Mailbag: Working The Count

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(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Roy asks: Given the emphasis put on pitchers’ pitch counts in today’s games, what do you think about the idea of a player who bats below the Mendoza line, but has somehow mastered the skill of fouling off pitches and consistently puts up at-bats that take up 10+ pitches to a point where he could waste anywhere from a quarter to a third of the starting pitcher’s total pitches?

Two things jumped to mind when I first read this question. One, if the player is that bad with the bat and draws his offensive value from working the count, then he better be fast and awesome on defense. He’ll draw walks just by working the count so much, so he needs to be able to steal bases efficiently to maximize his value. The extra-bases won’t come from swinging the bat. The defensive part is self-explanatory, you can’t have a guy providing that little offense and be even average on defense. He’s got to be a stellar gloveman.

Secondly, here is something Joel Sherman wrote last month

Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long mentioned to me several times this year how good the arms were that the Yankees were seeing regularly in the middle innings. It messed a bit with the Yankees philosophy of work the starter hard to get to a weaker middle reliever. Long talked about a ton of arms throwing in the mid-90s now throughout bullpens with a strong secondary pitch that a lineup has to adjust to on one look. The underbelly did not feel as mushy.

Bullpens are getting more and more specialized these days, and more importantly, managers have gotten better at deploying them. Specialists are starting to be used more properly, which has added a whole new group of players to the talent pool because have begun to appreciate what guys excel at rather than dwell on their faults. Middle relievers are still the weak spot of pretty much any club’s roster, but they’re just not so weak anymore.

This player would basically be Brett Gardner to the extreme. Phenomenal defense, baserunning, and plate discipline, but zero ability to hit the ball for authority. The one thing we have to remember is that players don’t work the count to draw walks; walks are a byproduct of patience. They work the count to get a pitch to hit, and this theoretical player won’t be able to do much of that. It’s a radical idea, but I’m not sure it would work. I’m almost certain no team would ever try it though.

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  • Paul from Boston

    “This player would basically be Brett Gardner to the extreme. Phenomenal defense, baserunning, and plate discipline, but zero ability to hit the ball for authority.”

    Correction. That IS Gardner. The guy has never topped a .380 SLG and it’s trending downward as he gets challenged more. By the time he’s 29 or 30, he’ll be struggling to .330-350 SLG.

    Don’t get me wrong, he still has tremendous value. But as soon as he loses a bit of speed, they need to be ready to cut him free. LF is too easy to fill with a decent bat.

    • whozat

      The question asks about a player who hits below the mendoza line. So it’s gardner minus 60-70 points of AVG. That’s waaaaaay worse.

      • Soriano Is A Liar

        Even Juan Pierre is better than that theoretical batter. Gardner and Pierre have those qualities, but we’re talking about a guy who takes it to the absolute extreme.

      • Soriano Is A Liar

        It would be like ramiro pena’s hitting ability combined with Juan Pierre’s un-strikeout-ability, Brett Gardner’s defense, and Ian Kinsler’s patience. Except every pitch Kinsler would destroy, this batter would just foul away.

        • http://www.bronxbombersreport.com Craig Maduro

          I’m assuming you’re not speaking of the Ian Kinsler that blasts mile-high infield pop-ups every other PA with that 90 degree uppercut swing of his.

          Definitely just a little bitter due to some poor fantasy seasons from Kinsler. He can be a beast sometimes though.

          • Soriano Is A Liar

            Haha, I was about to reply all defensively and then I was like, ok he’s cool. Yeah, Kinsler is definitely a drag in fantasy because of his low average, he’s one of those players who’s just doesn’t translate well to fantasy I think, a lot of his value is in defense/patience/non-homer power (although he can hit some sweet homers too).

          • Mister Delaware

            Its fun to picture a 90 degree uppercut.

            • http://www.facebook.com/dougchu Doug

              Kinsler’s swing is awesome. He looks like he’s playing golf.

    • Ted Nelson

      By the time he’s 29 or 30 he’ll be at his physical prime and might add, rather than lose, power.

      His power is not trending down, anyway. His ISO actually went up from 2010 to 2011. His SLG went down largely because his AVG went down.

  • Jews for Jesus Montero

    HOF’er Luke Appling was notorious for intentionally fouling off pitch after pitch to tire opposing pitchers.

    • KeithK

      I’ve heard stories of hitters who could seemingly foul off pitches at will. I’ve even heard one story where (many years ago) a player intentionally hit 20 or so pitches into the stands because he wanted to cost owners money. I can’t recall names right now but, apocryphal or not, the one consistent thread was that these were all very good hitters. I think it’s highly unlikely that a player could have sufficient skill to consistently foul off many pitches on purpose and not also be a good hitter. Sub-Mendoza foul ball artists probably don’t exist.

