About one of every six pitches is hit out of play—inert, a do-over, a mentally discarded blip as the ball shanked foul is discarded into the stands. No other sport includes this regular pileup of outcomes empty of conclusive results.
Another unique element: when a foul ball reaches the seats, the game breaks the fourth wall. Only in baseball does the action penetrate the crowd so routinely. And it is no easy action: catching a foul pop-up barehanded stings, and a screaming line drive into the seats can kill you. Most people at Durham Bulls Athletic Park don’t pay much attention to the game, at their own risk.
I recently started taking more notice of foul balls, tracking them on my score sheet along with all the other subparticulars I habitually tally: balls and strikes; first-pitch strikes; total pitches thrown per inning and per pitcher, broken down by balls and strikes; total swings; and swings-and-misses. There are plenty of reasons for this extensive annotation, but mainly it keeps me tuned into the action, pitch by pitch.
I added the foul-ball count after talking to Durham Bulls pitcher Jake Odorizzi following a game he started on May 10. Odorizzi lasted only five and a third innings, a relatively short start, because he threw a hefty 101 pitches—near the maximum a Triple-A starter is generally allowed, in order to protect his arm. Asked to identify what inflated his pitch count, Odorizzi pointed to the large number of foul balls the opponents hit. I hadn’t noticed an unusual amount, so later I counted them in the official game log: there were twenty-two, four more than average.
That’s not a huge difference, but pitchers can be extremely sensitive to small but important discrepancies (Odorizzi also mentioned that the mound was a little slipperier than usual that day). A closer look shows why he thought he’d allowed so many fouls. The second batter of the game fouled off five straight pitches on a 2-0 count; overall, the opposing team hit seven fouls in the twenty-one-pitch first inning. Odorizzi also allowed a single, but he picked the runner off first base. No runs scored, and from a distance the inning looks easy, but the three outs were hard-won, and the fouls had much to do with it.
Foul balls require more than just extra pitches; they also make pitchers expend more mental energy. When a hitter fouls off a pitch, he disrupts the rhythm of the pitcher, who has to watch and wait out the flight of the ball into the blurry periphery, and then wait again for the umpire to give him a new one—which he has to inspect, rub up, and so on. Pitchers can be finicky about the ball itself and will sometimes reject the one they’re given.
Although it’s often said that hitting is timing, and pitching is disrupting timing, pitching is timing, too. (In fact, baseball is all timing, in the way that real estate is all location: if you don’t have it, the other assets are worthless.) Pitchers, especially minor-leaguers, are, in my experience, working more quickly than they used to. They establish a brisk, repetitive rhythm that keeps them from thinking too much: throw a pitch, get the ball back from the catcher, and immediately look in for the next sign—no wandering around the mound or skygazing. Odorizzi is an exemplar of this almost aggressive efficiency. His pace puts pressure on the hitter, who sees a pitch—the ninety-mile-an-hour emergency that starts virtually every play in baseball—and then must immediately ready himself for another one.
There is a reason that two-thirds of at-bats result in outs. The pitcher has the upper hand: he’s the guy with the ball, he decides what kind of pitch to throw and where he wants to throw it, and the hitter has to react, on the defensive by design. The foul ball is also an unfairness, except it favors the hitter. It’s baseball’s hidden, harmless but powerful equalizer, offsetting some of the hitter’s inherent disadvantage by allowing him unlimited failure without penalty. You hear hitters talk about “spoiling” pitches when referring to foul balls—like ruining an ending, rendering a story worthless. By rule, a hitter can stand in the batter’s box all day spoiling pitches. Meanwhile, he gets to see the pitcher’s arsenal more completely: he ferrets out the changeup, the slider; this is his discovery period. The average plate appearance lasts a little less than four pitches. If a hitter sees more pitches, he earns more chances to get on base.
Tracked over the course of game, foul balls reveal still more. In a recent start against the Norfolk Tides, the Bulls’ Alex Colome threw a hundred pitches over six innings, resulting in fourteen fouls. That isn’t many, and five of them came in the first inning, when Norfolk’s hitters were repeatedly late on Colome’s very hard fastball (regularly ninety-five miles per hour, sometimes faster), fouling it up in the air and off to the opposite field when they weren’t missing it completely—all three outs were strikeouts. The Tides hit three more fouls in the second inning, but in the four innings after that they hit only six. They caught up to Colome’s velocity—timed him—and started to put his pitches into play; Colome’s strikeout and foul-ball rate decreased, and he allowed two home runs and a hard-hit double in the latter half of his start. The real-time foul count served as secondary but crucial evidence of his decline.
From a wider perspective, fouls can help explain a pitcher’s overall work. Steve Geltz relieved Colome and threw a nine-pitch seventh inning. There were three foul balls—a high proportion, but not for him. Among Bulls pitchers, Geltz’s foul-ball rate is the highest, 23 percent. In the roughly average four-pitch at-bat, one of his pitches will be hit foul. Geltz relies on a fastball that seems to rise as it approaches the plate, partially because he’s short and doesn’t generate much downward plane. The high fastball is one of the easiest pitches for hitters to read: it stays at eye level longer and it’s very inviting to swing at. But located correctly, up at the top of the strike zone or just above it, it’s very hard to hit solidly. (“Chocolate mousse,” a Durham Bulls hitter once called them, because “it looks so good but it’s so bad for you.”) The result is a high rate of balls fouled up in the air, straight back or into the bleachers. Although Geltz doesn’t throw anywhere near as hard as Colome does, he gets even more strikeouts, not by pitch velocity or movement but by forcing hitters to foul off those tempting, almost taunting, high fastballs until finally they just miss one—which they are likely to do eventually if Geltz hits his target. (He’s kind of like the guy sitting in the dunking machine at the fair, daring you to sink him from sixty feet away.) Foul balls are probably not a deliberate part of Geltz’s strategy, but they are nonetheless essential to his success.
Baseball has no clock—you hear people say that a lot. Charlotte Knights manager and former big-league catcher Joel Skinner recently objected to that somewhat lazy idea: “Baseball does have a clock,” he said. “It’s just that it’s measured in outs, not minutes. You have twenty-seven of them.” The essential battle between hitter and pitcher is for possession of an out. Foul balls prolong the length of the battle often without advancing its outcome in either direction.
They’re probably the part of the game that most truly resembles real life, too: energy regularly expended with no productive result; a sixth of our time shucked off and lost to the margins. The details expand in quantity without changing in quality. We feel we’re wasting opportunities, or that our best efforts are foiled. We use up our time before finishing tasks. We can’t lay off the chocolate mousse. Oh, well. All you can do is take a breath and get ready for another pitch.
Thanks to Daren Willman for research assistance.
Adam Sobsey has been covering the Durham Bulls since 2009. He is a columnist for Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to its recently published guide, Baseball Prospectus 2013. Follow him on Twitter.