Pitching seems like a simple concept. Pitchers all talk about wanting to keep the ball down in the zone, being aggressive in the strike zone early, and getting batters to chase their pitch later in the count. As Toronto pitching coach Pete Walker said upon his hiring in 2012, "We want to attack early and expand late." The numbers back up the theory of getting ahead of batters because once the pitcher has the advantage in the count, they gain a significant advantage in potential outcomes.
Situation AVG OBP SLG
Pitcher Ahead .196 .203 .289
Even Count .297 .383 .470
Hitter Ahead .339 .470 .572
The league is taking to the coaching of Walker and his peers as the overall percentage of first-pitch strikes has improved each of the past five seasons. According to the data from ESPN Stats & Info, the percentage of first-pitch strikes was 58.1 percent in 2009 and has incrementally improved each season to 60.1 percent in 2013. That first pitch is an integral part of the three-pitch plan toward the statistical high ground in any matchup.
This past April, Jon Roegele of Beyond The Boxscore reviewed the pitching philosophies of the pitching coaches in the American League East. Roegele found quotes from Rick Peterson, Juan Nieves and Jim Hickey that each preached the importance of being up in the count after three pitches. Peterson, the Orioles' director of pitching development, advocated for his pitchers to throw high-percentage strikes in 1-1 counts, and Red Sox pitching coach Nieves told Tim Britton of the Providence Journal that it was simply his favorite count. Boston won the World Series this season in spite of the fact they were the fifth-worst team in all of baseball in getting to Nieves' favorite count. Hickey feels when pitchers are ahead, they all become David Price on the mound. The data backs that up:
Count AVG OPS
The data in the table shows that there is no clear advantage for either party for these counts (although a small edge goes to the pitcher when he's ahead 0-1) -- but the outcomes diverge greatly with the third pitch in a plate appearance. In 2-1 counts, batters hit .351 with a .932 OPS but in 1-2 counts, they hit just .166 with a .412 OPS. That 185-point difference in batting average and 520-point different in OPS makes it easy to see why coaches such as Peterson, Nieves, and Hickey preach the importance of getting ahead early.
In looking at all plate appearances after those counts were reached, batters hit .255/.387/.412 after reaching a 2-1 count but just .179/.228/.271 after reaching a 1-2 count, still a 300-point difference in OPS.
Max Scherzer was an exceptional example of the 1-1 philosophy in 2013.
Scherzer led all of baseball in 2013 with a 74.3 percent strike rate in 1-1 counts. It marked the second consecutive season he topped the 70 percent mark and the third straight season he improved on that percentage from the previous season. The divergence in outcomes for Scherzer from the 1-1 count was even more pronounced than the numbers league-wide. Batters hit just .127 against him in 1-2 counts with a .306 OPS but hit .391 with a 1.087 OPS in 2-1 counts. Scherzer was able to mitigate that damage by getting to 1-2 counts 72 percent of the time.
It was not until Scherzer's fourth full season in the major leagues that he started to reap the benefits of getting ahead early in the count and putting hitters into protect mode rather than attack mode. When pitchers fall behind in the count, they tend to throw more fastballs and Scherzer was no exception to the rule. Scherzer went to his fastball 66 percent of the time in the 2-1 counts this season, but just 48 percent of the time when he got into the 1-2 counts. Scherzer was able to leverage his advantage in those counts to collect strikeouts 48 percent of the time.
The pitcher-batter matchup, by its very nature, is decidedly in the favor of the pitcher. On average, the pitcher will retire the batter nearly 70 percent of the time. Over the past five seasons, that figure jumps to 80 percent when the pitcher is ahead in the count. It took Scherzer a few seasons to grasp the concept, but he has excelled at his craft since he began getting ahead of batters with increased regularity earlier in the count. Some may point to the fact Scherzer had the fourth-highest run support of all American League starters as a reason for his impressive win-loss record, but that is a secondary factor in his success story. A combination of hard work and refocusing his career after a personal tragedy is the big reason he won the Cy Young Award last year.
Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.