Checking in on the Hitter’s Count

There is a lot to dissect when it comes to understanding the increase in strikeouts in baseball. Pitchers at the plate are striking out at a higher clip than ever, but even when filtering out their plate appearances, we’re still seeing yearly increases in strikeout rate. A continued increase in velocity and an improved ability to spot fastballs up in the zone was always going to boost strikeouts, but we are also coming to shifts in pitching approach that are directly attacking long-standing hitter’s comforts, making even hitter’s counts unpredictable.

Since I’ll be going through league-wide pitching trends, it’s useful to take a quick glance at pitch usage for the year.

Pitch Usage in the Statcast Era
Season FB% SL% CT% CB% CH% SF% KN% XX%
2015 57.7% 14.7% 5.6% 9.1% 10.8% 1.4% 0.6% 0.5%
2016 56.7% 15.2% 5.7% 10.2% 10.3% 1.4% 0.6% 0.5%
2017 55.6% 16.3% 5.5% 10.6% 10.3% 1.3% 0.4% 0.5%
2018 54.9% 16.9% 5.6% 10.5% 10.7% 1.3% 0.1% 0.5%
2019 52.5% 18.3% 5.9% 10.6% 11.1% 1.4% 0.0% 0.4%
2020 50.5% 18.8% 6.6% 10.6% 11.9% 1.6% 0.0% 0.3%
2021 50.9% 19.8% 6.4% 9.9% 11.7% 1.4% 0.0% 0.4%

Fastball usage is holding steady from last year at just over 50%. In addition, the increase in slider usage continues, taking a chunk out of curveball usage. Still, the takeaway is that we’re approaching true 50/50 fastball/non-fastball usage splits over all counts, and it’s probably here to stay.

As much as we can pull from our analyses, it’s useful to hear players and coaches diagnose issues themselves. There are a few quotes from Ryan Zimmerman in a recent piece by Tim Kurkjian that stood out to me. As a 16-year veteran, Zimmerman has had to deal with the recent wave of pitching development in what is the twilight of his career but has had success throughout, posting a 124 wRC+ from 2017 through this year. He’s held above-average strikeout rates through it all, so maybe he’s not the best guy to speak on the issue, but what he has to say is telling.

“They throw a lot harder today,” he said. “I say this jokingly, but I’m an old man and I can still hit velocity because a lot of these guys don’t know how to pitch. So it doesn’t matter if you throw 85 or 100. If I have a 3-0 or a 3-1 or a 2-0 count, and I’m looking for a fastball and you throw me a fastball in the middle of the plate, there’s a good chance that me and a lot of other big league hitters are going to hit it.”

This is what we’d expect to hear from hitters. For all the things we tend to talk about on a broader scale like stat stabilization or sample sizes, players themselves will always be immersed in a count-based approach where they can work their way into getting predictable pitches, or at least hope that they can. Seems simple enough: Get yourself in a fastball count, look for fastballs. Not so, says Zimmerman:

“There’s no such thing as a fastball count now,” Zimmerman said. “Two years ago, they got mad at [Padres shortstop Fernando] Tatis for swinging at a 3-0 pitch. Ten years ago, you used to take on 3-0 because you’d get a fastball as well on 3-1 and 3-2. Now, you’re not guaranteed a fastball in any count. I’ve seen 3-0 sliders. It’s all changed with starting pitchers. I’m not going to take a first-pitch fastball now to get a guy’s pitch count up when I will get behind 0-1. That might be the only fastball that I see in that at-bat. Velocity has gone through the roof, but that doesn’t mean it’s harder to hit. If you make mistakes in the middle of the plate, your fastball is going to get hit.”

There are parts of Zimmerman’s approach that he’d like to be able to keep, but the reality is that he feels he can’t hunt fastballs like he used to, and for the most part, he’s right.

There is a fairly continuous year-to-year climb in offspeed usage in all of these hitter’s counts. The usage rate in 2021 is not as high as it was for all of 2020; that could be for reasons related to the ball, the weather, or anything else this early in the season. But the point is that this has been a continuing trend, and there’s no good reason for pitchers as a whole to start to deviate. Whether or not we’re hitting a cap or a natural ceiling in offspeed usage is up for debate, but you can maybe see where things could converge.

