Throughout the entire American League Championship Series, one aspect that has struck me more than anything else about this Texas Rangers team -- and given the way they've mostly manhandled the Yankees, there's certainly been plenty of competition in the "things I wasn't aware the Rangers were capable of doing" department -- is just how tough their hitters have been to put away, particularly with two strikes. During every single game it feels like multiple Rangers hitters have been fouling pitch after pitch after pitch off, staying alive and then improbably getting hits despite the pitcher being one strike away from retirement.
Eager to see if the numbers backed up what my eyes were telling me, I set out to see if any of the major statistical outlets -- Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus -- kept data on how a team offense fared with two strikes in the count. The only data I found was Foul Ball Strike Percentage on B-Ref, which tells us that during the season the Yankees fouled off 28% of their strikes, while Texas matched the league average at 27%. No web site that I know of seems to carry postseason data on how teams have performed with two strikes, so I decided to go ahead and do the research myself*.
Below is a table of data from the first five games of the 2010 ALCS, detailing how the Texas Rangers have performed in plate appearances in which a Yankee pitcher got two strikes on a hitter. I've also thrown BABIP in for good measure, since I know someone on one of the blogs I read (or perhaps it was Twitter) mentioned how it seemed like Texas' BABIP was absurdly high and way overdue for a correction.
This table goes a long way in explaining why the Yankees have had so much trouble with the Texas offense this series. The short of it is, the Rangers are fouling off significantly more pitches than they were in the regular season (33% to 27%), and nearly half of those fouls have come while there were already two strikes in the count. As a result, the Yankee pitching staff has had to work that much harder to retire Ranger hitters.
Michael Young and Mitch Moreland have been arguably the two most difficult Rangers to retire, each with a team-leading 13 two-strike fouls in this series. That means the two of them account for 38% of the entire team's two-strike fouls. Vladimir Guerrero has accumulated 12 two-strike fouls (17%), David Murphy and Elvis Andrus each have 7 two-strike fouls, Josh Hamilton has 4, and Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler three apiece. Basically the only batter in the Rangers' lineup who doesn't bother working the count at all is, unsurprisingly, Jeff Francoeur, who has only been in three two-strike counts in his 10 plate appearances this series, well below the team average of 55%.
But the biggest eye-opener here is Texas' overall batting line with two strikes. The American League overall hit .181/.251/.275 with two strikes in the count in 2010. Texas is hitting a ridiculous .251/.298/.392 with two strikes! While they did hit .201/.263/.293 in those situations during the season, they've clearly been dramatically overperforming all series.
As you can see, Texas has been above league average in these situations in all five games except for Game 5. Game 2 in particular sticks out like a sore thumb, with Texas having absolutely no fear of two strikes in the count and raking to the tune of .300/.364/.550. Mike will have more on this later as he previews the biggest outing of Phil Hughes' life, but it's safe to say that Phil Franchise is going to need to be infinitely better in all facets of his game tonight, especially when it comes to putting batters away with two strikes. I ran the numbers, and found that Hughes' overall line against in Game 2 was a horrific .476/.542/.952, while his line against with two strikes was a nearly identical .456/.500/.909. Ghastly.
As for that BABIP? It is indeed ridiculously high, at .369. Texas' BABIP during the regular season was .307, so yeah, I'd say they're due for a correction, although given the small-sample nature of a playoff series, we unfortunately have no idea if that regression will come in time to finally even things out for the Yankees.
The good news is that unless Hughes is insanely off his game for a second straight start it seems highly unlikely that the Rangers will continue to hit .316/.383/.520 (that's a .902 OPS, compared with .757 on the season) -- not to mention OPSing .690 with two strikes (league average .534) -- while it seems equally unlikely that the Yankees will keep collectively hitting .217/.317/.391 (.709 OPS, compared with .786).
Additionally, the Yankees are certainly aware of the Rangers' almost superhuman two-strike proficiency in this series, and hopefully Hughes -- and Andy Pettitte, if we're fortunate -- can execute a game plan that includes not giving Texas particularly hittable pitches with two-strike counts.
* If anyone is interested in the raw batter-by-batter spreadsheet data, please let me know.