Who was 2017's best two-strike hitter?

Judge, Rendon and Votto all put up compelling cases

January 10th, 2018

There might be no better test of a hitter's true ability than what he does with two strikes. Already saddled with the task of reacting in sheer milliseconds to a pitcher's offering, a batter will often choke up with two strikes knowing he has no margin for error.
Those who remain cool under two-strike pressure tend to rise to the top, whether it's on the season-end leaderboards or under the bright lights of postseason play. It's a skill that can come to define a player as a grinder, a hitter who never gives in until he gets the pitch he can drive. The ultra-discerning eye of Statcast™ can help observers pick out these warriors better than ever before.
The easiest place to start might be just to look at who prevailed the most by reaching via either a hit or a walk with two strikes in the count last season. Doing so pulls up the following three names:
1. : 131
2. Joey Votto: 123
3. : 115
This is a good starting point, but it turns out these three names kept popping up the more we dug into the other components of a good two-strike hitter. For instance, did the batter strike out, eventually draw a walk or do serious damage with his bat? How much did he wear down the opposing pitcher for his teammates behind him? Did he swing at pitches he shouldn't have, perhaps even at pitches that could have led to a walk in a 3-2 count? Who battled best when he was way behind in the count? Time and time again, each of these three sluggers ranked among the top 25 or so players in each category.
This trio was intriguing in the different ways they approached their two-strike battles, though each of them ultimately prevailed. In an attempt to find the "best" two-strike hitter from last season, here's a look at how each of these three players battled with two strikes.
Video: TOR@NYY: Statcast™ tracks Judge's 118.4-mph home run

Start with the biggest paradox of these three hitters in Judge, whose historic rookie season combined awesome power with an MLB-high 208 strikeouts. That total may lead some to automatically disqualify Judge as the "best" two-strike hitter, but doing so would be to turn a blind eye to all the damage Judge did when he did connect. Judge led baseball with 20 home runs in two-strike counts -- twice as many as Rendon and 14 more than Votto -- while also recording the American League's highest batting average (.476) and second-highest slugging percentage (1.014, behind Joey Gallo's 1.100) when putting two-strike pitches into play.
There was another side, of course. The Yankees' star whiffed on nearly one-third of the two-strike pitches he swung at and racked up 62 called strikeouts, MLB's third-most behind Chris Davis (75) and (63). Judge was lethal when he connected, but pitchers were able to put him away plenty of times, too.
Video: WSH@CIN: Rendon crushes a two-run home run

A record 74 players hit at least 25 home runs in 2017, but Rendon's 82 strikeouts were the third-lowest in that group behind (69) and Didi Gregorius (70). Rendon mastered the art of staying alive in 2017, leading 239 qualified hitters by either fouling off or putting in play 89.7 percent of the two-strike pitches he swung at. Rendon fouled off 215 two-strike pitches, the fifth-most in MLB, to frustrate opposing pitchers. Judge gained acclaim for drawing deep counts in seemingly every turn at the plate, but Rendon was right there with him:
Most pitches seen per plate appearance, 2017

  1. : 4.51
  2. Judge: 4.47
  3. Matt Carpenter: 4.45
  4. Rendon: 4.40
  5. Joe Mauer: 4.38
    Rendon recorded 68 two-strike hits -- just one fewer than Judge -- while seeing roughly 100 fewer two-strike pitches and punching out fewer than half as many times as the Bronx slugger. Rendon might not have crushed as many two-strike offerings as Judge, but one can't ignore the added value he brought by spoiling pitches and avoiding those empty-handed walks to the dugout.
    Video: SD@CIN: Votto cranks his 30th homer of the season

    Votto's batting eye is legendary, and perhaps the best way to quantify it is to look at chase percentage. Votto swung at only 20.9 percent of the two-strike pitches he saw outside the strike-zone boundaries of Statcast™, which ranked fourth-lowest in the game. In fact, 194 hitters have seen at least 750 two-strike pitches outside the strike zone over the first three seasons of Statcast™, and no one has chased a lower percentage of them than Votto, at 26.5 percent. Cincinnati's star swung less at two-strike pitches than Rendon but still finished with three fewer called strikeouts. Votto also led the Majors with 63 walks drawn from full-count pitches and, as the ultimate testament to his ability to battle, tied for the MLB lead by reaching base 38 times after falling behind 0-2.
    So, in the battle for MLB's best two-strike hitter in 2017 there is Judge the bopper, Rendon the spoiler and the ever-patient Votto. Turning to one more metric in weighted on-base average (wOBA) -- a statistic that acts just like OBP, except it gives increasing value to extra-base hits rather than treating each time on base equally -- pulls up a top-10 list that includes all three contestants. One of them ultimately reigned supreme.
    Highest wOBA in two-strike counts (min. 200 at-bats ending in two-strike counts)

  6. Votto: .359
  7. : .355
  8. : .354
  9. Zack Cozart: .349
  10. Ramirez: .347
  11. Rendon: .346
  12. : .337
  13. : .324
    9-T. Judge: .321
    9-T. : .321
    Votto's ability to both battle and inflict damage when he put the ball in play certainly makes a strong case for the title. But Judge's all-or-nothing style falls closer in line with the offensive style that dominated the Majors last year, and Rendon may have passed on value to his star teammates like Harper, and by wearing down opposing pitchers. In the end, picking a winner from these three may come down to a matter of taste.
    One thing is for sure: It wouldn't be at all shocking to see each member of this trio master two-strike counts again in 2018.