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August 4, 2011

Spinning Yarn

Counsell for the Defense

by Mike Fast

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Craig Counsell has been in a bit of a slump lately. Okay, maybe that undersells it a little. Counsell is 0 for his last 45 at-bats. His last hit came a couple months back, on June 10. Another hitless at-bat will tie him with Bill Bergen of the 1909 Brooklyn Superbas for the longest known streak of hitless at-bats by a position player.

Counsell has served as a utility infielder and pinch-hitter for the Brewers since 2007; in fact, counting his 2004 season as the Brewers’ starting second baseman, he is the team’s all-time leader in pinch-hits, with 37. This season, though, at age 40, Counsell has had a rough time of it at the plate.

Entering the game on June 10, he had 14 hits in 69 at-bats on the season, for a .203 batting average, along with 11 walks for a barely passable .313 on-base percentage. Only one of those 14 hits went for extra bases—a double—leading to a miserable .217 slugging percentage.

On June 10, a banner day for the soon-to-be-slumping infielder, Counsell drew the start at shortstop. In his first time  at bat, in the third inning, he drove a deep fly ball that bounced off the base of the wall and away from right fielder John Jay, allowing Counsell to reach third base with a triple. He followed that by working back from an 0-2 count to draw a walk in the fourth inning, and he smacked a low line drive single through the hole to left field in the sixth. In the eighth inning, he hit a slicing line drive just inside the chalk for a double down the left field line. The announcers commented, somewhat amusedly, that it left him only a home run short of the cycle. Counsell’s last home run occurred on July 30, 2009, some 448 at-bats ago.

Counsell’s eighth-inning double directly followed what might now be considered an ill omen. On the previous pitch, he swung so hard on a knee-high fastball from Brian Tallet that he fell down right on home plate.

Counsell drove the ball hard three times that day and worked the count for a walk in his other time at bat, raising his season line to .236/.345/.292—a marginally acceptable line for a utility infielder, if not fear-inducing for opposing pitchers. Has he just been hitting into awful luck since then?

Let’s look at the gory details of his hitless streak. I reviewed video of each one of his plate appearances since June 10 to gain some sympathy for the man and to bring you this delightful recap of his futility at the plate.

June 11, 2011. After a stellar game the night before, Counsell started again at shortstop against the Cardinals. In his first at-bat, he hit a fly ball off the end of his bat to the right fielder in the gap. In his second at-bat, he launched a drive to deep center that was tracked down by the center fielder a few steps shy of the warning track. In his third at-bat, he hit a high fly ball to right field, caught by the right fielder moving to his right. Those would be the hardest balls Counsell would hit for two months.

If it was not the falling on his ass on June 10 that cursed him, perhaps it was the, um… yellow Cerveceros uniform he wore on June 11? Wearing something that color would challenge any man’s confidence.

June 12, 2011. Counsell pinch hit for pitcher Shaun Marcum in the seventh inning with one out and no one on base and the Brewers leading 4-3. He hit a high pop fly to catcher Yadier Molina in foul territory just to the third-base side of home plate.

June 13, 2011. He pinch-hit for catcher Wil Nieves to lead off the eighth inning of a scoreless game. He made a half swing that produced a bouncing ball fielded by the third baseman to the left of the pitcher’s mound for an easy out at first.

June 14, 2011. He pinch-hit for pitcher Yovani Gallardo with a runner on first and none out and the Brewers leading 3-1 in the eighth inning. He made a bouncing bunt down the third base line that was fielded by the third baseman for a sacrifice bunt that advanced the runner to second base.

June 17, 2011. Counsell started at shortstop, batting ninth against the Boston Red Sox in interleague play. In his first at-bat, he hit a bouncing ball on which the shortstop moved in and to his right for an easy play and throw to first. In his second at-bat, he hit a roller right at the first baseman for an unassisted putout. In his final at-bat, he stroked a quick bouncer just to the second baseman’s left, again for an easy out at first.

June 20, 2011. He pinch-hit for pitcher Mark DiFelice with two out and two on and the Brewers trailing 8-1 in the eighth inning. He fell behind Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth 0-2, and after Farnsworth buried a slider outside in the dirt, Counsell was way out in front of a splitter and struck out. Counsell came very close to an RBI double on the first pitch, which he pulled in the air down the line, but the ball landed a couple feet foul.

June 21, 2011. He pinch-hit for pitcher Zack Greinke with one out and the bases empty with the Brewers leading 2-1 in the seventh inning. He drew a four-pitch walk in a plate appearance that involved as many throws over to first as pitches to the plate, not counting one pitch thrown after time was called. Counsell’s walk contributed to three runs scoring in the inning. He replaced the shortstop for the eighth inning on defense and batted in the bottom of the inning with a runner on first and none out. He hit a sharp bouncer right at the second baseman, hard enough to allow a force play at second, but not hard enough to allow a relay throw to first for a double play.

June 24, 2011. Counsell pinch-hit for pitcher Randy Wolf to lead off the seventh inning with the Brewers trailing 3-2. On the first pitch, he hit a two-hop ground ball right at the first baseman, who fed the pitcher for an easy out.

