Getting to Two Vs. Closing the Deal

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Bummer is one of the best pitchers in baseball at one of the most important skills in the game. He’s reached two-strike counts against an impressive 67.8% of opposing batters. That’s among the best marks in the majors – seventh among pitchers who have faced 50 or more batters this year. It makes perfect sense; his sinker is so nasty that hitters take it for strikes or foul it off all the time, so he’s ahead in the count if he’s in the zone.

Knowing that, you might be surprised that Bummer’s strikeout rate is roughly league average. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game at getting to two strikes, but he’s actually in the bottom quarter of baseball when it comes to converting two-strike counts into strikeouts. He only does it roughly 35% of the time. The things that get him ahead simply don’t work as well with two strikes. No one’s taking a two-strike sinker low in the zone because they don’t think they’ll be able to do much with it; there are two strikes! Foul balls don’t work to Bummer’s benefit either.

Naturally, Bummer adjusts. He goes sweeper-heavy in two strike counts. But it doesn’t work well enough to turn his huge early advantage into enormous strikeout totals. His sweeper misses bats at a league-average rate, largely because batters don’t often chase it. None of that means he’s a bad pitcher – I think he’s great, and was surprised the Braves were able to acquire him for relatively little – but imagine how much better he could be if he struck batters out at a reasonable clip after getting to two strikes.

That got me thinking about The Strategy, caps intentional. That’s not any strategy; it’s the one that Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller discussed all the time on Effectively Wild after the Yankees changed pitchers in the middle of a plate appearance. When reporters asked why manager Joe Girardi had made the switch, he simply said “strategy.” Thus, the name was born, and Ben eventually documented how the tactic was starting to catch on at the collegiate level.

It still hasn’t caught on at the major league level – sorry, Ben and Sam. But I think it should, and Bummer is half of the reason why. Every time I watch Bummer pitch, I’m struck by how easily he gets ahead. If he’s around the plate, there’s almost nothing hitters can do. They make a ton of contact against him, but it’s all topped grounders. That’s just how Bummer works. Hitters are okay going to two strikes if it means avoiding one of those rally-killing double play balls. And he’s been intermittently wild throughout his career, so trying to wait him out has merit.

Pierce Johnson, meanwhile, really only has one move. It’s a great one, though; he throws his curveball 80% of the time and still gets a ton of outs with it. He’s running a glorious 32.1% strikeout rate so far this year. But he’s doing it very differently. Bummer gets to two-strike counts better than almost everyone else in baseball. Johnson is above average, but not hugely so. After reaching two strikes, however, he’s automatic. He’s 15th in baseball when it comes to converting two-strike counts into strikeouts. The reason is obvious – he only throws curveballs, so he must have a pretty good curveball – but that doesn’t make it less true.

For the most part, this just isn’t important. It doesn’t matter how you trace a path to outs; it just matters how many you get overall. Bummer is much worse than Johnson after 0-2 counts, but he suffers much less when falling behind 2-0. His game tends towards grounders, regardless of counts; Johnson’s is about making hitters swing through three curveballs before they take four out of the zone. That 2-0 count hurts more when you’re trying to avoid contact than when you’re betting on it. But at the end of the day, Johnson has allowed a lower wOBA than Bummer so far, and the way they get there doesn’t matter.

What if it could, though? There’s no rule that prevents Brian Snitker from waiting for Bummer to get ahead 0-2 or 1-2 in an important spot and then replacing him with Johnson. A pitcher who got to two-strike counts with Bummer’s frequency and converted them with Pierce’s would have a 39.2% strikeout rate. And that might understate things, honestly.

Imagine getting down in the count against Bummer’s heavy lefty sinker, then hearing time called. You wait two minutes for a pitching change, standing awkwardly on the field or maybe reading some iPad scouting reports, and then bam, you’re facing an over-the-top curveball from a righty. Also, if you miss once, the plate appearance ends. It’s a tough spot to imagine, let alone live through.

