Over the course of baseball history, there have been some truly great pitchers. They use a variety of pitches – blistering fastballs, devastating curveballs, tricky sliders – to fool hitters into swinging and missing. It’s been said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in all of sports.
That’s why the best hitters try to lengthen their at-bats to increase the likelihood of their getting on-base.
Brandon Belt’s record at-bat
In an April 2018 game versus the Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giant Brandon Belt would set a major league record with a 21-pitch at-bat. The pitcher was Jaime Barria, who had only made one MLB appearance prior to that.
The at-bat lasted 12 minutes and 45 seconds. The at-bat included 16 foul balls (10 of which were consecutive). Belt would eventually fly out, and Barria would end up throwing 49 pitches in the inning without surrendering so much as one run.
Prior to Belt’s marathon at-bat, the record belonged to the Houston Astros’ Ricky Gutierrez in 1998.
The many effects of a long at-bat on the hitter, pitcher, and the game itself
Long at-bats are a nightmare for pitchers. In a post on bullpenning, The Ringer had a quote from Ted Williams’ 1970 book The Science of Hitting. The quote is about the importance of a player’s first at-bat:
“You figure to face a pitcher three or four times in a game. The more information you log the first time up, the better your chances the next three. The more you make him pitch, the more information you get.”
What Williams was essentially saying is that forcing a pitcher to throw more pitches, especially on the first at-bat, gives hitters a better chance to get a hit later and also wear the pitcher down. The more pitches he throws, the less time he’ll be in the game.
For hitters, long at-bats increase their chances of reaching base safely. As Williams pointed out, the more pitches they see, the more information they get on the pitcher and his style. This additional data gives them more to build on for their strategy at the plate.
For the spectators of the game, long at-bats can increase the game’s length, make the game last longer, and potentially detract from a fan’s enjoyment of the game.
How baseball is trying to improve the pace of play
As the attention span’s of fans everywhere are getting shorter, relying more and more on their smartphones, baseball is attempting to institute a number of changes to increase the pace of play, including:
- Introducing an enforced time limit between pitches. A time limit currently exists in the rule book, but it is not enforced by umpires.
- Shorter inning breaks
- Fewer mound visits
As the viewing habits of their fanbase changes, so too must baseball to evolve and adapt. While these tweaks will increase the pace of play and do their part in ensuring games don’t drag on, they won’t do anything about longer at-bats. There isn’t much baseball can do in that department – short of banning players from calling timeout, they could likely never install some kind of pitch limit.
There will always be a strategic element hitters try to take advantage by pushing to see more pitches. It may be frustrating for some fans to watch these long at-bats, but baseball purists can enjoy the artistry of it. There are few matchups in sports that are as isolated as pitcher versus batter. Long at-bats represent a microcosm of what baseball is all about – two great athletes doing whatever they can to outperform the other.