Generally speaking, about 33 to 35 percent of MLB plate appearances end when the batter is ahead in the count, meaning there have been more balls thrown than strikes. Those plate appearances tend to produce home runs at a rate about 30 percent greater than those that end when strikes ≥ balls; ultimately, going back to the ’80s, over 41 percent of all homers stem from a pitch in which the batter had the leg up.
Except … sometimes being ahead in the count doesn’t provide that usual boost to home run likelihood. Sometimes, it’s not even close. There is mostly complete pitch-by-pitch data at Baseball-Reference going back to 1988. And in that very first year, look at what Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame center fielder Kirby Puckett did:
Twenty-four homers and not a one came when he was ahead in the count. No other 20-homer player had fewer than five that were hit when ahead in the count. Also, on a percentage basis, just one (Glenn Davis) was south of 20:
That seems weird enough on its own; I mean, not only is there a substantial gap separating Puckett from the rest of the pack, but also even in a vacuum it’s bizarre for something with an ostensible probability north of 40 percent occurring zero out of 24 times. No one’s gonna watch Steph Curry make zero out of 24 threes without thinking the Space Jam 2 Monstars came and stripped away all his talent.
And yet, this was not even a one-off occurrence. Far from it. Look what happened five years later:
22 homers, with just two coming when the count featured more balls than strikes. With the exception of Dante Bichette (four), every other 20-homer big leaguer again had at least five occur when they were ahead in the count. Puckett’s rate is under 10 percent, with Bichette his lone peer under 20 percent:
Widening the lens beyond the seasons in which they occurred really underscores how rare it is for guys with decent pop to inexplicably see that well run dry in the most favorable of conditions:
Now, that chart is relatively flawed in that there are an awful lot of perfectly overlapping dots. However, the dot just above green ’88 Kirby — just like the Kirby dots themselves — is indeed representing just one player (2005 Jose Guillen). Therefore, as you can see, he’s responsible for two of the three fewest ahead-in-the-count home run totals of anyone to hit more than 20 total homers in a season since 1988. They also represent two of the three seasons in which that percentage resided south of 10:
While we know ’88 Kirby is the lone instance since 1988 of a 20-homer player getting goose-egged when ahead in the count, that doesn’t reveal how low that home run threshold would have to drop before others start to emerge. Well, 2002 Karim Garcia is the runner-up with just 16, and only a handful of others even had 10:
That 1993 season in which just two of his 22 homers came while ahead in the count lends itself to the production of this chart:
Puckett had two such seasons with more than 20 homers when that ’05 Guillen season is the only other one featuring more than 17 dingers.
This bizarro trend extended even beyond those two seasons of Puckett’s career. While his first few years in the big leagues predated the 1988 inflection point regarding pitch count data, here are each of his final eight seasons:
Despite the average MLB rate being above 40 percent, Puckett was never even close — under 35 percent in all eight seasons.
I have never seen someone have the count in their favor be so detrimental to their prospects of hitting a home run. From 1988 on, Puckett homered on one out of 31.6 plate appearances that ended with at least as many strikes as balls. But if there were more balls than strikes (and remember, on average big leaguers are about 30 percent more likely to homer in that situation)? That dropped to once every 49.2 plate appearances.
Puckett is also very well-known for having hit one of the biggest home runs in MLB history. With his Twins facing elimination in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Puckett hit a dramatic walk-off homer to keep their season alive, enabling them to win it all the next day. But perhaps the most mystifying part of it? It was on a 2-1 pitch.