That additional strikeout rate is hardly a game-breaking edge. But it’s a non-zero advantage, and baseball teams famously like to take those. And it’s not just limited to Bummer/Johnson pairings, either. Every high-leverage reliever on the Braves puts away hitters more efficiently than Bummer. None of them reach two strikes as frequently. This is a tailor-made spot for the strategy, resilient to who the specific batter is (someone hits curveballs well would be a bad spot for Johnson) and which relievers are unavailable on a given day. It’s not resilient to the requirement that pitchers face three batters during their outings, but Bummer has faced four or more batters in 14 of his 20 appearances this year, so it’s at least technically available to Atlanta in the majority of his games. Johnson, too, is subject to a three-batter minimum. You might not use him if he had a particularly bad matchup due up next. But he has neutral platoon splits for his career, and the Braves have other options as well. The minimum is more of an inconvenience than a dealbreaker.

There’s no indication that the Braves are trying the strategy. There’s no indication that anyone’s trying it, really. Caleb Ferguson looks like a candidate for the Bummer role, though to be fair the Yankees don’t have an obvious hammer to bring in after him. Luke Weaver might make the most sense – the problem is that he’s also better at getting to two strikes than Ferguson. Likewise, Anthony Bender is probably the best overall fit – Tanner Scott and Calvin Faucher are nice strikeout anchors – but I can’t quite see the Marlins trying something so strange.

No, we’re probably doomed to see no uses of the strategy in the majors, even as it continues to happen in high stakes college baseball. As an eagle-eyed listener pointed out to the Effectively Wild crew in Episode 2169, TCU manager Kirk Saarloos brought in a new pitcher in the highest-leverage position imaginable this season: late innings, tie game, full count, bases loaded. That’s the kind of initiative I’d love to see in the majors, and only partially because I’ve heard Ben and Sam (and Meg and Jeff) talk about it so much over the years.

Maybe, like me, you find this whole pre-two-strike vs. post-two-strike split fascinating. Maybe you’re wondering who’s the best at each. Here’s a leaderboard, but really, the answer is just Mason Miller. Unsurprisingly, he’s nearly the best in the business at turning two-strike counts into strikeouts, at a ridiculous 68.9% clip. Only Fernando Cruz (70.4%) has done better. But wait, there’s more: Miller is also the best at reaching two strike counts, at 74.8%. That’s ludicrous. The hybridized Bummer/Johnson strategy can’t even recreate Miller’s brilliance.

In the end, that’s probably a good thing. “The Strategy” is interesting because of its rarity, and because it seems like a free upgrade. But the magnitude of that upgrade is tiny – the best way to manufacture a strikeout is to have Mason Miller pitching, not to strategically swap your guys in and out. This plan probably isn’t coming to a stadium near you – but the Braves should do it once or twice all the same, because there’s rarely a situation that calls out for it this clearly.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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16 days ago

there would be nothing worse for game watchability than if this horrid “strategy” became commonplace. I’m surprised its even technically allowed in the rulebook.

14 days ago
Reply to  kleborp

I imagine this is being down voted because it sounds so close-minded. I think the idea is really fun and I’d love to see it go down, but the uproar it would cause amongst the average mlb viewer would be nuclear. It would be so annoying. There’s also the possibly that it affects the clubhouse negatively. These are highly competitive guys and being removed for a platoon advantage is one thing, but unless it was discussed extensively beforehand, and unless it was in an extremely high LI, likely in the playoffs, there could be unintended and immeasurable consequences on morale. Love the idea though

13 days ago
Reply to  kleborp

Would it really be that bad? With the 3-batter minimum in place, there wouldn’t be much increase in the actual number of mid-inning pitching changes. You just have to get used to seeing one of those pitching changes happen during a plate appearance on rare occasions.

It could be somewhat annoying for fans of the hitter, and the hitter himself wouldn’t like it, but it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for the average fan.