Three-and-Oh

In Game 1 of the Cardinals-Padres NLDS last year, Reggie Sanders hit a grand slam on a 3-0 count. I didn’t see it on TV, but heard it reported on the radio afterwards. The radio announcer said that Sanders “hit a grand slam on a 3-0 pitch!” with real surprise in his voice. That got me to wondering about how well hitters do when the count goes to 3-0. I decided to have a look at what happened on 3-0 counts that occurred in MLB during the years 2000-2005, an easy task when
armed with the wonderful data available at retrosheet.org.

Advisory: one thing I don’t intend to do here is to try to determine the optimal batting strategy to adopt on 3-0. That might be an interesting study, but my recent articles have been all heavy-duty analysis, and this week, I just want to take it easy, if you like. There are numbers here, as you will see, but they’re not so much for thinking about as for perusing and (hopefully) enjoying. Okay, here we go.

Some observations on 3-0 counts

Three-and-oh is the most favorable hitter’s count, but just how often does a hitter swing at a 3-0 pitch? The answer is, as we expect, not very often:

3-0 counts  Takes   Swings  SwingPct
46623       41934   3882    0.083

The percentage of 3-0 pitches swung at is only 8.5%. Sharp-eyed readers may note that the sum of takes and swings does not equal the total number of counts; the difference is due to hit batters and other miscellanea that I’m ignoring. By the way, I’m not looking at intentional walks.

We can look at what happens to the pitches taken and to those swung at:

Takes  Balls   CalledStrikes  | Swings   Missed/Foul   InPlay
41934  16298   25636          | 3882     1998          1884 

It’s interesting to note that a large number of four-pitch walks were issued. The 3-0 pitch is often called the “automatic strike,” and here we see that about 35% of these pitches are called balls. Overall, about 37% of pitches are balls, so the the difference is tiny. That is extremely surprising to me. The other thing to take note of is the fraction of swings that resulted in balls in play: 48.5%. That’s a bit higher than the overall average of 44.5%.

Next I want to look at what happened to the balls that were actually put in play:

InPlay  H       2B      3B      HR      RBI
1844    701     162     14      175     606

The first thing that caught my eye here is the seemingly large number of home runs, of which there are more than doubles, when the count is 3-0 and
the ball is put in play. The rate of home runs per fair batted ball is 9%, which can be compared to 4% on all counts.

The 701 hits in 1844 at-bats are good for an average of .380, not too shabby. We can’t compare that to overall batting averages though, because it’s impossible to strike out on a 3-0 count. But we can make some comparisons using balls in play (BIP), including home runs, on any count:

         3-0   |  All Counts    
       ------------------------
BABIP    .380  |     .327        
HR/BIP   .094  |     .040        
HR/H     .25   |     .12         

We can see that when the count is 3-0, a ball put into play is more than twice as likely to clear the wall than it is on average. In fact, it’s interesting to note that essentially all the difference in BABIP between the 3-0 and generic cases is due to the extra home runs on 3-0 counts. It looks like some batters are really laying into those medium fastballs right down the middle.

Who swings and who doesn’t

So, who are the players most likely to tee off an a 3-0 pitch? Well, first let’s ask the opposite question. Who never swings on
3-0? The answer is Omar Vizquel. Since 2000, Vizquel has had 187 3-0 counts, and he has never once swung at a 3-0 pitch. Fifty-seven of the 187 pitches were ball four (two pitches hit him). Here’s a list of the guys who just won’t swing on 3-0 (at least 100 opportunities):

Will Not Swing on 3-0
Name          Counts  Takes   BB   Swings 
Vizquel       187     185     57      0	  
Eckstein      156     153     47      0	  
Piazza        146     142     70      0	  
Matthews      128     124     40      0	  
Womack        120     118     35      0	  
Hinske        120     117     41      0	  
Vina          105     103     42      0   

Tony Womack always takes a 3-0 pitch; that’s good. But look: his walk rate on 3-0 pitches is the worst of this group (some things never change), and that’s bad. Most of these guys are pretty light hitters, so it makes sense for them to keep that lumber on their shoulder on 3-0. It’s a little surprising to see Mike Piazza in with these Punch-and-Judy hitters, since he’s in a different class altogether. Well, at least he was for most of the last six years.