    • Monteroisdinero

      Finally a handle to challenge mine!

      Well played Mauer.

  • nsalem

    http://www.baseball-reference......ed01.shtml
    Yost had 12 to 15 pitch AB’s on a regular basis he was a slap hitter who fouled pitches off on purpose.
    I think back then pitchers had much higher pitch counts and he would have had a greater effect on games now. Unfortunately for him he played on a terrible Senator team in the 50’s. Back then teams played each other 22 times so Yankee fans got to see plenty of him.

    • Soriano Is A Liar

      This. I think that’s part of what Mike/Sherman/K-long was talking about with relievers. Even a few years ago, it was easier to wear out the starter and get to a bad middle man, but now it’s more likely that you run into relief specialists who have been groomed to succeed in just those situations on many teams. Just thinking out loud, I wonder if that has had anything to do with the swing from offense back to pitching? Batters trying to wait out starters are now having less success pounding on relief pitchers? I’m not sure if anyone has studied this but I’d be curious to see if it has contributed to the ‘year(s) of the pitcher’

  • KeithK

    Re: Kevin Long’s comment, as a baseball fan I hope that we do see sufficient middle inning relief strength to reduce the value of working the count just to get rid of starters. In the end baseball is a more enjoyable game to watch when the ball is regularly put into play. I think the pendulum has swung a bit too far towards emphasizing patience, at least in terms of the aesthetics of the game. If the natural development of the game moves in a direction where there are fewer deep counts I will be a happy man.

    (Which is not to say that I don’t want my team to take advantage of the best strategies around. I just hope that what is “best” evolves a little from what we have now.)

    • http://www.bronxbombersreport.com Craig Maduro

      Isn’t it annoying to watch bad pitches put into play though? Sure Vlad might drill a double off of a pitch that bounces or Miguel Cabrera might be able to serve an intentional ball into RF for base hit, but there are so many other hacks that just swing at anything with nothing to show for it.

    • Mike HC

      I agree to a certain extent. For one, the best pitchers tend to be starters and late inning relievers. So who really wants to even watch middle relievers at all. Plus, with the extra specialization, the constant pitching changes for matchups is boring and tedious. Second, 3-4 hour games are too long. I love watching baseball, but I wish they could get the games down to consistently two and half hours or so.

      Although probably unrealistic, I simply advocate making the games 8 innings. It will eliminate an inning of middle relief and constant pitching changes, and shorten the games, without changing anything else.

    • whozat

      You’d rather see hitters swinging at bad pitches more? That just means more crappy grounders and popups. More routine, easy, short innings for pitchers.

      How is that better?

      • KeithK

        What’s wrong with short innings for pitchers? I enjoy watching a crisply pitched fast moving game. But what I really want is pitchers to throw more strikes (thus reducing the incentive to work deep into the count) and for more batters to be willing to swing early in the count.

        There are times when A long at bat can be an exciting battle between pitcher and batter. I can appreciate that. But sometimes it seems like the first three or four pitches in an at bat are mere prelude with no chance of a batter swinging. That’s not terribly exciting when it’s a routine occurrence.

    • Ted Nelson

      Getting the starter tired/out is a by-product of patience, not the goal. The goal is to get a good pitch to hit. There’s no reason that goal should change from the offensive side. The only reason you’ll see less deep counts is if pitchers throw more strikes.

  • Professor Longnose

    This is The Kid Who Batted 1.000, a kid’s baseball book from 1951 about a kid could foul off pitches at will, but couldn’t hit otherwise. He could spend a half an hour at the plate, fouling off pitch after pitch, eventually working a walk. He had an OBP of 1.000, but no at bats. It’s been decades since I read it, but as I remember at the end he finally got a hit, and was thus considered a success, which is pretty anti-sabermetric.

    I think the OP was postulating someone not quite like that, who couldn’t always draw the walk, but could, in every at bat, intentionally make the pitcher throw 20 pitches. So I think the original question here is, what is the value of making a pitcher throw pitches? If a pitcher was going to throw an extra, say, 20 pitches every time through the lineup, would that be worth a low batting average. Never mind defense–I don’t think that’s what’s being asked. If a pitcher who might throw 80 pitches in 5 innings was going to pretty automatically have to throw 120 because of this one guy, would the team be better off even the guy had an OBP of .290? I don’t know how to answer that question, but it’s an interesting one.