The Diamondbacks and 3-0 counts.

Justin Upton's game-winner last night (as shown on the right) came on a 3-0 pitch, a count where most batters are generally "taking all the way." There was some discussion, both in the booth and the GDT, about the wisdom and purpose of giving a hitter the green light in such a situation. I thought it was worth digging a bit further into this topic, and seeing what the numbers say with regard to batters swinging away on such a count. Is it better to take a pitch, and maybe the free pass to first that comes with it? Or does knowing that a fastball is almost certainly coming, give the hitter enough of an edge to justify

The logic behind taking a pitch is simple. You've got a pitcher who is apparently having some difficulty finding the strike-zone. If you keep the bat on your shoulder, the worst thing that can happen is that there's a strike, and the count goes to 3-1, which is still hitter-friendly. If he misses again, you get to trot down to first-base. But if you swing, then the whole range of outcomes becomes possible, from a home-run to a double-play, and a good deal more often than not, that involves making an out.

The counter-argument is that in a 3-0 count, you can be virtually certain you're going to get a fastball, the easiest pitch to throw for a strike. Once a hitter knows that, it's a lot easier to put a good swing on the ball. In 2010, across all the majors, there were 231 at-bats that ended on a 3-0 count i.e. the ball was put in play, so we're excluding walks, etc. Hitters batted .411 (95-for-231), and slugged .870 - the benefit of knowing what's coming is clear. As a comparison, if you look at at-bats which ended on a 3-1 count, they hit .348 and slugged .611 - still good, but short of the feast obtained on 3-0.

Part of that might be selection bias, in that only the 'best' hitters get turned loose on 3-0 - the ones you'd expect to hit well, and show good plate-discipline. Because the key is perhaps to realize that the "green light" is not an instruction to swing at any old slop. The approach should be to look for your pitch in your location, focusing "dead red" - if you don't get exactly what you want, then let it pass. Of course, the game situation can make a difference too: even the best of hitters will likely be taking a pitch, if the bases are loaded. [Just don't tell Damian Miller, who homered for us on a 3-0 count, with the bases loaded, against the Padres' Brian Tollberg in 2002!]

The 'unwritten rules' of baseball also come into play here, with the one stating that you don't swing at a 3-0 pitch when you are way ahead, any more than you are supposed to steal a base. The Orioles' Jake Fox ran afoul of this one during spring-training, taking a cutr when Baltimore was 13-3 ahead. That incurred the ire of both managers:

[Orioles manager Buck ] Showalter angrily yanked off his hat, and was seen yelling in the home dugout to anyone in particular. His hat off the whole time, he kept shaking his head and muttering throughout the rest of Fox's at-bat, which resulted in a walk. [Tigers manager Jim] Leyland, meanwhile, yelled at Fox from the top step of the dugout. When Fox was removed for a pinch runner, Showalter made sure that he was one of the first people to meet him in the dugout and he gave him an earful. The Orioles manager was still fuming about it after the game as it apparently wasn't the first time this spring where Fox ignored a clear take situation.

In case you're wondering, six appears to be the cut-off point. No major-league has got a hit on a 3-0 pitch when up by more than that, since Juan Gonzalez of Detroit in August 2000, when the Tigers were 10-3 in front.

There's no easily available stats to show what hitters have the green light, for the Diamondbacks or in general. All we can find are the players who have had at-bats end on a 3-0 count - going to 3-1 does not necessarily indicate the player was taking, as they could swing and foul off a pitch with the same result.  But we can get some kind of idea from the number. Since the beginning of 2010, here are the only current Diamondbacks who have had at-bats end on a 3-0 count for the team, and what the results have been:

  • Justin Upton: 5 (two hits, two HR)
  • Miguel Montero: 5 (two hits, one HR)
  • Chris Young: 3 (two hits, one HR)
  • Stephen Drew: 3 (two hits)

The success the Diamondbacks have had with it this season, getting three hits in four at-bats, with two home-runs, has likely drawn an increased level of attention, even though it's not something particularly new. In 2010, Arizona had a total of 20 at-bats end 3-0, by far the most in the National League - the Nationals were next, all the way down at 12 - which indicates their hitters were already getting the freedom to swing more often.

But giving the green light to swing 3-0 seems very much a managerial choice. Upton's blast was far from the first homer on 3-0 by a Diamondback: in fact, it was the 24th in franchise history. But there is a near five-year chasm in there. After his first year, for the remainder of his term, Bob Melvin did not see a single 3-0 homer. Nor did A.J. Hinch, in any of his 212 games in charge. But in his 111 games, Kirk Gibson has already had four.  The same goes for hits: through the end of 2005, Arizona had 61 hits on 3-0, about eight per year. From 2006 through the departure of Hinch - almost 4 1/2 seasons - they had just 13, less than three per year. Gibson's pace is back up to nine.

One curious thing is that pitchers don't seem able (or, perhaps, willing) to take advantage of hitters' propensity to watch a pitch pass on 3-0. Last year. 37% of all pitches thrown were balls. But of the 9,244 plate appearances that passed through 3-0, 3,924 ended there, with ball four. Of course, that includes intentional walks - there were 1,152 of those - but even taking those off from both sides, shows 34% of pitches in 3-0 counts still being unintentional balls. That's hardly any less than the overall number.

That number matches a study on 3-0 counts done over at The Hardball Times by John Walsh in 2006. He analyzed data running from 2000-05, and found that 35% of pitches were balls. The overall breakdown of 'consequences' of the pitches was as follows, and is likely close to the numbers posted today.
Taken: 89.9%
-- Taken balls 35.0%
-- Talen strikes 54.9%
Swings: 8.3%
-- Missed/foul: 4.3%
-- In play: 4.0%
Other: 1.8%
e.g hit batters, etc

There's an element of game theory here, offense and defense adjusting their strategies in reaction to each other. If a hitter never swings at 3-0, then a pitcher can never bother doing anything except throwing a strike. At the other extreme, if they always swing, a pitcher can always throw something out of the zone and unhittable. Neither of those are optimal strategies for the batter. It's a bit like bunting for a hit - as we also saw Upton do last night. You want to do it often enough that the defense has to bear it in mind and play in, thereby making it easier to hit the ball past them. Finding the sweet spot of "often enough" is the key to success.

But if you swing on 3-0, you'd better do some damage. For making an out is guaranteed to produce much sad shaking of the heads by fans and pundits, and under the breath mutterings of, "Why did he swing at that?" Sometimes, a player just can't win...

[All stats through April 4]

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