Plate discipline is easy. You’re supposed to swing at hittable strikes and lay off of everything else. Two-strike discipline is also easy. You’re supposed to swing at basically all strikes and lay off of everything else. The problem is pitchers have conspired to throw baseballs both wickedly fast and wickedly darty, because they are the hitters’ very opponents, and this makes the ideal theoretical discipline impossible to achieve. But when you have two strikes, you definitely don’t want to get caught staring at a third. That’s a pitch a hitter should’ve swung at. It’s an inevitability that called strikeouts happen, and that’s even inevitable for Victor Martinez, But for the longest stretch, he was clean. For 641 consecutive plate appearances, he was clean.
Understand what we’re talking about: Over just about a full season’s worth of plate appearances, Martinez didn’t strike out looking. His streak started on May 22, 2013, carried through the playoffs and ended on Monday. Now, this isn’t always necessarily indicative of success. Last year, Endy Chavez struck out looking once, and he was bad. Josh Phegley struck out looking once, and he was bad. This year, Alex Presley has yet to strike out looking. Back in 2012, the lowest ratio of called strikeouts to swinging strikeouts belonged to Delmon Young. If you swing at everything, you’ll never watch strike three. But the same numbers can be different indicators for different players, and for Martinez, this seems like an accomplishment to celebrate.
The easiest place to begin is with the beginning. Or, with the plate appearance immediately preceding the beginning. On May 21, 2013, Martinez faced Matt Albers in the top of the ninth.
Not really any question. Clean strike three, with no visible disagreement. That was Martinez’s eighth called strikeout in 2013. He ended with eight called strikeouts in 2013, and he stayed at zero in 2014 until he faced Jarred Cosart in the bottom of the first on May 5.
Once more, no question, clean strike three. Martinez felt something a little different, but any frustration would’ve been with himself because the call was right. I don’t blame a hitter for not swinging at a pitch thrown by Jarred Cosart, but the thing about keeping a streak alive is you make no excuses or exceptions.
Between called strike threes, those 641 plate appearances passed by, bringing with them 647 two-strike pitches. Not one of those was taken for a strike; 468 were offered at, or 72%. As best as I can tell, the league average is that 4.4% of two-strike pitches are taken for third strikes, while 61% of all those pitches are swung at. Clearly, Martinez was aggressive with two strikes, and it makes you wonder: Was he too aggressive? Was he going after too many balls simply to avoid watching a pitch in the zone?
Here now are some maps, with approximate strike-zone reference boxes:
There are a lot of swings at balls. There are a lot of swings at obvious balls. That’s not a great thing, since Martinez is such a good contact hitter. All this really demonstrates, though, is Martinez wasn’t genuinely perfect during his streak. What we do know is he posted a 133 wRC+ overall. During the streak, with two strikes, Martinez batted .264, with a .100 ISO. The league mark with two strikes is a .177 average, with a .090 ISO. Martinez might’ve cost himself a few opportunities for walks, but he came through with a number of hits and an appealing batted-ball profile. During the streak, overall, Martinez had a 26% line-drive rate. With two strikes, it was 24%.
You have to wonder something about a streak like this, though. Were there pitches Martinez took that should’ve been strikes, but that were called balls? If you look at the images above, the answer is, no, not really. He covered the zone almost literally 100%. There is that one blue dot, with Martinez batting righty:
That’s from September 24. The camera angle sucks, but the pitch was close, and it easily could’ve been a called strike. But then, the count was 0-and-2, when the zone is its very smallest. We’re also talking about a low breaking ball thrown to a Twins catcher. Probably more often than not, that’s ruled a ball. Here’s the closest non-strike with Martinez batting lefty:
That’s from June 29. Again, you can see how the call could’ve gone the other way, but again, the count was 0-and-2, and the pitch was on the low border. There was nothing obvious about it, except it was a terrific 0-and-2 pitch. For Chris Archer‘s sake, the next delivery made Martinez go away, swinging. But what we can conclude is that Martinez put together a streak that didn’t really rely on very much luck. A hitting streak tends to feature its fair share of seeing-eye singles and bloopers between defenders. A shutout streak will feature its fair share of rockets hit right to gloves. Martinez was completely responsible for protecting his own plate, and while he went out of his own zone to swing at a number of pitches, he still produced at a high level so the aggressiveness didn’t meaningfully bring him down.
Between the time Matt Albers [...] struck out Martinez in the ninth inning May 21 of last year at Progressive Field and when starting pitcher Jarred Cosart caught him looking in the first inning Monday night — a span of 154 games, including 11 postseason games — Martinez did not take a called third strike.
“Had I known that, I would have swung at the pitch,” Martinez said of the pitch from Cosart after Monday’s 2-0 victory.
The interesting thing about Martinez’s two-strike aggressiveness is that, under other circumstances, he’s pretty patient. Over the years he’s run below-average swing rates, and he’s swung at about four of seven pitches in the zone. That’s including what he’s done with two strikes. He’s a patient hitter until he can’t afford to be one anymore. And while that’s true to some degree for many, Martinez has taken it more to an extreme. The streak might’ve caught him at his most aggressive, but Martinez is always difficult to put away, if a pitcher can get him in a two-strike count in the first place. There are two versions of Victor Martinez, and both of them appear to be above-average hitters.
Even Martinez didn’t realize what he was doing, but for basically the equivalent of a season, he didn’t strike out looking. Not even once. You can argue it’s a meaningless, insignificant streak, since Martinez himself wasn’t aware of it. I’d counter that pitchers have frequently been unaware of their own developing no-hitters. It’s up to the players to play to their best. It’s up to us to freak out about what’s recorded. I can’t recall hearing about a streak like Martinez’s, and it’s hard for me to imagine another one. In fact, it’s hard for me to come to terms with this one.
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