The idea behind the hitter’s count is that batters can reasonably predict what’s coming or can get pitches they can time and do damage on. But if pitchers could have reasonable control over their offspeed pitches, why would they force themselves into being predictable? Take it from Dodgers manager Dave Roberts:

“I think as a pitcher you can still be 50-50 and still be aggressive with your secondaries. Attacking with your slider. Attacking with your curveball. It doesn’t mean you can attack only with your fastball, in my opinion.

“I do understand why it’s a 50-50 game now. Until hitters adjust, as a pitcher, why would you give in?”

Roberts is probably talking about usage over all counts, but we’re getting the extension of this philosophy into hitter’s counts. There is still a good degree of predictability in all of these counts as a whole, but not all of these counts are built equally, nor should they be weighed equally. We want to observe pitcher behavior when they desperately need to get their outs: high leverage situations.

(LI here is Leverage Index which, for those who are unfamiliar, is a measure of how much is at stake or how much the win probability can shift at any game state. Setting a cutoff of 1.5 is arbitrary, but that’s still defined as high leverage by Tom Tango, the creator of the particular LI stat I am using.)

Here is where we see the explosion. In 3–0, 3–1, and 2–0 counts, you can expect some type of fastball at least 70% of the time. But in the Statcast Era alone, there’s been a near 10% increase in offspeed usage in each of the other hitter’s counts.

In practical terms, however, a hitter likely won’t be thinking in terms of overall offspeed usage when going over the myriad of swing decisions; they’re thinking about movement, too, as well as what type of swing they have to take to match that movement. With an effective usage mix, a pitcher can create chaos, especially when it comes to the range of vertical movement a hitter has to cover.

The standard deviation of vertical movement on all types of pitches in hitter’s counts has continued to widen over the past few years, and the movements are growing more varied. While you can see large values for 2015, ’16, and ’17, keep in mind that in 2021, pitchers are approaching those large standard deviations in movement while throwing fewer fastballs. There’s more to pitch shape than vertical movement, but we know how important vertical movement is at generating favorable outcomes for pitchers.

Location matters a lot, but while we aren’t at the point where pitchers can put everything where they want, they have consistency and control over how much their individual pitches move. There is evidence that pitchers can and do tend to induce greater vertical break on select pitches when ahead in the count, but the opposite isn’t necessarily true when behind in the count. These standard deviations of vertical movement are also important to think about in the context of sequencing, which we’re still working on trying to understand. Maybe to a hitter, a pitch type or movement is more predictable within an individual at-bat, but as a whole, pitchers are giving hitters more diverse looks, even in hitter’s counts.

Any kind of count-based analysis best lends itself to individual batter-pitcher matchups, but there are still insights we can glean from the league-wide trends. Pitchers are throwing harder and becoming more unpredictable when they need to be. Amid all we’re talking about with the new ball suppressing offense, we’re also going to have to reckon with the fact that hitters will continue to lose the security of a predictable pitch in a friendly count. Maybe some hitters can still take advantage in low leverage situations and 3–0 counts, but knowing what’s coming and how it will move will become more and more difficult going forward.

Owen is a contributor at FanGraphs. He got his start blogging about baseball when he was in college and you can find him maybe talking about something on Twitter @O_dotco.

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2 years ago

This is interesting and I feel spot on. Really insightful.

That said, i feel it conflicts with the FG stance on predictable counts. FG put out many different articles essentially concluding the Astros didn’t gain a benefit from knowing what pitch was coming. Hypotheses and conclusions I didn’t agree with, but it seemed pretty unanimous among FG staff. How would this be any different?

I agree with your article. I played baseball for 17 years, and intuitively it makes all the sense in the world. Knowing what is coming is an advantage for the hitter, and no article or enthusiastic rush of reader comments will ever convince me otherwise. Really just asking how it can be real in one scenario (batters guessing/anticipating), and not real in another scenario (batters actually knowing).