And now the flip side: who swings often on 3-0? Who has the cojones to lay into the cookie that’s surely on the way at the risk of popping out and incurring the wrath of coaches and teammates alike? Here’s a list of the guys who hate to watch a fat one go by (with MLB averages also):

Most Likely to Swing on 3-0
Name        Counts  Takes   Swings  SwPct   InPlay  H       HR      RBI     AVG     SLG  
Sosa        190     93      93      0.489   40      22      8       15      0.550   1.325
McGriff     116     64      50      0.431   29      12      2       9       0.414   0.655
Batista     117     73      44      0.376   24      10      3       10      0.417   0.958
Guerrero    156     97      49      0.314   24      8       1       3       0.333   0.583
Mondesi     106     72      33      0.311   15      5       1       3       0.333   0.600
Ortiz       158     109     45      0.285   18      8       3       6       0.444   1.111
Burnitz     206     145     54      0.262   23      8       3       5       0.348   0.826
Kent        163     120     42      0.258   23      9       1       5       0.391   0.739
Thome       230     160     58      0.252   18      6       3       7       0.333   0.889
Hernandez,J 122     90      30      0.246   13      10      4       7       0.769   1.923
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
MLB avg.                                                                    0.380   0.768

There is an interesting mix here of free swingers (Batista, Mondesi,
Guerrero), disciplined hitters (Ortiz, Thome) and some others who are middle-of-the-road with regards to walk rate. Sammy Sosa, who might be classified as a free-swinger at heart who learned to take a walk, simply loves to swing on 3-0. He is the only player to swing as often as take. He makes contact 47% of the time, right around the league average value of 48.5%.

And look what he’s done on the 40 occasions when he’s put the ball in play: 22 hits, eight home runs and 15 RBIs. That’s eight home runs on 93 swings of the bat. Compare his AVG/SLG numbers to MLB average and you see he’s been quite successful.

Jose Hernandez and David Ortiz also seem to know when to pick their spots. On the other hand, Vlad might do better to take a few more 3-0 offerings.

You can’t talk about taking pitches without discussing Barry Bonds, so here’s what he’s done, along with a few other notable 3-0 performances:

Name        Counts  Takes   Swings  SwPct   InPlay  H       HR      RBI     AVG     SLG
Bonds       308     248     36      0.117   18      7       5       10      0.389   1.222
Chipper     268     203     58      0.216   33      16      4       14      0.485   0.909
Delgado     256     186     56      0.219   28      11      6       17      0.393   1.143
Finley      179     154     22      0.123   9       7       4       9       0.778   2.333
Alfonzo     168     162     3       0.018   2       2       1       2       1.000   3.000

Despite missing most of 2005, Bonds had more 3-0 counts than any other player over the last six seasons. His in-play rate and batting average are about average for 3-0 counts, but fully five of his seven hits have gone where nobody could catch ‘em. Steve Finley only put nine 3-0 pitches in play, but seven of them went for hits, four of which were home runs. As my daughter might say, “Wowie, kazowie!” Edgardo Alfonzo only swung three times at a 3-0 pitch, but he got two hits, a home run and a double from those three swings.

Picture of a 3-0 Swing

image
The photo on the right shows what can happen when the batter decides to pull the trigger on 3-0:

In light of recent literary scandals, I think it’s better that I admit that this photo does not depict a true 3-0 count. In fact, many of you will recognize the hitter as Mark Bellhorn and know that not only is he reluctant to swing on 3-0 (zero swings on 93 three-and-oh counts since 2000), Bellhorn doesn’t even like to swing on 1-2, or any other count for that matter. No, the photo shows Bellhorn hitting a home run in Game 1 of the 2004 World Series, with the count one ball and two strikes. The pitch, thrown by Julian Tavarez, certainly looks like a 3-0 offering though, doesn’t it?

“You Could Look it Up”

Speaking of literature, I suppose the most famous 3-0 count in the history of baseball fiction comes from the short story “You Could Look it Up” by American humorist
James Thurber. The story, which takes place in the deadball era, tells of Manager
Squawks Magrew, who, while essentially losing his marbles under the stress of a pennant race, engages one Pearl du Monville as a pinch-hitter for the team. Among du Monville’s many colorful attributes, the most striking was his height, or lack thereof: he was a midget, standing about 35 inches tall.

Du Monville mostly served as an amusing mascot to Magrew, but in a crucial game, with the good guys down by one in the bottom of the ninth and the bases jammed, Magrew calls on the midget to pinch-hit. Magrew makes very clear to Pearl what his job is:

“Just stand up there and hold that bat on your shoulder. They ain’t a man in the world that can throw three strikes in there ‘fore he throws four balls!”

The count goes to, you guessed it—three-and-oh — and we’ll let Thurber describe the next pitch:

They ain’t nobody seen a slower ball throwed. It come in big as a balloon and slower’n any ball throwed before in the major leagues. It come right in over the plate in front of Pearl’s chest, lookin’ prob’ly big as a full moon to Pearl. They ain’t never been a minute like the minute that followed since the United States was founded by the Pilgrim grandfathers.

Pearl du Monville took a cut at that ball, and he hit it! Magrew give a groan like a poleaxed steer as the ball rolls out in front of the plate into fair territory.

If you want to know the rest of the story (and you do, trust me), head down to your local library or Borders or wherever. It’ll be worth your time.

