Foul play? Far from it
Teams value hitters who work the count and frustrate pitchers
By Dave Scheiber
St. Petersburg Times
Published April 16, 2006
The night of May 12, 2004, in a span that began as routine and ended as epic, Alex Cora put his opponent down for the count.
The journeyman shortstop stepped to the plate for the Dodgers, digging in against then-Cubs starter Matt Clement in the bottom of the seventh, about to embark on what he would soon call "the most memorable at-bat of my life."
With his team ahead 2-0 and the leadoff man reaching first on a walk, Cora got ahead of Clement 2-1, then fouled off his next offering.
No one could have imagined what was to follow: Cora fouled off the next 13 pitches from Clement, while fans in Dodger Stadium began to cheer as if it were a playoff game, not an early-season matchup.
But what made the at-bat, easily one of the longest in major-league baseball, especially remarkable is that Cora drilled the 18th pitch for a two-run homer to seal the 4-0 win.
Talk about working the count.
Most times, it hardly rates as a glamor part of the game or gets the attention it did with Cora, coincidentally now a teammate of Clement's on the Red Sox. But the art is integral to baseball, a battle both psychological and physical. And the masters--those hitters who understand the nuances of an opponent's style and have the patience to force him to throw more pitches--are highly valued members of a lineup.
They can help dictate the flow of a contest, disrupt the pitcher's rhythm, allow teammates on the bench to study his stuff and often help determine who wins or loses.
Doing it effectively takes focus, confidence and good vision, and is not a skill that every hitter possesses. Hanging tough at the plate, in fact, gets progressively harder if pitchers get ahead in the count, according to Illinois-based STATS, which calculates all manner of sports statistics.
Last season, for example, major-leaguers hit .331 when swinging at the first pitch, .314 at 0-1 but .164 at 0-2. The overall '05 batting average on a 1-0 count? An impressive .332. But when the count was 2-2, the average plummeted to .194.
"It's the same story for both sides," former pitching star Jack Morris said. "When you're ahead in the count, you're winning. When you're behind, hitters have a huge advantage. It's just that simple."
Working the count well has even more benefits today than in eras past. A team that forces an opponent to throw a set number by a certain inning may chase him from the mound and force the bullpen into action.
"That was our big theory when I was with Oakland," Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi said. "Run up the guy's pitch counts, because then you get the starting pitcher out of the game in the fifth inning. You're making him throw 100 pitches and he's gone."
Giambi, according to Yankees hitting coach Don Mattingly, "is as good as I've seen" at taking a pitcher deep into the count. How did he learn the fine points?
As a child, Giambi remembers all the batting practice balls his father threw to him. "He would say, `Well, that was a ball, that one's a strike,' and it just kind of put it in my head," he said.
"The biggest thing is when I got to the Oakland A's. Mark McGwire took me under his wing. I had always taken a lot of walks, but he showed me that you can be just as valuable to your team taking a walk as you can getting a hit."
Giambi grew comfortable at the plate with two strikes. And because he wasn't fast enough to beat out grounders, he was forced to wait for a pitch he could drill for a hit.
"The more pitches I saw, the more mistakes I would get from the pitcher," he said. "Sometimes, the first pitch you get may be your best. So if you foul it off, you have to stay in and swing at bad pitches and hopefully get that next pitch where he makes a mistake."
Hitting styles vary, and working the count isn't for everyone. "I don't have time for that," Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. "I'm more aggressive. I just hack. If I went up there and was patient, I wouldn't be the guy I am."
But his teammate, leadoff man and left fielder Shannon Stewart, gets plenty of kudos for his knack at running up the count.
"I can't get a hit every time," said Stewart, a career .300 hitter in 11 seasons. "So the next best thing for me is to walk. I try to work a pitcher. You go up there and take a couple of pitches and go deep in the count and it helps the other hitters out too. They're all watching to see what the guy's got."
What can a pitcher do to counter a guy working the count?
"You've got to get ahead and stay ahead," Devil Rays starter Casey Fossum said. "But if they do start fouling stuff off, change the speed. For me, that's when I put my slow one in there, something to get them off what they've been doing."
Morris remembers an early lesson as a pitcher.
"As a young player, the most important thing I learned is that the greatest pitch in baseball is strike one," he said. "So it's all about the count."
The count counts
Major-league averages by the count during the 2005 season: