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Six Strategies for Pitching from a Two-Strike Count

Watching a pitcher get ahead two strikes, only to have the hitter battle back to draw a walk or get a hit, can give some players and coaches nightmares.

As a former major league catcher for 11 seasons, Matt Walbeck of the Walbeck Baseball Academy in Rancho Cordova, California, has seen his share of 0-2 counts slip away from even the best pitchers at all levels of the sport.

“Statistically, when you have a hitter 0-2, his average goes significantly down,” explained Walbeck, who played for the Cubs, Twins, Tigers, Angels and Phillies from 1993 through 2003. “So on the defensive side, you want to make sure you’re putting him away.”

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John Elliott of the Quakes Baseball Academy in Orange County, California, has another thought.

“Kids today throw too many breaking balls trying to strike everybody out,” Elliott said. “They don’t understand how to use their fastball to get ahead. Walks and hits are not the problem. It’s learning how to pitch and what to do from a coach’s perspective to a child being lost, and it’s creating problems the higher we go.”

Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, the question of how a pitcher can keep ahead in the count and get an out still lingers, particularly at the most competitive levels. Walbeck, who caught Minnesota Twins pitcher Scott Erickson’s no-hitter in 1994, offers six tips on how pitchers can maximize their advantage.

Be aware of your situation. Deciding how you locate your next pitch depends on certain factors, Walbeck says. For example, if you’re ahead in a blowout game, you can be more aggressive in the strike zone with an 0-2 count to a hitter at the bottom of the order. If you have an open base, you might pitch a batter more carefully and tempt him to chase a pitch.

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Evaluate the command of your pitches. Walbeck used this philosophy in the majors, and teaches this to his young players. The key is to pitch to your strengths, rather than a batter’s weakness. This allows a pitcher more flexibility to go outside his best two pitches, giving him more room for error.

“I learned from Mike Scioscia when I played for him his first year managing the Angels that you need to know what your pitcher has command of that particular day,” Walbeck said. “You need to know what his best pitch is, what his put-away pitch is. You need to know what his third- and fourth-best pitches are also. That shows the hitter (you) have another pitch in your arsenal.”

Force the hitter to move off the plate. Walbeck recommends sending a message early in the game by pitching inside to keep the batter from leaning out over the plate.

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“If you do that to the one, two, or three hitter early in the game, everybody’s going to see that, and that’s going to keep them off the outside part of the plate,” he explained.

Read each batter’s swing. When Walbeck caught for former Angels ace Jack McDowell, he noticed the Cy Young winner always asked to call one pitch at a time. This allowed him to observe how hitters swung at each pitch. If he’s early, give him something soft; if he swings late, throw harder.

Don’t try too hard to trick the hitter. Walbeck says one common mistake pitchers and coaches make is to deviate from a pitch after a batter fails to hit it, believing he’ll be expecting it. If he swings early on two consecutive curveballs, keep throwing the curve until he proves he can hit it. If he shows a tendency to chase a high fast ball, keep feeding him fastballs and force him to adjust. Trust your pitches, rather than playing cat-and-mouse with the hitter.

Avoid 3-ball counts as much as possible. This may seem obvious, but Walbeck says pitchers often focus too much on results and become too fine in an 0-2 count. While it’s sometimes wise to pitch around a great hitter in the late innings with the winning run on third, finish off other batters by going after them and being aggressive.

From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr.

Baseball, Baseball Player Development, Baseball Tips & Drills