June 25, 2011. With the Brewers leading 10-1 in the eighth inning, Counsell pinch-hit for second baseman Rickie Weeks. He hit a quick grounder right at the second baseman for an easy out.

June 28, 2011. With the Brewers trailing 11-2 in the seventh inning, Counsell replaced second baseman Rickie Weeks on defense. He came to bat with two out in the ninth and hit his first ball out of the infield since June 11. The center fielder trotted back a few steps to haul in an easy fly to end the game.

July 2, 2011. Counsell drew a start at third base in relief of the struggling Casey McGehee. In his first at-bat, he swung over the top of a Carl Pavano splitter for strike three. In his next at-bat, he grounded sharply right at the first baseman for an unassisted play. In his third at-bat, he hit a one-hopper straight into Pavano’s glove, resulting in an easy out. In his final turn at bat, he hit a high pop fly, triggering an infield fly rule call by the umpire as the shortstop moved to his right for an easy catch.

July 3, 2011. Counsell started at second base as Rickie Weeks occupied the DH slot for the interleague game. He began with a short pop fly in back of the shortstop position on the outfield grass and toward the line. The shortstop made a nice effort to get back to the ball and make the catch. In his second at-bat, he was called out on strikes on an 0-2 fastball that tailed back to catch a couple inches of the outside corner. In his third at-bat, he hit a slow two-hopper toward the left side. The shortstop charged, fielded the ball nicely on the short hop, and gunned the ball to first to catch Counsell by a step. In his final at-bat, he hit a roller right at the second baseman for an easy out.

July 4, 2011. He pinch-hit for pitcher Shaun Marcum with one out and the Brewers leading 6-4 in the sixth inning. At this point, Counsell’s hitless streak had reached 21 at-bats, and the comments began to come from the announcers: “Craig just hasn’t seemed to be able to get it going like he did last year.” The fifth pitch from Micah Owings was a fastball that hit Counsell in the front foot.

July 5, 2011. Counsell pinch-hit for shortstop Josh Wilson with the Brewers trailing 7-2 in the eighth inning and two runners on base. On the first pitch, Counsell bunted foul, and the announcer remarked, “That should give you an idea of how Counsell feels about how he’s swinging right now.” The at-bat ended with a one-hop grounder right to the pitcher for an easy out.

July 6, 2011. Counsell drew the start at shortstop. In his first at-bat, he quickly got down 0-2, but he battled through a seven-pitch confrontation only to hit an easy grounder right at the second baseman. In his second turn at the plate, he lined a foul ball past first on the second pitch—the hardest he had hit the ball in some time—but three pitches later he was jammed by a fastball, and he hit a broken-bat dribbler toward the right side. The second baseman charged, barehanded the ball, and threw Counsell out at first by two steps. In his third at-bat, he skied the first pitch down the left-field line, and the shortstop drifted back to make an easy catch in front of the oncoming left fielder. That was his second fair ball out of the infield since June 11.

July 7, 2011. He pinch-hit for pitcher Chris Narveson with the Brewers leading 5-2 with two out and the bases empty in the sixth inning. He lifted a fairly well-hit fly ball to left field, but the left fielder needed only to move a step to his right to bring it in. Two balls in a row to the outfield… was this progress?

July 8, 2011. Counsell pinch-hit for pitcher Zack Greinke with the Brewers leading 5-4 with one out and one on in the sixth inning. The hit-and-run was on for the first pitch, but Counsell missed a belt-high fastball, and the catcher threw out Jonathan Lucroy at second base. The announcers mentioned that Counsell made a drastic change in his stance a couple years back, as you can see here. With Counsell’s streak now 0-for-26, the announcers’ platitudes reached a new level: “He handles the bat well, can run the bases, is very professional, still grinding it out at age 40.” In the end, he popped the ball up several feet foul and back of first, for an easy catch. This was more than he could bear.

July 9, 2011. He entered the game defensively at third base to start the tenth inning. After the Reds scored five runs, Counsell came to bat with two on and one out in the bottom of the tenth. He hit a routine fly ball to right field, and the right fielder came in a few steps for the catch.

July 10, 2011. Counsell pinch-hit for center fielder Carlos Gomez with the bases loaded and one out and the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth. The announcers noted, “If there is anybody who is due, it is Craig Counsell,” and, “He is a .382 career hitter with the bases loaded.” With the outfielders playing shallow for a play at the plate, Counsell hit a drive to left field. The left fielder went sprinting back to catch the ball, but his throw was short and off line, and George Kottaras tagged and scored the winning run from third. Counsell’s sacrifice fly propelled the Brewers into a first-place tie in the National League Central division going into the All-Star break.

July 14, 2011. Counsell entered the game defensively at second base in the bottom of the eighth inning but did not come to bat.

