Manager’s View: Is the Ability To Hit With Two Strikes an Undervalued Asset in Today’s Game?

It’s no secret that strikeouts are at an all-time high. Nor is it a secret that not every strikeout is “just another out.” Balls in play can advance baserunners, and that’s especially important when the 90 feet being traversed is from third to home. What fan, or manager, doesn’t bemoan one of the team’s hitters going down by way of the K with a man on third and less than two out? It’s an opportunity wasted, one that often leads to a squander.

Save for the rare occasions when a batter reaches on a wild pitch or a passed ball, a strikeout is also a guaranteed out. Making contact — even weak contact — at least gives you a chance. While last year’s .292 BABIP was baseball’s lowest in nearly three decades, that’s still markedly better than than the infinitesimal odds of taking first base on a punch-out. Moreover, fielders make errors. In short, contact matters.

Given MLB’s ever-increasing strikeout rate, I asked six managers a simple, straightforward question: Is the ability to hit with two strikes an undervalued asset in today’s game?

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Bud Black, Colorado Rockies

“It’s been undervalued in the history of the game. It’s probably lessened a little bit more [as] something that has been talked about. I think, more so than ever, because of the stuff today, it’s harder to hit with two strikes, especially the velocities that we’re talking about. The breaking pitches. The secondary pitches. The quality of those pitches. The swing-and-miss that’s happening now is a combination of maybe not shortening your swing, and maybe the stuff is that good to where it’s tough to make contact.

“Those players who have the ability to put the bat on the ball, to change their swing, to change their stroke, to change their approach, it’s important. Over the long haul, if you take thousands of at-bats, it might not be noticeable. But on a single game, in a game that counts, and it’s late in the game — or any part of the game, for that matter — where putting the ball in play is important, if you have those guys to do it, it definitely can change the outcome. So I think it’s huge that you have players who are committed, and have big-league quality two-strike approaches where they put the ball in play.”

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Alex Cora, Boston Red Sox

“One hundred percent. Although people don’t play the infield in that much anymore, right? They’re defending lanes. But infield back, man on third, one out… when you don’t put a ball in play with two strikes, that’s not just another strikeout. That’s a bad strikeout. You’ve got to put the ball in play. There are certain situations.

“Over the course of the season, you get probably 30-35 at-bats with men on third and less than two out. The way we’re going to be preaching this — because we struggled last year offensively with men in scoring composition — is, ‘Those 30 at-bats, surrender them to the team.’ Those are team at-bats. Just put them in play and do something to get that guy in. The rest of them — 600, 500, whatever [number of] at-bats you’re going to get — do your thing. But there are X amount of at-bats that we want them to give to us. Everybody in the lineup. That’s going to be the difference between probably winning 84 games or 94 games. So yeah, the value of putting the ball in play is not taught too much, and that’s something we want.”

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Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers

“It’s tough to make these statements, because they’re never blanket-statements. But contact is a good trait in the game. There was a pretty good run for years, of teams… Tampa kind of interrupted this run of high-contact teams succeeding in a postseason. Tampa wasn’t, and they obviously had a very good run. But it’s a good trait, there’s no question about it. Is it an underrated trait? I can’t blanket say ‘yes.’

“I think we’re valuing contact probably more and more. There is definitely a trend going in a direction where contact is valued. That’s because the strikeout rate keeps going up. It’s getting harder and harder to make contact, so the guys that can do it are becoming kind of rare players. So I think it’s a positive thing — there’s no question about it — with two strikes. I guess the way I would say it is, ‘How much slug goes down with two strikes is kind of an indication of why contact becomes more important with two strikes.’ There’s so much slug early in the count that contact isn’t really what you’re looking for. But as you get into the two strike count, the slug goes down so much that the contact becomes more valuable.”

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A.J. Hinch, Detroit Tigers

“It’s an undervalued asset, for sure — specifically those that can do damage with two strikes. I think this is going to change over the next three, four, five, six years — whatever it is — where we have to start valuing the guys that put put the ball in play a little bit more. The ability to be able to control the strike zone, know the strike zone, swing at strikes, not just accept the strikeout. Handling the bat, but still doing damage.

“You can do a lot of damage… look at what [Jonathan] Schoop has done with two strikes in his career. Some people think contact rate and two strikes means ‘touch the ball.’ That’s not necessarily the case. You have to have a bigger strike zone with two strikes, in terms of what you’re hunting, but the ability to put the ball in play… contact is your friend. The two-strike approach, to me, has faded a little bit over the last decade, and certainly needs to be revisited on how to win games.”

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Derek Shelton, Pittsburgh Pirates

“There are a lot of things, if you go back to when [Moneyball] was written, there are a lot of things that are undervalued. Two-strike hitting, being able to run the bases, hit-and-running, stealing bases. All those things are undervalued in today’s game. Today’s game isn’t played like that. Joe Maddon used to say the game organically changes back to things, and I think we’ll start to see it change back. The game right now is about strikeouts and home runs. If your team is not built in a certain way, you may have to adjust and go back to that.”

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Jayce Tingler, San Diego Padres

“I think that it is. I hear a lot of people complaining that guys are just swinging for the fences, that they’re getting long. I personally don’t sign up for that. I respect how the game has evolved. I respect that it is extremely difficult… understanding how pitchers are throwing with velocities, how they’re training, how they’re tunneling, how they’re getting their fastballs to rise, how they’re able to sharpen secondaries.

“If you look at the league… honestly, it’s an easy comment: ‘These guys strike out.’ But each and very night, you’re seeing 100 mph, you’re seeing 98, and you’re seeing it with two-seamers and four-seamers, and everything in between. So I respect too much what’s going on. I understand how hard it is.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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WARonEverything
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WARonEverything

Is Schoop’s .484 OPS with two strikes good? It doesn’t seem to be, but I’m not sure what the average is.

Skin Blues
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Skin Blues

It includes 100% of all strikeouts so it’s going to be a much lower OPS than usual. Over the past 4 seasons, Schoop was 21st %ile among 275 players to have 500 two-strike PAs, and 46th %ile among 253 players to have 1000 total PAs. So no, he’s not very good with two strikes.

BenZobrist4MVP
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BenZobrist4MVP

Edit: I posted this before seeing Skin Blues’ post and it looks like we had about the exact same conclusion.

Unless I am doing the FanGraphs filters wrong, Schoop has a .497 career OPS with 2 strikes. Over the past 10 years, that is 420th out of 547 players with at least 500 such plate appearances. So, no it is not good. Though, to be fair, OPS does not reflect moving guys over with an out.

FYI, of those 547 players, David Ortiz (.746), Mike Trout (.745), and Mookie Betts (.734) are the top 3 in OPS and Jett Mathis (.337) is last.

BenZobrist4MVP
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BenZobrist4MVP

While I’m down this rabbit hole, of those 547 players from 2011-2020, all of them unsurprisingly had a lower OPS with 2 strikes. The hitters with their 2-strike OPS the biggest percentage of their total OPS were Carlos Lee (.744 down to .691) and David Fletcher (.732 to .680). Others whose production doesn’t drop off much with 2 strikes include Tommy La Stella, Jose Ramirez, and Michael Brantley.

The worst 2-strike hitters compared to their baselines were Wilin Rosario (.779 to .416) and Hunter Dozier (.778 to .441). Other hitters who become shells of themselves with 2 strikes include Chad Pinder, Joey Gallo, Ian Happ, Teoscar Hernandez, Luke Voit, Byron Buxton, and Khris Davis.

slinger
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slinger

Thanks Ben – nice deep dive!