Once the home-plate umpire bellows those simple words, the calculus of an at-bat changes. Depending on the count, the pitcher has several options for what comes next: Waste a pitch, trying to get the hitter to go fishing? Go for the strikeout with a killer out pitch? Throw one pitch to set up another?
There are a number of variables that go into that decision, including the inning, his pitch count, what's been working well for him, what hasn't, the umpire's strike zone, how many runners are on base, the number of outs, the score, the strengths and weaknesses of the hitter and whether he's been hot or in a slump, who's on deck and -- every once in awhile -- just good, old-fashioned gut instinct.
"It just really depends on who's at the plate and what's the situation," Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello said. "If it's a guy who can hurt you, you're going to be a little more careful. If it's another guy who doesn't have the same type of home run pop, you might go right after him a little more in the strike zone. It really just depends on who's out there. Maybe not so much [if they are] righty or lefty, but what the situation is, what point in the game it is and all those factors."
Remarkably, though, the consensus of current and former pitchers, pitching coaches, catchers and managers who spoke to MLB.com was that they don't vary their approach as much as might be expected, no matter what the count is.
"Three-ball counts, full counts are not -- at least for me -- a count that you want to get to. You're trying to get guys out quickly and often," Porcello added. "It's just when it's a 3-2 count or 2-2 count ... as a pitcher, I still feel like you're in the driver's seat with that count. But it's not like 0-2, where you can almost set a guy up. For me, being a ground-ball guy, I don't really look to strike anybody out. I look to get quick outs and be efficient. Throw strikes and get our team in the dugout as quickly as possible."
Or as Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis put it: "Every pitch, I'm trying to get guys out, whether it's 0-2, 1-2, 0-0. I try to make a pitch that gets a non-aggressive swing to where he puts the ball in play. It doesn't matter what the count is."
It seems that the way pitchers approach the rest of the at-bat once he gets two strikes has evolved. And there's a good reason for that, said Ron Darling, who had a 13-year big league pitching career and is now an insightful announcer for the Mets.
"[Pitch counts] are something that you have to be aware of, because of the edicts and the way the game is today. Managers at the 100-pitch mark are going to start to look to the bullpen," he explained. "So you've got to find a way to stay in games.
"Guys like Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay and Johan Santana -- when he's at his best -- they'll have 70 pitches after six innings. I think the days of pounding 0-2 and then throwing two balls in the dirt to get to 2-2 and try to get the strikeout -- I won't say they're over, but they're not as important as they used to be, because getting a guy out on three pitches as opposed to five pitches is more important in today's game."
Darling particularly enjoys watching how the most talented pitchers handle those situations.
"If you get to two strikes, I think the elite pitchers in the game do one thing very well," he said. "And that's [command] balls out the strike zone. Halladay does it as well as anyone. His control outside the strike zone, once he gets ahead, is as good as his control in the strike zone to get ahead.
"That's where my thinking was, and I think most pitchers today are [thinking]: 'How [do I] throw the appearance of a strike that ends up being outside the strike zone; throw a quality pitch, have the guy put it in play and limit the pitch count?'"
Royals manager Ned Yost, a former big league catcher, believes there are still moments when wasting a pitch is appropriate on 0-2, however.
"It just depends. You've got to waste a pitch every now and then, preferably up and in," he explained. "Because everybody on the bench sees when you get to 0-2, they start to understand that you're trying to get them out every time [on the next pitch]. But if you whiz one up and in and back 'em off the plate 0-2, it takes away a little of their comfort zone, diving out there and looking for a good 0-2 pitch.
"Or you can expand. There's no set one way of doing it. You've got the luxury of expanding twice to get to 2-2. But you see at times they don't make the pitch and 0-2 hits occur. That's about the last thing you want."
In the end, it seems that there's no one-size-fits-all plan for pitching with two strikes on.
"There's no set rule," said Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio. "We're looking for three-, four-pitch outs. It really depends on the hitter. Is he a guy who goes into a two-strike approach? Is he a power guy? Is there an open base? There's a lot of variables that go with it."
Said Rays right-hander James Shields: "At 0-2 or 1-2, I'm not going to throw it down the middle. I'm definitely going to make a quality pitch, throw a quality strike, just not try to do too much. I don't try to strike guys out. As long as I get the guy out in three or four pitches, I'm good."
Added Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer: "For every rule, there's an exception. That's the beauty of pitching. There's no one way to do it every single time. You got to kind of have a plan [of] what you [will] do before the game and try to execute."
Which makes sense. Because when you get right down to it, the two words any pitcher most wants to hear from an umpire is, "Yer out!"
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less