ONE, TWO balls; ONE, TWO strikes. ONE out. ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, SIX innings. I love to count!
Just about my favorite Sesame Street puppet was the Count, dressed as he was in his black cape, ticking off numbers in his thick Transylvanian accent. He helped all four of my children learn to count.
I think the Count could also help young baseball players learn the game.
Maybe I could be the Count, dress up in my Dracula outfit, and drop in on teams in their dugouts. I would count for the players, and teach them to pay homage to the Count.
The Count is the essence of baseball.
In full regalia, I would provide lively demonstrations, bringing the pitchers out first, and making them stand behind me. Then I would have spongy Nerf balls winged at them, to represent the hard line drives they face if they pitch behind (in) the Count.
Then I would have them stand in front of me, whereupon we would lob easy tosses to show what good things happen when you pitch in front of, or ahead in, the Count.
Coaches always instruct their pitchers to “get ahead in the count: pitch fast, throw strikes; throw strike one!” The pitchers nod, but they don’t really listen; and they throw first-pitch curveballs in the dirt to the number nine hitter in the other team’s lineup.
Often, believe it or not, they get away with it because hitters are just as clueless — and swing at those curveballs in the dirt and put themselves at a disadvantage, behind in the count. They don’t respect the Count who exhorts to both batters and pitchers, “Get ahead.”
“Have an idea up there,” my high school coach called to me at the plate as I flailed at pitches out of the strike zone. I had little idea what he meant. Didn’t Yogi Berra say, “I can’t think and hit at the same time”? I was in the school of “swing hard — the ball might hit your bat.”
Ted Williams was maybe the best hitter ever. What did he say was the key to hitting a baseball? Pitch selection. He demanded that you pay homage to the Count: “Get a good pitch to hit,” he repeated again and again. Work the count: don’t swing at bad pitches, especially early in the count.
There are hitter’s counts — and pitcher’s counts. The pitcher wants to get ahead in the count so he can control the at-bat. The hitter wants to get ahead in the count so he can induce a fat one over the plate and smash it.
You should never see a hitter take a bad swing in a no-strike count. The batter is ahead in the count with no strikes and should be looking for a certain pitch in a certain place, normally a straight one over the heart of the plate. He should refuse to swing at anything else, even strikes on the strike zone’s perimeter, lest he hit a weak tapper back to the mound or an infielder.
Young hitters should not get in the habit of taking a strike, letting the first one pass regardless of location. If a hitter falls behind in the count, he may never see a good one again. Coaches, too, should be cautioned not to be too fond of asking hitters to take a strike, as aggression is rewarded in hitting. Why put your hitters at a disadvantage in the count?
With a two-strike count, however, the above must be disregarded. Tack a hack, kid; do not get called out on strikes. Give the pitcher some respect, especially if you’re down in the count 1-2, or 0-2, even 2-2. The batter’s job with two strikes is to put the ball in play; make the defense do their job.
Have an idea up there.
A few years back, baseball researcher Pete Palmer analyzed over 3,000 major league at-bats and provided a composite batting average for each count in a possible at-bat. The average batter in the study hit .259.
The count that produced the most safe hits, the quintessential hitter’s count, was three balls and one strike. Batters hit .285 in that ball-strike count. The next best count for hitters was 1-0 (.267). The hitter’s likely to see a good pitch to hit in these counts.
Conversely, the count that produced the lowest batting average (.195), the best pitcher’s count, was the reverse, one strike and two balls, followed closely by 0-2 (.198). The pitcher’s in charge with two strikes, ahead in the count. The batter has to “protect the plate” and can be induced to swing at pitches out of the strike zone.
In baseball, numbers are everything: 3 strikes, 4 balls, 9 innings, 3 outs per inning permit myriad numerical permutations, all of which require distinctive strategic responses. That’s the fascination of baseball.
Think about it. It all starts with the Count. Every batter steps to the plate in baseball’s classic hitter-pitcher confrontation with a clean slate — a 0-0 count.
Then the fun begins!