Has the League Lost Its Two Strike Approach?

Ask a current major league batter about his two strike approach. Watch the words stop coming out of their mouth.

About twenty minutes into a long conversation with Josh Donaldson about his approach to swinging the bat, we got to what he can do to deal with the low and away pitch in counts where he has to protect. I didn’t realize it, but I’d asked for his two-strike approach. “I don’t really want to get too in depth into that,” he said, shutting off the inquiry.

Brandon Moss, the most loquacious of interviews, just laughed when I asked him about how his approach changed. Quickly, I learned not to talk about it.

But it was still out there. And when Paul Konerko told me (during another long conversation about hitting) that he felt like a strikeout was a weakness, my ears perked up. He’d tell me about his two-strike approach. He wasn’t in the league any more.

“I was a one-dimensional player, but not a one-dimensional hitter,” the former White Sox slugger told me on the phone. “I could be as scrappy as anybody at the plate.”

By the time we got to this, though, the actual two-strike approach was almost secondary. “I would eliminate my lower half,” Konerko said. “I’d take my back foot and dump it out and it kept my hips back.” That allowed him to take a full swing but cover more of the plate by staying back. It also telegraphed his intent, since Chris Iannetta once pointed out that he knew Konerko was going to the opposite field when that foot changed position.

But it was the peripheral comments about the state of the game that caught my interest during the conversation. “I couldn’t handle striking out as much as some guys today, it would keep me up at night,” laughed Konerko. He recounted a story of two managers. “Jerry Manuel was like that, he didn’t like the strikeout. But then Ozzie Guillen came in and said ‘you should strike out more for what you do. More power and fly balls will come.'”

Konerko wasn’t buying it. “I felt a strikeout was a weakness,” he said. When Donaldson’s name came up, he was at first in awe. “Usually guys with that much going on are all or nothing,” he said, “but he’s such an athlete. But what happens when he gets older? You have to adjust.”

He wondered if players were doing the same amount of adjusting today, and what the role of the two-strike approach (or lack thereof) was in the rise of the strikeout. So let’s try to take a look.

First, are swinging strikes up more in two-strike counts than in other counts? That would suggest that players are taking their ‘all or nothing’ approach all the way into two strike counts.

Doesn’t look like it. Swinging strikes are up equally in both types of counts. Or, actually, swinging strikes before two strikes are up 18% compared to 12% in two-strike counts.

But, still, raw whiffs are up in two-strike counts, so it’s defensible still to wonder about today’s batters. Perhaps they are just swinging more often in two-strike counts?

Major League Swing Rate by Situation
Year Early Swing% Two-Strike Swing%
2007 40.0% 60.9%
2008 39.8% 61.0%
2009 39.1% 60.8%
2010 39.1% 61.0%
2011 39.7% 61.5%
2012 39.8% 61.1%
2013 40.1% 61.2%
2014 40.5% 61.1%
2015 41.4% 61.3%

Nope, swing rate is flat.

Here’s something that came up while researching. The raw number of pitches in two-strike counts.

Two Strike Pitches by Year
Season Two-Strike Pitches
2007 190398
2008 193363
2009 194821
2010 194249
2011 195246
2012 196552
2013 200384
2014 200262
2015 199489

So it seems more like it’s an artifact of the strike zone, and the quality of pitching, than its about something the hitters are not doing any more.

Yes, Paul Konerko, hitters swung and missed 522 times more often in two-strike counts last year than they ever had before, even in the high strikeout PITCHf/x era. And yeah, that whiff rate was the highest it’s been since we tracked these things. But relative to overall whiff rates, there’s not much that has changed.

Most likely, the hitters have the same two-strike approaches the’ve always had, the zone is just bigger and the pitchers are getting to two strikes easier. But don’t ask around. Hitters won’t tell you what their two-strike approach is, they wouldn’t want to give the catcher something to look for.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Lee Trocinski
Lee Trocinski

Yet, his best season (2010) featured his highest K% of any full season in his career, and his lowest K rate coincided with his worst full season of his career (2003). Ks are bad, but being afraid of striking out is even worse…