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Fun with Statcast: 2016 0-2 count superlatives

Who thrives and who suffers when in the worst hitter’s count?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Texas Rangers
Milwaukee Brewers infielder Jonathan Villar
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

While you don’t need me to tell you this, I’m going to say it anyway: Hitting approaches vary player to player. I know, I know, not groundbreaking stuff, but it’s true. Some players are ultra-selective, some are free swingers, and most fall somewhere between those extremes.

But not only do approaches differ by player, how a batter thinks about his at-bat can change from pitch to pitch. Wade Boggs famously always took the first pitch. You could count on him leaving the bat on his shoulder for that one pitch, but thereafter he was going to be aggressive.

Most players don’t have an approach with an outlier like Boggs did, but the further an at-bat progresses, the more likely a hitter is to make an adjustment. Up 2-0? You’re looking for a pitch you can drive, and if you can’t get one you can drive, don’t waste a swing because the worst (realistic) thing that can happen is you’re still up 2-1.

The most extreme counts — 3-0 or 0-2 — call for the most extreme approaches. In the former, unless you’re one of the better hitters in the league, you’re probably not even allowed to swing. You’re so close to a walk that you really want to try hard to not blow this advantage you’ve been given (a lesson Kevin Youkilis seemed to learn pretty well). And in the latter, you’re trying to protect the plate at all costs. Few things frustrate managers more than watching one of their hitters leave the bat on his shoulder as strike three goes by.

For that reason — because the approach is so much different than other counts — I was curious about which players find themselves on the extreme ends of 0-2 counts. Some of these superlatives tell you a lot about the player’s approach. Others are just randomness. Still other are more about talent than any plan a hitter has on 0-2.

Regardless, they’re all interesting, and I think you’ll enjoy learning about them. I certainly had fun researching and writing it.

Most likely to be in this situation in the first place (Min: 1500 pitches seen)

Hernan Perez, Milwaukee Brewers, Util.

Perez actually had a pretty decent year in 2016, ending the season with 1.2 fWAR in 430 plate appearances. More impressively, he was productive despite a whopping 9.3 percent of all the pitches he saw occurring in 0-2 counts. That was ahead of (obviously) every other free swinger in baseball, including guys such as Javier Baez (8.7 percent) and Jeff Francoeur (9.2 percent). But it can’t be all that surprising that Perez found himself in a hole so often once you look at his plate discipline stats, with his well-above-average swing rate, and below-average contact rate.

Least likely to be in this situation (Min: 1500 pitches)

Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians, 1B/DH

Santana walks a ton (14.4 percent in 2016) and strikes out seldom (also 14.4 percent). That type of plate discipline is perfect for dodging 0-2 counts, and at just 3.5 percent of all pitches, Santana’s 0-2 clip was better than anyone. It wasn’t just 0-2 avoidance that Santana was great at, however. No player in baseball saw a great number of total pitches when ahead in the count, and only fellow plate discipline monsters Bryce Harper and David Ortiz saw a higher percentage of pitches in a hitter’s count.

Most likely to watch strike three go by (Min: 1500 pitches)

Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins, 3B/OF/DH

The average player took about 3.4 percent of all 0-2 pitches for strike three. Sano nearly tripled that rate, finishing 2016 with nine caught-lookings in 99 total 0-2 pitches (9.1 percent). Sano actually didn’t find himself in 0-2 counts all that often (4.7 percent, compared to the league average of 6.3 percent), but when he did, he had an awfully hard time taking the bat off his shoulder.

However, unlike Derek Dietrich, who also finished quite high in this category, Sano wasn’t getting jobbed by the umpires:

miguel-sano-minnesota-twins-called-strikes
Miguel Sano 0-2 called strikes
Baseball Savant

Sano was just letting hittable pitches go by in the one count a player should be most willing to swing the bat. I’m not sure it’s a long-term cause for concern, but it’s probably something to monitor in 2017.

Most likely to go down swinging (Min: 1500 pitches)

Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals, SS

Unlike Sano, Espinosa had no trouble taking a healthy cut when down 0-2. He did, however, have more trouble making contact in those situations than any other player. Espinosa whiffed 34 times in 156 total pitches on 0-2 counts, both a higher raw total than anyone in baseball, and a higher percentage.

