‘For it’s one … two …’: Dodger pitchers and 2-strike counts

Note: This piece appears in this home stand’s edition of Dodger Insider magazine, and is being reposted here with permission, special thanks to Jon Weisman. See www.dodgers.com/insider for more official team content and to subscribe to Dodger Insider magazine.

Getting ahead in the count has always been critical for pitchers. Based on league averages, the difference in pitching with a 1-2 count compared to 2-1 is like choosing between facing a minor-league journeyman or a big-league All-Star. But getting strike three can still be as challenging as any task a pitcher faces. Two foul balls will get you two strikes. A third foul leaves you at status quo. And with each additional pitch, the sweat and fatigue piles up.

How do you break through? Finishing off a batter with two strikes is a joint effort between the pitcher, the catcher and the pitching coach, and every at-bat is a learning experience.

“It’s the work of a group trying to accomplish their common goal,” said Dodger pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.

Through the All-Star break, Dodgers pitchers had more two-strike counts on batters than any other team’s staff and were among the best in the game at converting such counts into outs. Their opponents’ OPS of .452 in two-strike counts was the second best in baseball behind the Nationals, and well below the league-average OPS allowed of .525.

As shown by their MLB-leading strikeout percentage (26 percent), the Dodgers are finding ways to turn two-strike counts into strikeouts. Different ways.

KNOWING THE SITUATION

Dodger pitchers proceed with two strikes depending on a few key factors: how many balls there are in the count, whether there are men on base and who’s at the plate.

“Being a reliever, once you get those two strikes, you may take a few more pitches to … put away the batter,” said Joe Blanton, who transitioned to the bullpen last season after spending most of his career as a starting pitcher. “As a starter, you’re worried more about pitch efficiency, keeping your pitch-count down, so you’ll tend to be a little more aggressive.”

Scott Kazmir feels it’s “a whole different dynamic” if there are runners on.

“When nobody’s on base, you get a little more relaxed out of the windup, get a little bit more rhythm,” Kazmir said. “But when you’re out of the stretch, you’ve got all different elements to worry about.”

Said Brandon McCarthy: “It depends on the hitter. Some situations, nothing changes. Some, you’re more apt to go to your out pitch, find the biggest hole the hitter has. … Either way, it’s less about contact than trying to get the strikeout.”

As a catcher, A.J. Ellis feels that putting a batter away with two strikes is a matter of knowing that batter’s strengths and weaknesses, then reverting to the pitcher’s strengths.

“Take each at bat individually,” Ellis said. “Know the hitter, know your pitcher.”

Two-strike counts are prime spots for pitchers to go to their premier pitches. “Every pitcher is different, and so each guy has a different way that they go about it,” Honeycutt said. “But it’s making a quality pitch.”

Kazmir doesn’t change his overall approach much with two strikes.

“You want to still attack the strike zone,” Kazmir said. “But, you know, it’s two strikes. You want to be able to throw your put-away pitch.” Against lefties, that’s his slider. Against righties, that’s his changeup.

“It’s always nice to have a pitch you trust when you get in two-strike counts,” Blanton said. “Whether you use it or not is one thing, but it’s nice to have in your back pocket (one) that you can trust going to. You feel like you can get a strikeout or an easy out.”

As a reliever, Blanton has become much more reliant on his slider, which he uses 60 percent of the time in two-strike counts.

TOUGH TUSSLES

Putting a batter away can require more than relying on any one pitch. This is especially true in the case of difficult at-bats in which batters foul off several.

“That sucks,” Kazmir said bluntly of such matchups. “You just have to try to change eye level (or try a) different pitch … throw them off of what they keep fouling off. Sometimes you can’t control it, and end up running the pitch count up.”

Ellis mentioned that Kenta Maeda is good at taking feedback and adjusting in the middle of a plate appearance, saying that “it has to do with his ability to throw with a lot of variety, throw a lot of different pitches.”

When asked who else is good at navigating tough at-bats, Honeycutt praised Kenley Jansen, who supplements his signature cutter “with a pretty good slider so he can negate a guy just sitting on one pitch.”

Honeycutt also noted that Clayton Kershaw easily adjusts to stubborn hitters, because he’s “probably the most stubborn pitcher.” Not surprisingly, Kershaw is the rare hurler who produces a higher percentage of whiffs than fouls on two-strike pitches (20 percent vs. 18 percent).

“That’s a matter of his execution … of understanding where he needs certain balls to start, especially his breaking pitches,” Ellis noted. “How to throw those pitches that look like strikes from 55 feet, and then that last five feet, just kind of take off and get below the barrel.

“It also helps having some of the best stuff of our generation,” Ellis added, smiling.

NOTES

-The Dodgers’ team OPS allowed in two-strike counts is currently .484, which is still below league average of .522, though it is now seventh best in baseball.

-The Dodgers pitching staff’s K% is now 24.8%, but it is still the best in baseball.

-Blanton’s slider usage in two-strike counts is down slightly, from 60% to 57%.

About Sarah Wexler

Sarah Wexler

Sarah Wexler is a native Angeleno and longtime Dodger fan. She began blogging about baseball in 2012 on her Tumblr, New Grass On The Field, where she covered an array of topics but especially enjoyed exploring baseball history. She now writes for The Hardball Times, FanGraphs and Sporting News, and co-hosts a podcast, The Hardball Times Audio. She recently earned her master’s degree in Sports Management from Cal State Long Beach. She graduated from New York University in 2014 with a bachelor’s in History and a minor in American Studies. She’s an avid Springsteen fan, which is a big boost to her baseball writer cred.