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Team Performance

Payoff Pitch: Why “Protecting the Plate” on Full Counts Could Go the Way of the Dodo

By: Taylor Bechtold

With one take in late August, the Chicago Cubs’ Ian Happ inadvertently set off a debate between some old-school thinking and new-school analytics.

Trailing the Washington Nationals 5-1 in the fourth inning on Aug. 24, the Cubs had the bases loaded when Happ fell behind 0-and-2 before working the count full. That set up Joe Ross’ controversial payoff pitch that umpire Vic Carapazza called a strike despite replays and the broadcast’s strike-zone plot showing the ball to be off the plate.

But it was the aftermath of perhaps the game’s most critical at-bat that raised questions about whether a longtime two-strike hitting philosophy should become a thing of the past. Traditional instruction has stressed that batters should “protect the plate,” “spoil good pitches” and “swing if it’s close” when they get two strikes – and that doesn’t change with the count full.

That mindset remains in the mainstream today as a reporter asked Happ, who was ejected for arguing the call, a question that some critical fans were also wondering: Should he have at least tried to foul the pitch off in that situation?

“I made a good decision,” Happ told MLB.com. “You’re not going to try to foul a ball off. I’m trained that way. I’m trained to take balls.”

The following afternoon, Cubs announcers Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies backed Happ and the new-age analytic approach to 3-2 counts. Kasper disagreed with the notion that you don’t want to leave it in the hands of the umpire and should swing at a close pitch, saying “If it’s ball four, it’s ball four. You shouldn’t change your approach just because you think the umpire might make a bad call.”

Deshaies, a former left-handed pitcher who spent seven of his 12 years in the big leagues with the Houston Astros, said his former club started training its hitters to take borderline pitches on full counts a few years ago. The Astros believe, he explained, there’s a better chance of drawing a walk than getting a hit in that situation because if you do put it in play, it’s likely to be hit softly.

“There’s no valor in grounding out or popping up on a 3-2 pitch off the plate,” Deshaies added.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence the Astros have gone from having one of the highest strikeout rates of all time with 3.92 plate appearances per K in 2013 to having by far the best mark in the majors at 5.46 entering Tuesday.

Jose Altuve

 

Houston second baseman Jose Altuve seemed to give some insight into what Deshaies was alluding to when he described his change in approach with two strikes during a 2016 interview.

“I’m no longer afraid of being called out on strikes,” the 2017 AL MVP told USA Today. “If it’s not the pitch I want, I’ll let it go. It was a matter of changing my mentality, not my swing.”

Obviously, how a hitter should react to a borderline pitch on a 3-2 count somewhat depends on who is in the batter’s box.

Someone like Eugenio Suarez of the Cincinnati Reds, who entered Tuesday hitting .284 with a MLB-best 12 home runs in 67 at-bats with a full count, or Anthony Rendon of the Nats, who is batting .357 with seven homers in 70 at-bats in that situation, would be better off swinging at a close pitch than say, Washington’s Victor Robles, who is 2 for 48 (.042) – the worst average in the majors among those with at least 40 at-bats with a 3-2 count.

So let’s make the determination that the majors’ average hitter is at the plate and that a “borderline” pitch is defined as one that is thrown more than three inches from the middle of the zone but less than three away from the edge. As an illustration, if the dark blue rectangle below is the strike zone, our borderline pitches would be in the orange area.

Now that we’ve set the parameters for our borderline pitch, let’s dig into the heart of the matter – should hitters swing at 3-2 pitches in these locations?

As one might expect, called-strike percentage rises incrementally from 32.8% on an 0-2 pitch to 36.9% on 1-2, 41.8% on 2-2 and 44.7% on 3-2. One of the reasons is obvious: With the home run rate at an all-time high, pitchers certainly don’t want to throw strikes unless they have to.

“You have to miss bats now,” Astros ace Justin Verlander told The New York Times. “The game’s changed.”

As one also might expect, called-strike percentage and xwOBA are highly correlated in all counts, and both increase as the count moves from 0-2 to 1-2 to 2-2 to full. The metric xwOBA represents only the batted-ball component of our RVAA (expected run value above average), which measures batting run value above the average hitter, quantified by runs.

But when the count goes to 3-2, how does the value of a take compare to the chance of reaching base via a batted ball? The chart below helps paint a clearer picture by analyzing the called-strike percentage on a pitch in the aforementioned zone while also looking at the xwOBA on pitches in our borderline zone.

Considering that borderline full-count pitches have an average called-strike percentage of 44.7, taking a pitch would be a walk 55.3% of the time (.7 wOBA) which puts a wOBA value of a take at .387. Though this is only slightly higher than the .358 xwOBA on those counts (with no value in foul balls), it becomes a one-sided argument when swings and misses drop that number to .259.

So, contrary to old-school thinking, the data shows that it is indeed better to take a borderline pitch on a full count.

We could take things a step further and break down which batters have performed the best in these situations. And some of the names on the all-time Discipline+ leaderboard on borderline 3-2 pitches might be surprising.

Our proprietary Discipline+ assesses a hitter’s ability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone and swing at pitches inside it, independent of contact. This figures to be an especially important skill when digging in on a full count.

A.J. Ellis played primarily a backup role over his 11-year career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and three other clubs, but he proved to be exceptional when it came to handling a full count. Also notice that Rendon sits eighth all time, meaning he’s not only outstanding at being selective on 3-2 but he also does plenty of damage when he makes contact (as previously noted).

All this isn’t to argue against a hitter wanting to shorten up his swing with two strikes in an effort to make contact and avoid strikeouts on pitches in the zone. But if teams are moving away from an “if it’s close, swing” mentality with two strikes, they certainly appear to have good reason for doing so.

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Stats Perform’s Lucas Haupt