In baseball, a hitter is often told to work the count. That of course means to make the pitcher work hard to get you out, rather than swinging at the first pitch and hitting it weakly right at someone. When a batter works a long count, though, that may very well result in what is called a “full count.”
So, what is a full count in baseball?
A full count is when the count on the batter goes to three balls and two strikes (usually denoted as a “3-2” count). Full counts represent the most balls and strikes possible before the batter is either retired, gets a hit, or reaches base via a walk.
The exact origin of the term is unknown, but one belief is that it may derive from old scoreboards, which often used lights (three for balls, two for strikes) to show the count. Therefore, a full count was when all five lights were lit up at once.
However, there is more to full counts than that, so let’s dive in.
How Common Are Full Counts in Baseball?
Because of the nature of full counts, to achieve one, you need a pitcher who is working off the plate somewhat and a batter who is patient and disciplined to allow the count to run deep without the at-bat ending at an earlier count.
That said, full counts are rather common.
In the 2019 MLB season, 26,676 plate appearances ran to a full count (just under 11 per game), the third-most common count at a plate appearance’s conclusion that season, behind 1-2 and 2-2. This represents 14.3% of the 186,517 total plate appearances that season.
With baseball strategy placing more emphasis on working the count in modern times, the number of full counts has increased drastically in recent years.
In 2010, full counts were still the third-most common end count of a plate appearance, but there were only 23,553 full counts (9.7 per game) despite there being less than a thousand fewer plate appearances league-wide for the entire season.
Going further, in 2010, 12.7% of all plate appearances ended with a full count, compared to 12.6% of those in 2000.
Going back further, in 1991, there were just 8.6 full counts per game and only 11.6% of plate appearances reached a full count; only the fourth-most common ending count of a plate appearance.
Looking at data of the most common ending counts can perhaps illustrate in one manner how offensive strategy—at least when it comes to pitch selection—has changed.
On the other hand, in 1991 and 2000, it was most common for a plate appearance to be decided on the first pitch. In 2010 and 2020, a first-pitch outcome was the fourth-most common occurrence.
The decline of plate appearances ending on one pitch and the rise of full counts certainly is not coincidental and does not appear to be slowing down, meaning that we may see even more full counts in the future.
Do Full Counts Favor Batters or Pitchers?
When the count runs to 3-2, the plate appearance comes down to one pitch, the so-called “payoff pitch,” meaning that the “payoff” or result of the encounter will be decided in the favor of the pitcher or batter on the next pitch, no matter what (unless the pitch is fouled off, of course).
So when that payoff pitch comes, who holds the upper hand?
In 2019, Major League Baseball as a whole hit just .202 in full-count situations, but posted a robust .453 on-base percentage. Of the 26,676 full counts that year, 31.2% of them resulted in a walk, 27.7% wound up with a strikeout, and 13.8% finished with a hit, with the rest being in-play outs.
Eliminating the walk numbers, batters struggle to hit in full counts, though not quite as much as other two-strike (0-2, 1-2, 2-2) counts, in which they hit .149, .161, and .180, respectively. Likewise, they didn’t walk nearly as often (percentage-wise) as batters in 3-0 and 3-1 counts.
Given the fact that the on-base percentage of .453 in 3-2 counts is the closest to 50-50 of any count, perhaps it underscores how both sides have no margin for error.
Why Do Baserunners Run on Full Counts?
If you’ve watched much baseball, you’ve probably seen a situation where a hitter has a full count and the baserunners will take off when the pitch is thrown. Like any other time when you start a runner, there’s a reason for it, but in this situation, it’s more cut and dry.
Most managers will start runners with a full count and less than two outs because there’s a high chance of a walk and it reduces the chance of a double play if the ball is put in play. With two outs, any runner in a force situation will run on a full count because they cannot be caught stealing.
To further elaborate, with two outs, if a runner is in a force situation (i.e. he is on first, second or third base, but each base behind him is occupied) then there are very little repercussions for starting the runner early because with two outs, if the batter swings and misses, the inning is already over and a walk or hit would move him to the next base anyway.
The upside to this is mainly in the case of a hit. Starting the runners on a full count will better ensure a runner gaining an extra base on a hit. For example, that could mean a slower runner scoring from first on a double when otherwise he might not have.
With less than two outs, managers will sometimes start runners in force situations, mainly to avoid a double play.
However, there are considerable risks in sending runners in these situations. First of all, if a batter hits a ball that is caught, the chances of a runner being doubled off are much greater, since they’re further away from their previous base.
At least three unassisted triple plays are the direct result of starting two runners on a 3-2 count with no outs.
Additionally, another common result is the “strike-‘em-out, throw-‘em-out” double play. In this case, the batter strikes out and a runner is thrown out attempting to steal the next base. In 2019, 123 runners were caught stealing on 3-2 counts, the second-most of any count that season.
With less than two outs, the speed of the runner and the ability of the hitter at the plate to make contact will usually influence whether the manager elects to send the runner(s), while with two outs, both of these factors are irrelevant.
Regardless, with the count full, there is always drama and tension involved in the quest to see who can win the battle when the margin for error is the slimmest.
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