The Third Cut is the Cheapest: How the Cubs Hit in Two-Strike Counts
Baseball is a truly fascinating sport, one in which the seemingly infinite matrix of possibilities seems to be expanding before us like the very universe. New metrics are being created and discovered each day, to the extent that the old ones are often left to moked, lumped in with the likes of Blackberries, flip-phones, and standard-def TV.
But some things, like a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers, a nice watch, a solid pair of Timberlands, and situational hitting, never go out of style. The metrics we use to measure at-bats may shift, but the fact that a batter needs to adjust his approach given the count, score, and presence — or lack thereof — of runners on base.
I’ve written recently about both Starlin Castro and Kris Bryant and potential flaws in their respective approaches and something I saw last night spurred me to write today’s piece. Before he blasted a homer in the 9th inning, Castro had perpetuated the problems I pointed out with an ugly strikeout in the 4th and an infield pop-up in the 7th.
Knowing that he’s been trying to pull the ball more than ever before, Castro’s unwillingness to alter his approach with two strikes just got under my skin. But was this just a case of me creating some sort of revisionist history and trying to ascribe independent events with some sort of greater meaning that didn’t really exist?
A lot of people a lot smarter than me have done a lot more research into the topic of hitting with two strikes and their findings are really interesting. Matt Beardmore had a nice piece for ESPN a couple years ago regarding the downward hitting trends in such counts.
And if you’re into really in-depth baseball nerdery, you might want to have a look at a collaboration between J. Eric Bickel and Dean Stotz titled Batting Average by Count and Pitch Type: Fact and Fallacy. There’s some pretty good stuff there and it’s even got pictures for mouth-breathers like me.
Rather than look at larger trends across the entire sport, however, I wanted to look only at the Cubs this year. Specifically, I wanted to compare and contrast the stats of a few individual players across various two-strike counts.
Clearly the best hitter the Cubs have right now and quickly becoming one of the best in the league, Anthony Rizzo has really come into his own over the last season-plus. Now that it looks like his power is coming around, Rizzo is going to be a scary sight for opposing pitchers.
Kris Bryant has proven that he’s willing to take a walk, but his mythical power hasn’t manifested itself yet. He’s in a bit of a slump at the moment and I believe he needs to be a little more aggressive early in the count, but there’s no doubt he’s got more than enough talent to succeed.
As I mentioned above, Starlin Castro can me maddening at times. He can also be the type of hitter who goes on a tear and strings together multi-hit games with ease. His inability to lay of sliders in the dirt can be his undoing, but the fact that no man in the National League has more hits than him since he made his debut in 2010 is testament to his skill.
Jorge Soler is a big man with a big swing, one that’s been missing a lot of pitches this season. As he matures and his physical tools are full realized, Soler could be the guy to hold down the middle of the Cubs order for years to come.
Below is a look at a few interesting stats that illustrate how these players and their peers fare when down to their last strike.
- .173/.241/.262 slash
- 30.6% walk rate on full count
- 48.4% K rate on 0-2 and 44% with 2 strikes in general
- .502 OPS w/ 2 strikes but .947 when ahead in count
- .156/.235/.234 slash
- 29.7% walk rate on full count
- 58% K rate on 0-2 and 52.4% with 2 strikes
- 468 OPS with 2 strikes, .932 when ahead
- .196/.283/.261 slash
- 19% walk rate with full count
- 16.7% K rate on 0-2 and 32.6 with 2 strikes
- .333 BA on 0-2 vs .157 MLB average
- .091 BA on 1-2 vs .162 MLB average
- .991 OPS when ahead in count, 1.224 when even
Conclusions: If a pitcher wants to have any chance, he’s going to need to get out in front of Rizzo. But not too far in front, since the lefty is crushing in 0-2 counts. That .091 in 1-2 counts represents 1-11 batting, so the numbers could shift dramatically with a couple hits. Move along, nothing to see here.
- .178/.383/.200 slash
- 56% walk rate with full count
- 85.7% K rate on 0-2, 81.8% on 1-2, and 64.4% w/ 2 strikes in general
- .091 BA on 1-2, .263 when ahead, .300 when even
- .640 OBP on full count, .383 with 2 strikes
Conclusions: These numbers are freakish, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Bryant is more than willing to take a walk but he’s very prone to the strikeout. Those 0-2 and 1-2 K-rate totals are exactly why I believe he needs to be looking for good pitches early in the count. If he takes a first-pitch strike, his odds of getting behind and whiffing go up appreciably.
Of his 17 walks, 14 have come after he worked a full count. The patience and OBP are great, but that also means the pitcher has either been nibbling around the plate and that Bryant may fall into a pattern of passivity as he works deeper counts.
- .254/.265/.313 slash
- 8.3% walk rate and .091 BA with full count
- 0% K rate on 0-2 and full counts, 53.6% on 1-2, 47.1% on 2-2
- .455 BA on 0-2, .353 on 2-2, .091 on full count
- .529 SLG on 2-2
Conclusions: Yes, you read that right. In 22 at-bats in which he’s faced either 0-2 or full counts, Castro has yet to strike out. Trouble is, he whiffs at over a 50% rate on 1-2 and 2-2; it’s almost as though he feels bad for getting to that point and figures that he’s got to get swinging again. But the full count scenario is a vexing one.
Castro doesn’t strike out, but he doesn’t walk or hit either. We’re only talking about 12 PA’s here, but this seems to provide more evidence that he’s trying to force the issue rather than taking what he’s given.
- 22.7% walk rate on full count
- 66.7% K rate
- .071 BA and 71.4% K rate on 0-2, .063 and 68.8 on 2-2
- .400 BA and 28.6% K rate when ahead in count
Conclusions: Jorge is a bit of a disaster when he gets down to his last strike but he’s fantastic when he’s ahead. Pitchers know that he’s going to press and chase when he gets behind and the know they can beat him. He’s got to learn to be more patient and discerning in two-strike counts.
I would have included Addison Russell as well, but I’m dealing with small samples as it is. Coming up later and batting 9th means Russell’s numbers are even less indicative of true performance. But while these numbers are bound to shift and settle — Castro can’t maintain those non-existent whiff rates — I don’t think they’re without value.
If nothing else, this sort of early-season performance can serve as a teaching tool moving forward. In fact, I’m reasonably sure John Mallee will be sharing my notes with the guys in the clubhouse before tonight’s game. Riiiiight.
How the Cubs adjust to certain counts is something to keep an eye on. As they fall into holes, do they feel the only way out is to hack wildly or can they improve their approach in those situations? Time will tell. My hope is that they can turn those third cuts from chuck into rib eye, or at least sirloin.