For Missouri baseball, working the count a key strategy

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 8:55 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The at-bat that best exemplifies what the Missouri baseball team's hitters do well came, oddly enough, in a 7-2 loss to Georgia on April 5.

Robert Tyler, the Bulldogs' tall, hard-throwing freshman pitcher was buzzing through the Tigers' order. Sophomore shortstop, Josh Lester, stepped in as the second batter of the fourth inning and fouled off the first two pitches to fall into an 0-2 hole.

But he took the next pitch for a ball. The at-bat was just beginning, as Lester — often late-swinging and flat-footed — fouled off pitch after pitch to the left side.

The Tigers (17-18) don't hit for much power at all. They're average at best at playing small-ball. Having a sub-.200 hitter in the order was a regular occurrence until not too long ago.

They excel, though, at seeing a high number of pitches and forcing opposing pitchers to show their full repertoires.

In 28 of its 35 games this year, Missouri's hitters have seen more pitches than their opponents. Even if you adjust for their losses as the visiting team and wins as the home squad — where the Tigers would have one more and one fewer turn at bat, respectively — the number clearly shows in Missouri's favor. 

It's clear improvement from the Tigers' offensively challenged 2013 season. That year, Missouri saw more pitches than its opponents 28 times in 50 games, with 11 road losses being part of that total.

Coach Tim Jamieson advocates the importance of seeing seven or more pitches in a plate appearance, which Lester said would make it a "quality at-bat." That way, the Tigers could go 1-2-3 in an inning and still force 21 pitches from their opponent.

If Missouri could do that, the opposing starter would be above the 100-pitch threshold by the fifth inning, and that's unstable ground for college pitchers. 

"Usually, kind of the key number is you get a guy beyond 15 in an inning, (he) starts to lost focus, lose stamina during the inning," Jamieson said. "And then if you get the guy over 90 after six, then the same thing starts to happen."

The importance of working counts goes beyond simply tiring out opposing pitchers. In the course of a long at-bat, a hitter can see every pitch his counterpart has to offer and get an idea of what he favors in certain counts and certain situations. The same goes for teammates watching in the dugout. 

Obviously, getting on base or putting a ball over the wall is the preferable outcome in any situation, but there is still value in a hard-fought out. 

"If they do their job as a hitter, it helps the next guy, next guy, next guy," Jamieson said. "That's what it's about. It's about a nine-man lineup."

The Tigers have faced a number of arms that rank among the best in the nation this year, but they've managed to get runs and wins by forcing pitch counts into the triple digits.

In a 4-2 win at Auburn, Missouri saw 104 pitches in six innings from freshman phenom Keegan Thompson. In an 8-7 win at Kentucky, they saw 118 in seven innings from A.J. Reed.

Jamieson said the coaching staff isn't pushing the "grind-it-out" approach any more than last year. The hitters are just better at it, whether that be because of additional experience or more thought put into the approach.

It's important to understand, though, that swinging at a good pitch shouldn't come at the expense of working a longer at-bat, even early on in games. 

"We're not asking them not to swing," Jamieson said. "We're just asking them to swing at good pitches and not swing at bad pitches."

Like any approach in baseball, adjustments must be made on a case-by-case basis. When facing pitchers with wipeout secondary pitches — Missouri righthander Eric Anderson curveball as of late, for example — the best way to cope is to hit the fastball when it comes.

Vanderbilt's Tyler Beede and Louisiana State's Aaron Nola came to Lester's mind when he thought of that approach.

"(If) you want to drive something in the gap, you're looking to hit the fastball no matter what count it is, not trying to see as many pitches, really," Lester said. 

That was actually what Lester was looking to do in his at-bat against Tyler. He'd seen an early-count fastball his first time up, so he was looking for another one that he could drive into a gap.

But having to fight off pitches wasn't a terrible situation, either.

"I feel like the more pitches I've seen, the more I know where it's coming out, what the spin looks like, the more comfortable I am to at least foul it off or drive it," he said.

Lester's at-bat turned out to be twofold in its quality. He saw 14 pitches in total. Anything he didn't take for a ball, he fouled off. 

He ended up walking on a 3-2 count. Tyler had thrown 107 pitches by the end of the fifth inning, and he didn't come back out for the sixth. 

That game showed, though, that high pitch counts don't mean doom for a team. Tyler was dominant by almost all other measures. He struck out 11 Missouri hitters and allowed four hits in his outing.

Just like hitting is only one part of baseball, patience and selectiveness is only one part of hitting. 

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