Thomas Boswell, one of the better baseball writers, says that the real key to understanding the subtleties of baseball is paying attention to the number of balls and strikes, to the count:
The count [is] baseball’s open secret, the hidden key, the game-within-the-game that players themselves obsessed about. You don’t wait for the action. You anticipate it — through the count.
To grasp baseball better, digest one vital but little-known fact that has only been discovered in recent years as copious data about ball-strike counts has finally become easily available online.
With less than two strikes, the average hitter is a superstar in every count. It doesn’t matter whether the scoreboard says 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 0-1, 1-1, 2-1 or 3-1. In those counts, the average big leaguer is a .339 hitter, comparable to Stan Musial, and is a .549 slugger, comparable to Hank Aaron.
Last season, in those eight “hitter’s counts,” the MLB average, respectively, was .339, .340, .368, .395, .317, .332, .339 and .352. You barely need to distinguish between them. If the next pitch is hit into play, watch out. The results will evoke “The Man” and “The Hammer.”
So, don’t slumber through a game thinking, “This bum’ll never get a hit.” Oh, yes he may. As long as he hasn’t got two strikes yet.
By one of those lovely baseball symmetries that nobody can explain, almost exactly half of all plate appearances end with less than two strikes. Happy hitters! But the other half reach strike two.
Once that happens, the whole sport changes. On the two-strike counts of 0-2, 1-2, 2-2 and 3-2, batters hit .156, .171, .189 and, finally, if they can reach a full count, .233. In every at-bat last season that reached a two-strike count, the MLB average was .186, with pathetic on-base and slugging averages of .259 and .283.
How bad is that? Mario Mendoza, for whom the Mendoza Line was named — signifying the worst imaginable big league hitter — batted .215 with a .245 on-base and .256 slugging average.