Hitters with a knack for flicking tough strikes out of play have always enjoyed their own celebrity in the game. Such as Eddie (The Brat) Stanky, the 5-foot-8 post-World War II infielder of whom nice-guy-hating manager Leo Durocher once said, "He can't hit, he can't run, he can't field; all the little son of a gun can do is beat you."
And take his time doing it. Just like Hall of Famer Luke Appling, the 5-foot-10 White Sox shortstop for 21 years who, in a snapshot moment typical of his tenacity, fought through a 15-pitch at-bat during Bob Feller's Opening Day no-hitter in 1940.
So these guys have always been bat wizards. But in the modern game, they've become weapons, wrecking balls to any manager's best-laid plans. In this era of pitch-count awareness, when few starters are allowed on the other side of the 100-pitch wall, the consequences of one batter taking an early 10-12 pitch bite out of that can be monumental.
"If a guy stands up there and fouls off pitches, it's something that can make a pitcher work harder, and maybe you can get him out of the game two, three outs earlier," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "And maybe that gives you a better opportunity to do some things you wanted."
"Cranking out tough at-bats and prolonging them," said Tony La Russa, the Cardinals manager, "is one of the things you look for."
One thing Scioscia and La Russa have in common is David Eckstein. The former Angels and current Cards shortstop excels at not ending any at-bat before its time.
"I think that's really important," Eckstein said. "When you're trying to extend an at-bat, one, you're trying to help the guys behind you see pitches and, two, you're trying to help your pitcher get some rest. You try to make the pitcher throw as many pitches as you can."
At 5-foot-6, Eckstein is cut perfectly from the Eddie Stanky cloth. A mere coincidence, when it comes to the knack of wasting his
pitches while awaiting your
Size or hitting style appear to have little to do with this speciality. Bobby Abreu, the powerful Philadelphia outfielder, saw many more pitches last season than anyone else in the Majors, his total of 3,163 running 280 ahead of the runner-up. And the Yankees' Jason Giambi was among the 2005 leaders in pitches per at-bat (4.2).
This isn't a fleeting trait. It's part of a hitter's DNA. Giambi again leads Major League hitters by seeing an average of 4.6 pitches every at-bat, while Abreu (4.5) is tied with Boston's Kevin Youkilis at runner-up.
Such numbers may not seem overwhelming, but consider that Major Leaguers average just about four pitches per at-bat across the board. The occasional spike in that rate is what makes the moment so unforgettable, and it can happen to anyone, inexplicably.
You've doubtless seen at least one classic duel between irresistible pitches and immovable hitter. The count reaches two strikes, and the batter refuses to be counted out. He starts wasting strikes and can't stop ... and eventually the scoreboard begins tracking the pitches, with the entire house screaming the countup.
Usually, such standoffs become consequential, not just memorable. We saw it just last Saturday, in Shea Stadium, where Yankees rookie Melky Cabrera punked veteran Mets closer Billy Wagner.
Wagner is accustomed to blowing through ninth innings, closing out lights; only the night before, he had struck out the side on 12 pitches. This time, Cabrera stayed rooted in the batter's box, fouling off pitches until he'd worked an 11-pitch walk -- the centerpiece of a Wagner meltdown, as he went on to blow a four-run lead.
On such occasions, baseball is reprising its role as a metaphor for life.
Alex Cora served as such inspiration on May 12, 2004, when he fouled off 14 consecutive Matt Clement pitches before punctuating an 18-pitch at-bat with a two-run homer.
The next day, Cora appeared on NBC's network news, and Tom Brokaw described the incident to the nation as "a moment that transcended sports."
Cora's recollection of the battle captured the essence of all such standoffs: "It was tough; he was throwing good pitches. When they put it on the scoreboard, that put me under a little bit of pressure. I had to stand back and regroup."
At 18 pitches, Cora fouled his way into rare territory. While there is no gospel when it comes to this stat, according to various Internet sources Cora's at-bat was the third longest of the last quarter-century. Only longer: Ricky Gutierrez's (Astros) 20-pitch affair with Bartolo Colon (Indians) on June 26, 1998, and Kevin Bass' (Astros) 19-pitch epic with Steve Bedrosian (Phillies) on July 23, 1988.
But forget those oddities. Far more common, and as disruptive, are those 10-12 pitch at-bats that alter a game's course.
"Any hitter who works the count is a pain," says Bud Black, the respected Angels pitching coach following a career as a successful American League left-hander. "Being able to foul off pitches makes him even more of a pain.
"As a pitcher, you're trying everything ... in and out, up and down ... and he keeps fighting balls off. You feel as though you're making good pitches, and he keeps fighting them off. You start thinking, 'What do I have to do to get this guy out?'"
Black sighs. "It's not a good feeling."
Because even if the pitcher wins the battle, he is closer to losing the war. Or, at the very least, his place on the mound. Both Clement and Colon (Bedrosian was a reliever) were removed immediately following the aforementioned marathons.
Clement, who had thrown 86 pitches before Cora stepped in, was taken over that 100-pitch wall to 104, a spectacular example of emptying a guy's tank.
Among today's players, the consensus identifies the best at that as Texas' Michael Young, Oakland's Mark Kotsay, Bill Mueller of the Dodgers, Ichiro and, of course, Eckstein.
As far as the St. Louis dynamo is concerned, his at-bat doesn't even begin until he's got two strikes; that just gets his attention.
"When I get to two strikes, it actually means freedom to me," Eckstein says. "Because you don't have to think, or try to do, too much. So it doesn't affect me."
It's an attitude shared by Young, called by teammate Hank Blalock "the best two-strike hitter in the league. A lot of guys tighten, try to make contact and not strike out. He stays aggressive."
Merely not striking out -- something he did only 44 times in 713 plate appearancs last season -- or exhausting the pitcher aren't Eckstein's sole objectives either in settling into foul-ball mode. "He can do it, and still do something with the at-bat," La Russa says. "He's not just giving it up. He can keep fighting off pitches, then still get a base hit."
Along with the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, Scioscia's Angels have gained a reputation for patience to run up pitch counts; it's part of their explicit offensive strategy.
But when he's on the receiving end, Scioscia, oddly, resists pitch counts being the chief influence on his moves.
"That's really only one tool by which to gauge how hard a pitcher is working," Scioscia says. "You're really going to rely on your eye.
"Any number of reasons enter into the decision. It's not the end-all, where you say, 'Hey, he's got 95 pitches, he's had enough.' Every pitcher has a different workload. It's like, you can't say a horse can run only one distance."
No, but have a pitch-eater take a furlong away from him early, and his track does shrink.