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February 7, 2012

Painting the Black

The Two-Strike Hitting Skill

by R.J. Anderson

In last week’s Painting the Black, I introduced a table that showed the top five two-strike hitters since 2007, as judged by True Average. Said table included Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and a trio of Red Sox teammates. An observant reader emailed me, asking if I thought the Boston bunch was a coincidence or a sign of something more. Because prodding Ben Cherington for an answer could lead to a placating lie or a restraining order, deductive reasoning is the best route to take in identifying if the Red Sox chase good two-strike hitters.

Featuring three of the top five two-strike hitters in the league is a good way to catapult up the team rankings, and sure enough, the Red Sox are in a tie for the top spot with the Yankees. There is no northeast modifier in the True Average formula, but that New York and Boston are the top two teams is an unsurprising outcome, and pretending otherwise is ignoring the realities of the game. But more on that in a moment. First, here are the top five teams in two-strike hitting, as well as the two-strike hitting player equivalent:

Team

Two-Strike TAv

Player Equivalent

Boston Red Sox

.217

Andrew McCutchen

New York Yankees

.217

Denard Span

St. Louis Cardinals

.207

Justin Upton

Toronto Blue Jays

.206

Josh Willingham

Philadelphia Phillies

.204

Luke Scott

For comparison’s sake, here are the bottom five teams, also paired with a player equivalent:

Team

Two-Strike TAv

Player Equivalent

Pittsburgh Pirates

.184

Jonny Gomes

San Francisco Giants

.184

Aaron Rowand

San Diego Padres

.185

Jeff Francoeur

Arizona Diamondbacks

.186

Kelly Shoppach

Houston Astros

.186

Delmon Young

The gap between the Red Sox and Yankees is sizable, and it only grows wider the deeper one digs into the data. For instance, a combined 15.8 percent (8.5 percent Yankees, 7.3 percent Red Sox) of the top 25 percent of two-strike batters were primarily from one of those two teams. The next best represented team finished at less than five percent. Boston appears to be more top-heavy, while the Yankees are distributed throughout, as 15.2 percent of the league’s top 10 percent of two-strike hitters belonged to Boston; New York finished tied for second at 9.1 percent.

We’ve now arrived at the same conclusion twice without answering just how the Red Sox, and the Yankees to a lesser extent, got there. In this post-Moneyball (or more recently, Extra 2%) world, market inefficiency has become a banal buzzword. Not every trend is due to the market over or undervaluing an aspect of a player’s game. Sometimes, the real explanation is much simpler, meaning all that's been written has been to set up this: there doesn’t appear to be a special class of hitter who only prevail in two-strike situations over a five-year sample. Have a look for yourself: 

In anticlimactic fashion, it appears that good hitters are going to hit regardless of the situation. The data isn’t perfectly symmetrical, but it is a nice touch that Pujols (the good outlier) is easily spotted as the leader on both axes, while Jeff Mathis (the bad outlier) is easily spotted as the laggard on both axes. Turning back to the Boston and New York situations and applying Occam’s razor: it isn’t that those teams look for good two-strike hitters but rather that they look for good hitters, and those good hitters can work deep into counts and live to tell about it.

Of course, that is not to suggest all hitters conform to their overall True Average in two-strike situations. There does appear to be truth to the idea that contact-heavy hitters will perform more like their overall numbers and that strikeout-prone hitters are more likely to have more extreme differentials. See here for the smallest differentials:

Player

Two-Strike TAv

Overall TAv

Difference

Marco Scutaro

.244

.266

.022

Brian Schneider

.208

.235

.027

David Eckstein

.219

.248

.029

Juan Pierre

.214

.245

.031

Placido Polanco

.234

.266

.032

Bengie Molina

.213

.245

.032

Kazuo Matsui

.211

.243

.032

Luis Castillo

.220

.253

.033

Jason Kendall

.191

.228

.037

Brian Roberts

.240

.277

.037

And here are the largest:

Player

Two-Strike TAv

Overall TAv

Difference

Will Venable

.168

.271

.103

Ryan Howard

.198

.300

.102

Shin-Soo Choo

.213

.310

.097

Eric Hinske

.165

.262

.097

Mark Reynolds

.180

.276

.096

Jack Cust

.205

.301

.096

Carlos Pena

.211

.306

.095

Ian Stewart

.158

.253

.095

Russell Branyan

.196

.291

.095

Evan Longoria

.213

.307

.094

Aaron Hill is being overzealous when he says that Scutaro “[has] a great eye at the plate,” and “[always gets] to two strikes, but [battles] it out and [finds] a walk somehow.” But Hill isn’t far off. By avoiding strikeouts and putting the ball into play, Scutaro is raising his likelihood of a positive development. Even if the chances of success are reduced on a poorly struck groundball (say five-to-ten percent, just to make up a number), that is higher than the chances of success that stem from taking that same pitch for a strike-three call. The inverse is that Scutaro is less likely to hit for power, and that leaves him with a lower overall True Average than a few of those batters with huge splits. This is not a new concept or tradeoff, just one reinforced all the time that applies here. 

Without knowing for sure, it appears that Boston is not honing in on an overlooked skill or practicing a secret science to get good two-strike hitters; they just look for good hitters. Over a large enough sample, those two circles tend to overlap more often than not.

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

Related Content:  Strike

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