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Let’s imagine this scenario:
It’s late April on a hot day in Los Angeles. You are the starting pitcher making only your second start of your MLB career. You are facing one of the opposing team’s best hitters, and you’re now ahead with two strikes.
All you need to do is throw one more strike to get out of the inning. You make a great pitch, and he fouls it off. Then you make another great pitch, and he fouls it off again. . . and again. . . and again.
Next thing you know, 13 minutes later, he pops out. The inning is over.
This is how Los Angeles Angels’ pitcher Jaime Barria felt after his matchup with San Francisco Giants’ first baseman Brandon Belt. During that at-bat in 2018, Belt broke an MLB record for the most pitches in a single at-bat by seeing 21 pitches. While it ended in an out, the damage was done as Barria only made it through two innings that game due to a high pitch count.
Belt later apologized, jokingly, to the Angels defense for making them stand in the field for 13 minutes.
High pitch counts are a hitters’ dream and a pitchers’ nightmare, and seeing lots of pitches in an at-bat has become part of an offensive strategy for many teams.
A relatively new trend among hitting coaches is to track players’ quality at-bats (QAB).
A QAB is defined as an at-bat that results in any of the following: hard-hit ball, walk, hit-by-pitch, eight-pitches or more, sacrifice bunt, sacrifice fly, move runners over with less than two outs, or a base hit.
Seeing eight pitches or more in one at-bat is considered to be a QAB for several reasons.
One, it forces the pitcher to throw extra pitches. The more pitches the pitcher throws, the more likely it is for the team to have to go to the bullpen earlier. This also wears the pitcher down as he has to throw more pitches in a stressful situation.
Two, it allows the rest of the team to see more of the pitcher’s arsenal. The more pitches the pitcher throws to a hitter the more likely he is to use his entire arsenal in one at-bat.
Some hitting coaches often encourage their leadoff hitters — at the beginning of the game and at the beginning of each inning — to try and see as many pitches as possible for this reason.
Three, not only does it wear down a pitcher physically, it wears them down mentally as well. When a pitcher continues to throw strike after strike and a hitter continues to foul it off, it is natural for the pitcher to get frustrated.
While hitters rarely go up to the plate looking to hit foul balls, seeing eight pitches or more in an at-bat sets up the offense for success which is why it is considered a quality at-bat.
How to See More Pitches in an At-Bat
There are three skills needed for hitters to see a lot of pitches in an at-bat: strike zone awareness, pitch recognition, and hand-eye coordination.
Strike zone awareness is crucial when it comes to having good discipline at the plate. Hitters must have a good eye for the strike zone to know when to swing and when to lay off of a pitch.
Swinging at pitches out of the zone helps the pitcher get into a groove.
The goal of seeing a lot of pitches in an at-bat is to get that pitcher out of a groove. The hitter must be able to recognize when a pitch is a ball to take the pitch and when it is a strike to swing and hopefully make contact.
Pitch recognition is also very important as strike zone awareness means nothing without it. Pitch recognition is being able to recognize what pitch a pitcher is throwing as it is released from his hand.
Good pitchers thrive on getting hitters to swing and miss on pitches outside of the strike zone. They do this mostly with offspeed pitches by starting them in the zone and letting them break out of the zone.
If a hitter can’t recognize the spin on a breaking ball, it is not unlikely for the pitcher to throw nothing but curveballs and sliders out of the zone to get them to swing and miss.
Hitters with great pitch recognition skills are often the ones who have at-bats with high pitch counts. They frustrate pitchers by laying off great pitches that fool most hitters.
Pitch recognition skills can be improved by seeing more offspeed pitches in batting practice. Virtual Reality systems have also become a new tool used to improve pitch recognition although they can be pretty pricy.
Still, some teams, even at the amateur level, have invested in them because of the emphasis they place on quality at-bats.
Hand-eye coordination is an important part of hitting in general, but it is even more important when it comes to seeing more pitches in an at-bat. Once a hitter gets two strikes in the at-bat, he cannot afford to swing and miss.
Once he recognizes what pitch is being thrown and where it will be in the strike zone, he must put the bat on the ball and at least foul the pitch off in order to keep the at-bat alive. Any at-bat that exceeds eight pitches requires at least two foul balls.
While it is every hitter’s goal to put the ball in play, foul balls are a good consolation as they increase the pitcher’s pitch count. Foul balls require contact which requires good hand-eye coordination.
Major League Players Who Work Deep Counts
Major League Baseball tracks everything. The amount of statistical information available in today’s game is mind-boggling.
The league even tracks total pitches seen for hitters as well as pitches seen per at-bat with the latter being the most reliable in evaluating a hitter’s ability to work deep into counts.
Currently, the Oakland Athletics’ Mark Canha and Chicago White Sox’s Yoan Moncada share the Major League Lead for pitches seen per plate appearance with 4.32. Right behind them is San Diego Padres’ Tommy Pham with 4.29.
Pham and Canha both typically hit in the leadoff spot as is normal for hitters who see a lot of pitches. Many coaches like their leadoff hitter to work deep into the count in order to force the opposing pitcher to use more of his pitches early on in the game.
Also, this makes the pitcher work harder during the first at-bat of the game than he would prefer. The leadoff hitter is supposed to be the toughest out in the game, and seeing a lot of pitches definitely makes things more difficult for the pitcher.
Moncada, on the other hand, usually hits in the fifth or sixth spot in the lineup for his team.
While this is a little unconventional, it is definitely beneficial for a team to have a player who works deep into counts hitting in the middle of the lineup as it can wear down the pitcher before he faces the bottom of the lineup.
The number of pitches seen per plate appearance has gradually increased every season over the last 30 years. This is likely due to the emphasis many teams now place on quality-at bats and the increased training in pitch recognition.
Are Deep Counts Bad for the Game?
Some fans will argue that hitters who work deep into counts and foul pitches off are bad for the game because it adds time to an already long game. They also argue that the game is already uneventful to the average fan, and these types of at-bats make it even more uneventful.
They also argue that more pitches per at-bat results in more pitches thrown by the pitcher which results in more pitching changes which, in turn, slow down the game. Mound visits and pitching changes have been limited as of late as a result of the MLB’s pace of play rules.
Fans who want quicker, more eventful games get frustrated with anything that slows them down.
On the other hand, most fans who care deeply about the tradition of the game would disagree. These fans would argue that they appreciate a good, disciplined hitter who works hard to battle deep into counts.
Fans who want action-packed, short baseball games likely hate the added emphasis on working deep into counts, but fans who appreciate a well-played game likely love watching a good 10-12 pitch duel.
What are the most pitches thrown in an inning?
In 1997, Steve Traschel threw 64 pitches in one inning. Bartolo Colon once threw 61 pitches in the first inning against the Seattle Mariners that same year. He did not make it out of the inning, and Steve Kline came in to get the final out in five pitches making it 66 total pitches thrown in the first inning.
Which pitcher throws the most pitches per start?
Zack Wheeler of the New York Mets leads the MLB in pitches per start with 101.05. New York Yankees starter Gerrit Cole is right behind him at 99.52.