how hitters performed by pitch count in 2013:

Split PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
First Pitch 20499 19283 6485 1270 133 800 3277 .336 .341 .540 .882
1-0 Count 12757 12397 4127 848 82 554 2063 .333 .333 .549 .882
2-0 Count 4635 4516 1480 327 29 228 839 .328 .327 .564 .892
3-0 Count 3773 292 103 25 3 25 162 3465 .353 .948 .716 1.663
0-1 Count 16917 16286 5068 943 71 450 2069 .311 .319 .461 .779
1-1 Count 16054 15617 5166 1037 73 521 2229 .331 .334 .507 .840
2-1 Count 9514 9348 3281 683 69 440 1540 .351 .352 .580 .932
3-1 Count 8133 3876 1329 279 24 252 792 4179 .343 .680 .622 1.302
0-2 Count 16262 15987 2431 428 50 160 926 7974 .152 .161 .215 .376
1-2 Count 27133 26731 4428 773 63 354 1712 12261 .166 .173 .239 .412
2-2 Count 25522 25210 4562 858 93 453 1888 10684 .181 .187 .276 .463
Full Count 23674 16527 3632 751 82 424 1775 6995 5791 .220 .452 .352 .804

It shouldn't be surprising how well hitters perform when hitting the first pitch. I suspect hitters are taking advantage of breaking balls that don't break, cutters that don't cut, splitters that don't split, or 95 mph fastballs that are closer to 91 with no movement. They're seeing mistakes and capitalizing on them. This creates a natural tension between the desire to work a count, particularly with a starting pitcher and taking the gift the pitcher has offered. I'd be very interested in what batting coaches would have to say on this matter, but I'm guessing any time pitchers throw a pitch just begging to be hit into the seats is a good time to swing. If the ultimate point is to swing at the best pitch with which to make contact, why not take it if it's the first pitch?

The hitter has the advantage when ahead in the count and the pitchers have the same when they're ahead; no real surprise. What the commenter was asking was what happens after the count reaches 3-2 and the hitter starts hitting foul balls and increasing the number of pitches seen--does any advantage return to the hitter? Put another way, we can easily track how well a hitter performs in the first five pitches, but what happens after that?

I attempted to answer that question in the comments section of the post because I do have that data but I couldn't format it properly. I sent it out to my fellow writers, and Ryan suggested I write it up. It's February and I'm running on fumes for ideas as it is, so that worked for me. Baseball-Reference play-by-play data shows performance by the number of pitches seen in an at-bat from 2009-2013:

Pitches PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 102995 96418 32246 6417 627 4047 16883 .334 .341 .540 .880
2 150672 145269 47383 9457 964 5182 21936 .326 .331 .512 .842
3 167581 163547 43084 8527 814 4690 19699 30543 .263 .268 .412 .680
4 178998 157372 34378 6730 762 3549 15515 18917 49880 .218 .306 .339 .644
5 153084 128708 26519 5207 570 3007 12309 22665 45886 .206 .328 .325 .653
6 102314 82007 16908 3356 358 1824 8202 19413 30359 .206 .359 .323 .682
7 43400 33696 7083 1413 184 825 3589 9334 11857 .210 .382 .337 .719
8 17435 13315 3037 607 88 405 1615 3966 4456 .228 .406 .378 .784
9 6458 4859 1147 251 24 158 588 1538 1596 .236 .419 .395 .814
10+ 3884 2936 685 137 21 111 402 915 925 .233 .415 .408 .823

For the record, the most pitches seen in an at-bat in this period was 17 (Pittsburgh Pirate Freddy Sanchez batting against Houston Astro Chris Sampson in 2009--that's why Sanchez's picture is at the top of the post), and it ended in an out. By the time a hitters sees five pitches, he's usually reached a full count, so everything after that is the result of him fouling off pitches.

It doesn't appear that hitters have a higher average as they move deeper into the count, which is contrary to just about every color commentator I've ever heard. This is perfectly logical--the hitter still has two strikes on him and has cut down his swing and strike zone. It's a natural tendency to remember one of the 111 home runs that occurred on the tenth pitch or later and conveniently forget the 2200+ occurrences when an out was made. To the extent it matters, the difference between a .206 average after 5 or 6 pitches and a .233 average after 10 or more pitches probably reaches statistical significance, but I'm not clear it has real-world relevance. Any discussion predicated on the difference between a .233 and .206 batting average isn't one I'm interested in having.

Having written that, the walk rate increases and the strikeout rate decreases with each subsequent pitch:

Walk_strikeout_percent

Maybe there is an advantage, suggesting some element of mental toll is taken on the pitcher. I'm not sure that's a proper conclusion to make from this data, and that's for people smarter than me to determine.

It would seem a hitter should gain an advantage with more pitches seen--he's getting a better feel for the pitcher's delivery, he's probably seen everything the pitcher has to offer, and there's a chance the pitcher might be getting frustrated. This just feels like it should be true, but it doesn't appear to be the case when looking at batting average. If we expand our view to acknowledge the job of a hitter is to get on base in any manner possible, the advantage does increase with each pitch as the likelihood of a walk goes up and the OBPs increase dramatically. So when we see those at-bats that seem to go on forever, just remember, each pitch does marginally increase the batter's advantage. As we begin to hear every hitter state this spring their desire to "work deeper into the count" or "see more pitches," this is why--it works.

...

Data adapted from play-by-play data at Baseball-Reference.com

Scott Lindholm is a web columnist for 670 The Score in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottLindholm.

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