This story will seem familiar to even casual students of the history of the game. That’s because in 1951, about 10 years after the story was published, Bill Veeck, owner of the St. Louis Browns, pulled the very same stunt (in real life, though), when he sent short person Eddie Gaedel to pinch hit in a game against the Detroit Tigers. Gaedel was 3’7″ tall and wore number “1/8″ on his jersey. Crouching over like a tiny Rickey Henderson, Gaedel’s strike zone was said to be all of 1 1/2 inches high. Unlike his literary forebear, Eddie did not lift the bat from his shoulder and walked, according to plan, on four pitches. Veeck later acknowledged that the Thurber story gave him the idea for the Gaedel stunt.

The Unwritten Code

One thing a batter has to consider when he’s trying to decide whether to swing at a 3-0 pitch or not is The Unwritten Code. The Code, which is passed from generation to generation in the finest oral tradition, lays out the rules for correct comportment concerning bunting to break up a no-hitter, stealing third base with a big lead and other such arcana that occasionally take place on a ball field.

According to The Code, swinging at a 3-0 pitch with a big lead is a definite no-no. How big a lead? Consulting a part of the The Code, which is written down here, it appears that a lead of five or more runs is enough to require all bats on shoulders for 3-0.

So, do players adhere to The Code? Well the average swing percentage when the batting team has a big lead is 5%. That is significantly less than the overall value of 8.5% we saw earlier, so somebody is following The Code. We can have a look at individual behavior on 3-0 counts with a big lead. Here are some
players who refused to swing on 3-0 when their team leads by five or more runs:

3-0 Count Performance: Team Leading by Five Runs or More
            Counts  Takes   BB   Swings 
Giambi      35      35      17      0	     
Drew        22      22      11      0	     
Damon       22      22      8       0	     
Ramirez,M   21      21      9       0	     
Abreu       20      20      6       0	     
Tejada      19      18      4       0	     
Martinez,E  19      18      12      0      
Cameron     19      19      8       0
Hatteberg   17      16      7       0
Erstad      17      17      8       0

Many of these guys don’t swing much at 3-0 in general, but Manny, for one, is an exception. Overall, he swings at 13% of 3-0 pitches, but he’s clearly on his best behavior here when The Code is in
effect. (To my statistically savvy readers: please don’t write regarding statistical significance. I’m just trying to have some fun here.) Others in this list who seem to be taking the The Code to heart: Edgar Martinez, Miguel Tejada and Mike Cameron.

Some players and (perhaps more importantly) managers don’t give a rat’s posterior about The Code however, and this usually will result in some less-than-flattering comments made afterward by the losing side. I can remember a “3-0 swing” incident involving the Mets a few years back, when Bobby Valentine was still manager. Apparently Tsuyoshi Shinjo was given a 3-0 green light with the Mets way ahead. (They won the game 11-3). The Marlins, the Mets’ hapless opponents in that contest, were fit to be tied, although they relieved some of their anger by drilling Shinjo with a pitch the next evening. Good times.

Here are a few players who have violated The Code more than once:

3-0 Count Performance - Team Leading by 5 Runs or More
Name        Counts  Takes Swings  SwPct   InPlay  H       HR      RBI     AVG     SLG
Jones,J     7       4     3       0.429   3       2       0       4       0.667   1.000
Huff        8       5     3       0.375   2       1       0       0       0.500   0.500
Guerrero    8       4     3       0.375   3       1       0       1       0.333   0.667
Higginson   9       6     3       0.333   2       1       0       0       0.500   0.500
Sosa        10      7     3       0.300   3       2       0       2       0.667   1.333
Shinjo      3       1     2       0.667   0       0       0       0         -       -
Monroe,C    3       1     2       0.667   1       1       0       0       1.000   1.000
Young,K     4       2     2       0.500   0       0       0       0         -       -
Williams,M  5       3     2       0.400   1       1       0       0       1.000   2.000
Stinnett    5       3     2       0.400   2       2       1       3       1.000   3.000

Some guys from our initial list are back (Hi, Sammy!) along with a few new names. There’s Shinjo! He didn’t even make contact on the swing that so upset the Fish. I guess it’s the principle of the matter. Oh, it looks like Kelly Stinnett hit a home run on a 3-0 count when his team was stomping the other guys. I’m sure Stinnett heard some interesting remarks as he rounded the bases, but I can’t speculate on what they might have been, since this is a family-oriented website. I guess it’s safe to say nobody was inviting him out to pound some Budweiser after the game. It would be interesting to track hit-by-pitches that occur after these 3-0 insults.

The End

Whew, that’s enough on 3-0 counts, I should say. Tune in next time for 2,000 words on …

two-and-one!

(Just kidding.)

References & Resources
The usual tip of the cap goes out to the folks at Retrosheet.

You can read up on some excellent work on pitch-count dynamics by Tom Tippett here.

Even more good stuff can be found here at THT, a study Craig Burley did on the importance of throwing a strike on the first pitch: Part 1 and Part 2.

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