Espinosa already swings more often, both in and out of the zone, than the average player. Opposing pitchers used that aggressiveness against him in all counts, but especially once they got him 0-2, as you can see from this heatmap:

danny-espinosa-washington-nationals-0-2-heatmap
Danny Espinosa 0-2 heatmap
Baseball Savant

Once Espinosa was down two strikes, he was willing to expand the zone, and pitchers took advantage of that by pounding him low and inside, as Noah Syndergaard does here:

Most likely to hit a dinger (Min: 1500 pitches)

Jung Ho Kang, Pittsburgh Pirates, 3B

Kang’s drink of choice once down 0-2? Pop. He hit four home runs on 0-2 counts in 2016, just one behind the league leader Xander Bogaerts, though Bogaerts saw almost double as many pitches as Kang throughout the season. A couple were mistakes left out over the plate, but the other two were really impressive pieces of hitting, including this missile way low and outside the strike zone against the Cardinals in early September:

Kang does have an above-average ISO on balls outside the strike zone, but he’s not a crazy powerful hitter when he expands the zone. Leading the league in this very specific, niche category was more than likely a fluke, but it was fun while it lasted.

Most likely to hit the crap out of the ball (Min: 1500 pitches, 10 batted balls)

Jonathan Villar, Milwaukee Brewers, SS/3B

You would think that the guys who generally hit the ball harder in all situations would also rank near the top of the leaderboard in 0-2 counts. And that’s generally true — the second through fifth highest average exit velocities on 0-2 are Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz and Paul Goldschmidt.

But leading those players, and everyone else, in 2016 was Jonathan Villar. Villar had a breakout season, but it’s definitely surprising to see him hit the ball harder than everyone else, regardless of how narrow a pool we’re selecting from. And to make things even more puzzling, Villar himself hit the ball harder on 0-2 than in any other count:

jonathan-villar-milwaukee-brewers-exit-velocity
Jonathan Villar exit velocities by count
Baseball Savant

The only other time he really came close to hitting the ball as hard as he did on 0-2 was in 3-1 counts, which is, of course, the best hitter’s count in which most players are allowed to swing. It’s a small sample size fluke in all likelihood, and a big departure from 2015 when 0-2 counts resulted in Villar’s second-lowest average exit velocity, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Most likely to hit the ball like he was swinging a pool noodle instead of a baseball bat (Min: 1500 pitches, 10 batted balls)

Michael Bourn, Arizona Diamondbacks/Baltimore Orioles, OF

Bourn hit the ball, on average, 77.1 MPH on 0-2, a full mph less than the next softest hitter in those situations (Coco Crisp). Speaking of soft, here’s what happens when you expand Bourn’s 0-2 results (there are 17 of them) on Baseball Savant and do a Ctrl+F for that word:

michael-bourn-soft

Eight instances in 17 results, mostly some variation of “softly hit ground/flyball.” Inspired by those results, he’s a brief interlude of Bourn hitting the ball like a sickly first grader on 0-2 counts:

Poor Michael Bourn.

Most likely to come all the way back and draw a walk (Min: 40 PA)

Alex Avila, Chicago White Sox, C

Avila got only a single hit after being down 0-2 in 2016, ending the year with an .028 batting average in such situations. But what he lacked in BABIP results, he made up for in plate discipline. Avila earned seven walks in 43 plate appearances after getting himself in an 0-2 hole, good for a 16.3 percent walk rate that was the best in the majors in such situations.

In fact, using that 40-PA minimum, Avila was better at drawing a walk after 0-2 in 2016 than any player since 2002, with the exception of 2009 Chipper Jones and 2002 Barry Bonds. On June 19, he came all the way back to draw a walk twice against Carlos Carrasco, a pitcher who only gave out four walks all season after being up 0-2.

Most likely to keep the at-bat alive with a foul ball (Min: 1500 pitches)

Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels, 1B/DH

Though there is a higher year-to-year correlation for two-strike foul rate than general foul rate, Pujols’ leading the league in this category — 29.8 percent of 0-2 pitches thrown to Pujols were fouled off — isn’t necessarily an indication that he’s some pitch spoiling master. In fact, Pujols’ 0-2 foul rate in 2016 was by far the highest of the portion of his career that overlaps with PITCHf/x data.

So like many of these superlative categories, Pujols’ “success” in these situations was more random than anything else, but randomness can be interesting!

Most likely to be really damn good anyway even though he’s down 0-2 (Min: 40 PA)

Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels, CF

As with all baseball articles, everything comes back to Mike Trout. The best overall hitter in baseball was also the best hitter after getting down 0-2 (though shout out to Adam Frazier and his .520 BABIP after 0-2 for finishing second).

After getting himself in an 0-2 hole in 2016, Trout:

  1. Still walked 9 percent of the time, 0.8 percentage points higher than the league average walk rate in all counts.
  2. Had an ISO of .227, higher than 112 batting-title-qualified players had for all of 2016, including Joey Votto.
  3. Slashed .269/.351/.496, which is better than the career slash lines of 11 position player Hall of Famers, including Brooks Robinson and Johnny Bench.

He’s incredible.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.