The Yankees split four games with the second-place Orioles this weekend, and other than homers and high-scoring affairs, all four games had one thing in common: Baltimore did an awful lot of damage in two-strike counts. Thirteen of their 31 hits during the series came in two-strike counts, including four doubles and three homers. You can add two hit batsman on top of that, which bother me just as much as hits in two-strike situations. Maybe even more since the batter didn’t really earn it, so to speak.
Anecdotally, it feels as though the Yankees have given up a lot of baserunners in two-strike counts all season, at least relatively speaking. As you’ll see, the league as a whole does a poor job of reaching base when the pitcher is one pitch away from a strikeout. Here is a quick breakdown of the pitching staff’s performance in various two-strike counts this season…
sOPS+ is the opposing hitter’s OPS+ relative to the league average in these counts, so while holding hitters to a .164/.171/.261 batting line in 0-2 counts looks fantastic, it’s actually 27% worse than the .150/.158/.220 AL average. That’s the glaring problem here, 0-2 counts. The Yankees do fairly well in 1-2 and 2-2 counts (and in two-strike counts overall), but they really give it up in what is supposed to be the worst possible count for a batter.
The biggest culprit, by far, has been Phil Hughes. Hitters have tagged the right-hander for a .239/.239/.406 batting line in 0-2 counts, an unfathomable 234 sOPS+. In two-strike counts overall, it’s a .188/.241/.309 batting line (111 sOPS+). Ten of the league-worst 33 homers he’s surrendered have come in two-strike counts, including two in 0-2 counts. Hughes does strike hitters out at an essentially league average rate (7.57 K/9 and 19.8 K%), but he’s gotten clobbered when unable to miss bats with two strikes.
The rest of the starting staff has done fairly well in two-strike counts. Ivan Nova is the worst of the rest of the bunch with a 143 sOPS+ in 0-2 counts and a 90 sOPS+ with two strikes overall. CC Sabathia has struggled a bit in 0-2 counts (104 sOPS+) but otherwise shuts hitters down in two-strike counts overall (64 sOPS+). Hiroki Kuroda is the opposite, burying hitters in 0-2 counts (39 sOPS+) but performing at about the league average rate with two strikes overall (99 sOPS+). Andy Pettitte was fantastic in two-strike counts before getting hurt, holding hitters to a 14 sOPS+ in 0-2 counts and a 47 sOPS+ in two-strike counts overall.
The Yankees’ pitching staff has the third best strikeout rate in the league this year (8.16 K/9 and 21.5 K%), and that holds true both for the starters (7.82 K/9 and 20.6 K%) and relievers (8.96 K/9 and 23.7 K%). The Rays are the only club with better strikeout rates as both starters and relievers this season. So yeah, the Yankees have done a very good job of missing bats and recording outs without the help of the defense, but otherwise haven’t done a great job of retiring hitters in these situations overall. Whether it’s poor pitch-calling/planning or poor execution (likely both), the Yankees aren’t haven’t stood out for their ability to put hitters away in two-strike counts this season and it was really noticeable this past weekend.