Each at-bat is an individual battle between a pitcher and a hitter. But however fun those matchups might be, baseball recognizes that the game must maintain a sensible pace of play. At the same time, the sport needs some drama too. All of this brings us to the full count.
It can be considered either a minor or significant clutch moment because, as a hitter, you’re technically only allowed one more pitch unless you can foul it off or you’re out. If you throw one more pitch out of the strike zone as a pitcher, the hitter will be awarded first base. If it’s the bottom of the 9th inning and the game is in the balance, then a full count can be one of the most exciting moments in a game.
Below, we explain what a full count means to hitters and pitchers and how the rule itself has completely changed since balls and strikes were introduced over 160 years ago.
- A fifth infielder is an extra infield player used by the defense as a late-game strategy. It is typically used in certain situations to prevent runs from scoring and to fill any potential holes in the infield.
- It can be deployed when there is one out with the bases loaded or against a ground ball hitter.
- Pros and cons include eliminating ground balls while exposing the outfielders, but this tactic can be useful when the game is on the line.
- A fifth infielder can take different shapes, such as going to a hole in the infield or playing behind second base.
- Notable fifth infielders in baseball history include Rod Carew and Ozzie Smith.
Definition of a full count
The definition of a “full count” is when a hitter has accumulated two strikes and three balls in a single at-bat. The next pitch in the at-bat is the final pitch that the hitter will see unless they hit a foul ball. According to baseball rules, a hitter with two strikes cannot strike out by hitting another foul ball. A hitter strikes out when they swing and miss for the third strike or if the umpire calls the pitch a strike. If the hitter swings and makes contact but hits the ball in foul territory, their at-bat will continue.
One interesting fact is that a full count can last indefinitely. Proof of this happened in 2018 during a Giants-Angels regular season game (there have been longer at-bats during spring training). Brandon Belt of the SF Giants saw 21 pitches from Jaime Barria in a single at-bat, which is the current MLB record:
How full counts are achieved
In baseball, there is a term called “gamesmanship.” It refers to subtle strategic matchups and strategies geared towards individual players or moments of a game. In the context of a full count, batters must be selective regarding what pitches they swing at to see more pitches during an at-bat. Hitters have different philosophies and approaches to hitting. Some hitters have their minds made up that they are swinging at the first pitch and will be aggressive through the entire at-bat.
Other hitters are more selective and do what is called “sitting on a pitch,” meaning they are waiting for the pitcher to throw one certain pitch. Some hitters sit on a fastball, some on a breaking ball, and if they don’t see one, they don’t swing as much. Players with this mindset will lay off pitches outside the strike zone, increasing the number of pitches they see.
On the other hand, pitchers use gamesmanship for an individual batter, which may extend the count on purpose. For example, some hitters like to stand closer to home plate, which most major league pitchers don’t like. When this happens, pitchers will waste a pitch by purposely throwing a ball out of the strike zone to either intimidate a hitter or force them to back off the plate. When pitchers use this strategy, they throw more called balls, ultimately leading to more full counts.
Randy Johnson is considered one of the modern-day masters of using intimidation and fear by purposely throwing a ball with no intention of it being a strike. This style creates more full counts, but when you’re the Big Unit, it doesn’t matter. Stop to consider: what if a 100 mph fastball zipped right over your head on the first pitch? Watch this at-bat from the 1993 MLB All-Star Game. It does not go to a full count, but you can see the strategy Johnson uses by wasting one pitch and what it does to hitters:
What happens on a full count
When a pitcher and batter are in a full count situation, many different things can happen for different reasons depending on the game scenario. Below is a quick breakdown of what to expect:
If there are baserunners, they are trained to start running to the next base as soon as the pitcher pitches the ball. The reason for this is to give the runners a head start if the ball is hit into play and makes it more difficult for the defense to get a double play if there are fewer than two outs. If there are two outs, then the likelihood of them getting forced out also decreases.
With three balls already on the board, pitchers know that one more pitch outside the strike zone puts a runner on base. Because of that, pitchers will throw a pitch within the strike zone, which gives hitters a better chance of making contact because they know the pitcher must throw a strike.
There are no rules that say catchers cannot talk to hitters. In baseball strategy, this is known as “working the hitter.” When there is a full count, hitters will be laser-focused on seeing the next pitch, so crafty catchers will attempt to distract them with chatter. Legend has it that Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter excelled at working hitters and even got the legendary Tony Gwynn to strike out by telling him what pitch was coming every time (which most hitters hate, by the way).
Strategies for full counts
When there is a full count, we’ve discussed what baserunners, pitchers, and catchers will do to help their team gain an advantage, but aside from that, it is a one-on-one matchup of strategies between the hitter and pitcher. With a full count, a hitter must protect the plate, and the pitcher must throw a strike or get the hitter to swing at a ball outside of the strike zone. With little margin for error in a clutch moment like this, there are a few strategies that pitchers and hitters will use:
To protect the plate and not risk getting called out on strikes, batters will inch closer to home plate prior to the pitch to increase the area in which the bat can hit the ball. Many hitters will also choke up in this situation to ensure they get the bat around quickly and make contact. That is what is referred to as “protecting the plate.” Even if the pitch isn’t exactly what they want, with a changed stance and grip, hitters can use the bat to slap the ball and hit it foul to keep the at-bat going.
Since pitchers must throw a strike or get a hitter to swing at a pitch outside of the strike zone, their pitch control must be perfect. Pitchers with good breaking and off-speed pitches will, on a full count, throw a breaking ball that starts in the strike zone in the hopes that the hitter will swing. The goal is to have the ball break out of the strike zone as soon as the hitter brings the bat around.
If the pitcher is a power pitcher, then they will rely on a hard fastball that is at the top of the strike zone, which is hard for a hitter to hit. They may also throw a fastball at the knees on a full count, which may cause hitters to swing when they normally wouldn’t.
But even if the pitcher puts the ball in a perfect location on a full count, it still may not go your way. Just ask Josh Tomlin about this at-bat from the 2016 World Series:
If the pitcher is facing a power hitter who is determined to protect the plate with the game on the line, then facing Mr. October in the 9th inning of Game 2 of the World Series is all about pitch location. Watch Bob Welch take on Reggie Jackson in the 1978 World Series. If there was ever a clutch full count situation in baseball history, this is it:
Full counts put more wear and tear on a pitcher than they do on a hitter, so for that reason alone, a full count situation is more advantageous for the offense. At the same time, having two strikes against them causes hitters to swing at pitches they normally wouldn’t, which gives pitchers an advantage.
So, who has the advantage in a full count? The real answer is no one. It all comes down to who is more prepared and focused at that moment. Even if your pitcher is world-class, the rest of the defense must also be focused during a full count. To emphasize that point, watch what may be considered the most epic full count situation in MLB history:
Our apologies if you found this post unhelpful.
How can it be improved? Your feedback is important to us!