Is working the count a skill that one can learn? The Oakland A’s think so, and have developed an entire minor league development program around it.
From 2003-2005, in 71,529 minor league at-bats, Oakland farmhands drew 8698 walks–over 800 more than any other team in baseball. With just under 73 walks per 600 at-bats, Oakland players drew more than 14 walks over the average rate. In all three years, the A’s led the minor leagues in walk rate, and they did it by an average margin of 7.6%. Here’s the raw data, charting walks (on the X-axis) and strikeouts (on the Y) per 600 at-bats. As you can see, when it comes to getting free passes, the A’s are on their own island:
Obviously, the A’s bring players into the system that already have this basic ability, but it is also a fundamental tenet of the daily instruction that players in the system receive, according to Keith Lieppman, now entering his 15th year as Oakland’s Director of Player Development.
“This is really something that we’ve accomplished and worked hard on over a number of years,” said Lieppman. “This started during Sandy Alderson’s [Oakland GM from 1983-1997] tenure. The goal was to have people aboard for guys like Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco–it really was ‘get on base and hope for the three-run homer’ in essence.”
When Billy Beane was promoted to General Manager after the 1997 season, he spread the philosophy of patience to levels below the major leagues, bringing it into the draft day war room and as part of the player development process. But can simply drafting players who can work the count, as the A’s emphasize strongly, lead to a three-year total that is 3.4 standard deviations above the league average? For Lieppman, instruction has played a large part in creating the sizeable gap.
“We teach our kids a consistent, team-wide philosophy based on this,” said Lieppman. “It begins with getting the starting pitcher out of there as soon as possible.”
The A’s theory is that the starting pitcher is more often than not the best pitcher that opposing hitters will see all game (with the possible exception of the closer for one inning or less), and that by working the count and raising his pitch count, the hitters can better ensure that they see middle relievers during the game.
“Once you get him [the starter] out of there, you really are looking at second and third-tier guys–guys you are going to have a much better chance of hitting,” added Lieppman. Beyond just forcing starters to throw more pitches per plate appearance, their instruction carries over to baserunning as well. “We have a specific philosophy and teaching methods that are designed to reduce the number of times our players get doubled up or create other useless outs in order to keep pitchers working as much as possible,” added Lieppman.
Specific training in working the count begins with the most common of all hitting instruction: batting practice. When taking batting practice, players are asked to hit in a mindset of being ahead in the count 2-0. Swinging at a bad pitch, even just in batting practice, earns a reprimand, and the process is also used to instruct players to lay off of difficult-to-hit pitches within the strike zone. “We definitely want them to avoid good strikes,” added Lieppman. “We’ve seen the data, and swinging at those strikes on the corner leads to a batting average in the low .200s–so we want our kids to avoid those, and that’s one of the most difficult things to teach.”
Beyond everyday batting practice, the organization has created their own series of exercises designed to help players develop a more discerning eye. These include quick-toss drills that force batters to make an immediate swing/take decision, and a method that involves balls with strings attached to them that allows hitters to better visualize the path of a rapidly approaching pitch.
Teaching young players to work the count also shows up within games, as well. If a player makes two quick outs (in two pitches or less) to begin a game, he’ll be forced to take one or even two pitches to begin the next at-bat. This total philosophy that keeps the player’s bat on the shoulder more than most did require some initial selling across the organization. “It definitely took convincing,” said Lieppman. “You need your staff to buy into the philosophy and consistently monitor each player’s development.”
One of the biggest potential problems to the system is in players over-adjusting to the approach and becoming too passive at the plate, but Lieppman insists that the philosophy is anything but passive. “It’s a difficult thing to do certainly, but what we are teaching is aggressiveness with good judgment,” said Lieppman. “We are not telling kids not to swing, we’re telling them to only swing at pitches where they can do some real damage.”
While the philosophy of having players work the count more can often put hitters into more pitching-friendly counts, Oakland batters averaged 126 strikeouts per 600 at-bats, which is actually just below the organizational average of 127. Lieppman attributes this relative success to one of the most essential aspects of the Oakland hitting philosophy. “We work incredibly hard to give our players a good two-strike approach,” said Lieppman. “Players must have the ability to foul off pitches and battle late in the at-bat.” This approach requires a mental adjustment beyond simple patience. “In general, hitters swing early because they want to hit fastballs when the pitcher is trying to get ahead in the count–and it’s hard to ween them off of that kind of thinking,” said Lieppman. “Without a good two-strike approach, you have kids behind in the count worrying about breaking balls and you end up with panicked hitters.”
Still, Lieppman insists that there is no one solution, and that each player must be instructed on an individual basis as well–and there is even a rare group of players for whom the philosophy may not apply. For hitters with off-the-charts plate coverage, like Vladimir Guerrero and Ichiro Suzuki, teaching a more patient approach may be detrimental to their overall offensive value. “Those guys are rare, and they are freaks, but they do exist,” said Lieppman. “Still, to tell a guy like Vlad to take pitches would be ridiculous.”