July 15, 2011. He started the game at third base. In his first at-bat, he hit a hopper up the middle, just to the left of the bag at second. The shortstop ranged over and made a good play to get to the ball and throw Counsell out. In his second at-bat, he hit a sharp roller right at the second baseman for an easy out. In his third at-bat, he hit a slow hopper to the left side. The third baseman came in and to his left, fielding the ball at the edge of the infield grass and making a strong throw to first to get Counsell easily.

July 16, 2011. He pinch-hit for pitcher Zack Greinke with the Brewers trailing 3-2 with two on and no outs in the seventh inning. He bunted the first pitch toward the left side, and the pitcher Jhoulys Chacin came off the mound to field it. Chacin had a play at third base, but he had trouble getting the ball out of his glove and settled for the out at first. Counsell was credited with a sacrifice, advancing the runners to second and third. Both runners ultimately scored on an infield single and sacrifice fly. Counsell again played a key role in a Milwaukee victory, though he did not get a base hit.

July 18, 2011. Counsell pinch-hit for pitcher Tim Dillard to lead off the ninth inning with the Brewers behind 3-0. The announcer commented, “Craig’s havin’ a tough go of it this year.” Counsell hit a high popup behind third base on the outfield grass, an easy catch for the shortstop coming over.

July 19, 2011. He pinch-hit for pitcher Yovani Gallardo with two out and one on and the Brewers leading 9-3 in the seventh inning. Counsell’s hitless streak had reached 32, and the announcer lamented, “He just wants to remember getting a hit.” Alas, not this night, as he hit a sharp grounder down the first-base line. The first baseman misplayed the hop but had plenty of time to recover, grab the ball, and make the unassisted putout at first.

July 22, 2011. He pinch-hit for pitcher Francisco Rodriguez with two outs and the bases empty with the Brewers leading 4-2 in the ninth inning. The Giants announcer quipped, “He can get all the hits he wants on Monday.” After hitting a ball just foul past the first-base bag for strike two, Counsell hit a ball on one hop right back to the pitcher for an easy out.

July 26, 2011. Counsell pinch-hit for pitcher LaTroy Hawkins with one out and the bases empty and the Brewers holding a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning. Although Counsell worked the count to 3-0, pitcher Jeff Samardzija came back to strike him out with a fastball, which Counsell swung under and just nicked for a foul tip caught by the catcher.

July 27, 2011. When Rickie Weeks rolled his ankle on the first-base bag in the second inning, Counsell replaced him as a pinch-runner and stayed in the game to play second base. Upon his first at-bat with the bases loaded in the third inning, the announcer said, “Here’s Counsell, whose ‘due’ bucket is overflowing right now. He’s always been good with the bases loaded.” Instead, Counsell hit a high pop fly to right field, and the second baseman went out to make a fairly easy catch in front of the right fielder. His second at-bat was another pop fly to the second baseman, this one an easy catch on the edge of the outfield grass.

July 28, 2011. With Weeks still out with the ankle injury, Counsell started again at second base. His first at-bat was a bouncer up the middle past the pitcher’s outstretched glove. The second baseman moved to his right and fielded it fairly easily for the throw to first. In this second at-bat, he hit the first pitch he saw fairly well to right field, but the right fielder came in and made the catch. In his third at-bat, he managed to hit the ball only a few feet and was tagged out easily.

“Excuse me, Mr. Counsell? I think you dropped this.”

July 31, 2011. Counsell drew the start at third base. In his first at-bat, he hit an easy pop fly that came down right to the third baseman. In his second at-bat, he hit a sharp bouncer straight at the second baseman. In his third at-bat, he took a curveball on the outside corner from Fernando Rodriguez for a called strike three.

August 1, 2011. Counsell pinch-hit for pitcher Zack Greinke with two out and the bases empty and the Brewers leading 5-2 in the sixth inning. He hit a popup easily fielded by a backpedaling second baseman.

August 2, 2011. He entered the game in the 11th inning as a pinch-runner for Casey McGehee, carrying the potential tying run in a game the Brewers trailed 8-7. He did not score.

August 3, 2011. He entered the game as a defensive replacement at second base in the eighth inning. He did not bat.

That is how Counsell came to be hitting .145/.235/.179 for the year and riding 45 straight hitless at-bats. Though he was 0-for-26 in the games he started, he was actually somewhat successful in his 10 pinch-hitting appearances in close games. He did make five outs in those situations, but also contributed two sacrifice bunts, one sacrifice fly, a walk, and a hit by pitch. The sacrifice fly, the walk, and one of the sacrifice bunts were integral to Brewers wins on June 21, July 10, and July 16.

As to our previous question of whether Counsell has just been hitting in an extraordinary run of bad luck, you may have noticed a weak ground ball or two to the right side of the infield in there.

Other than the three well-hit fly balls on June 11, Counsell has had a hard time even getting the ball out of the infield during his hitless streak. Compare this to his batted-ball distribution from 2010 and 2011 prior to the streak.

Counsell has never been a home run hitter, but he has subsisted on line drives to the outfield and finding holes for ground balls. These have been absent during his hitless streak, but presumably they will return soon enough.

Mike Fast is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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