Working the count

Hitters will tell you that it helps when the count is in their favor. And nothing favors the hitter like a 3-0 count. The average batter sees roughly 31 3-0 counts in a season, which works out to around five percent of all plate appearances.

And once they get to that point, batters own a huge advantage. This year in the American League, hitters have posted a .748 OBP after pushing the count to 3-0. Their National League counterparts are even more successful with a .761 OBP. Plate discipline, combined with a little patience early in an at-bat, pays.

Here’s a look at four players (two from each league) who are among the best at jumping way ahead in the count, and what happens once they get there.

Ben Zobrist

The Zorilla is the only player not named Albert Pujols who is working pitchers for a 3-0 count at least 10 percent of the time. In 324 plate appearances this year, Zobrist has seen a 3-0 count 31 times.

Here’s the great thing about Zobrist in a 3-0 count: In those 31 appearances, Zobrist hasn’t swung the bat once. Not once.

Of those 31 3-0 counts, Zobrist has seen ball four 16 times (four of those have been intentional.) If he doesn’t walk on the fourth pitch, the odds he sees a pitch outside the zone are still in his favor. Overall, he’s walked 24 times after pushing the count to 3-0. Of the six times he’s put the ball in play, he’s collected three hits (he’s struck out once after moving ahead 3-0). Overall, Zobrist has a line of .429/.871/.857 after a 3-0 count. And since he’s seeing more 3-0 counts than any player in the AL, it’s not difficult to figure out how he’s been so successful this year.

After being a fringe player his first three seasons for the Rays, Zobrist has become one of the best hitters on the club.

Here’s a look at how Zobrist has evolved by looking at his pitches per plate appearance over the years:
2006 – 3.68
2007 – 3.65
2008 – 3.77
2009 – 4.12

Zobrist is swinging at just 36 percent of all pitches, which makes him one of the more selective hitters in the game. Only five hitters swing at a fewer percentage. One of them is featured next…

Bobby Abreu & David Wright

While you can bet the farm that Zobrist will keep the bat on his shoulders with a 3-0 count, likewise you can bank on Abreu and Wright to do the same. Both players have been at the plate with a 3-0 count 32 times and both have kept their bat on their shoulder for the fourth pitch of their at-bat every single time.

Abreu, like Zobrist, is stingy with his swings. This year, he’s offering at just 34 percent of all pitches, which is the second lowest rate in the game. (Luis Castillo leads baseball at 31 percent.)

And when the count tilts in his favor at 3-0, you have a better chance at winning the lottery than seeing Abreu swing the bat. Abreu hasn’t offered at a 3-0 pitch since 2007. Going back to 2003, Abreu has faced a 3-0 count 372 times and has swung at the next pitch exactly twice. Twice! It’s no wonder that over that time, Abreu has posted a .401 OBP, which is the sixth best rate in baseball.

This season, Abreu is hitting .167/.844/.333 following a 3-0 count.

What’s interesting is despite being at different places in their careers, Wright and Abreu are having remarkably similar seasons.

              PA        BA       OBP       SLG       OPS+      SO%       BB%       XBH%
  Abreu      383       .305      .397      .442      119      15.7%     13.6%      7.6%
  Wright     406       .316      .404      .447      127      22.9%     12.6%      8.1%

While Wright is nine years younger than Abreu, the Mets third baseman is following Abreu’s lead at laying off the 3-0 pitch. Over the last two seasons, Wright has offered at a 3-0 pitch once in 72 plate appearances—and he fouled it off.

Where Abreu and Wright are having similar seasons, they diverge after pushing the count to 3-0. Abreu has walked in 26 of his 32 plate appearances while Wright has walked just 21 times. His .719 OBP is certainly sharp, but it’s nowhere near the heights reached by the other hitters featured in this article.

What’s interesting is that Wright, after jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the count, has struck out four times. It seems that if he doesn’t take pitch number four for a ball (and draws a walk) he expands his strike zone and allows the pitcher to level the playing field. He’s hitting .182/.719/.182 after working the count to 3-0. It’s not surprising that his overall strikeout rate far outpaces Abreu’s. While the Angels outfielder is stingy with his swings, Wright is offering at 42 percent of all pitches. Still below average, but well off Abreu’s rate.

Albert Pujols

It’s not surprising the best (and most feared) hitter in baseball has seen more 3-0 counts than anyone in the game. Pitchers have gone to 3-0 against Pujols 69 times this year, which works out to about 17 percent of all his plate appearances. Obviously, a number of those counts are the result of pitchers who are avoiding confrontation and intentionally walking the Cardinals slugger. He’s been given a free pass on purpose 33 times, so if we remove those, Pujols has faced 36 “live” 3-0 counts.

Of those appearances, he’s swung at a 3-0 pitch 14 times, making contact (and resolving the at-bat) in seven instances. There are a ton of adjectives you can apply to Pujols. I’m not sure “patient” is one of them. For the season, he’s seeing 3.74 pitches per plate appearance, which ranks him 64th among qualifying hitters in the NL. Yes, he leads the league in walks (77), but if you remove the intentional walks, he’s down to 40.

That’s not a knock on Pujols. The man is clearly the best hitter in baseball. If it appears he’s not patient, that because he’s too busy knocking the cover off the ball instead of working the count. And that ain’t a problem.

Overall, if you give Pujols a 3-0 advantage, he’s going to hurt you. Following a 3-0 count, he’s hitting .286/.855/.929.

Yet another reason he’s the best hitter in baseball.

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  1. Bob Rittner said...

    Zobrist has always been a selective hitter in his career through the minors. With the exception of 14 PAs at Vero Beach last year, he never had a season with an OBP under .400 and averaged a walk in almost 16% of his PAs. Overall, his OBP was .429.

    In his initial brief appearances in the majors, he was clearly overmatched, but since the middle of last year, he resumed his patient approach and has prospered.

  2. Nutlaw said...

    Yeah, Peter, I don’t think that many teams are pitching around Zobrist. This is a good article with very reasonable conclusions.

  3. Peter Jensen said...

    Overall, Zobrist has a line of .429/.871/.857 after a 3-0 count. And since he’s seeing more 3-0 counts than any player in the AL, it’s not difficult to figure out how he’s been so successful this year.

    And you don’t think it could possibly be the other way around? That Zobrist is seeing more 3-0 counts BECAUSE he has been so successful this year?  This is an extremely silly article.

  4. Kampfer said...

    I don’t think the AL has reacted so quick to the boomed Zobrist. I think it is fine to say that driving to count to 3-0 has helped Zobrist greatly this season.

  5. dave said...

    Why is he implying that Pujols is not patient? Because he has swung on 3-0 a fair percentage of the time? If I’m the manager, and Pujols gets a “get-me-over” fat fastball on 3-0, I want him to swing sometimes. I want the pitchers to know that he might swing. Guys who ‘never’ swing on 3-0, like Abreu, aren’t using game theory. They’re just giving the pitcher a free strike.

    BTW, after taking out the IBBs, Pujols is hitting .286/.730/.929 after 3-0 counts this saeson.

  6. philosofool said...

    Bearing in mind that an intentional walk is recorded exactly when the fourth ball is intentional, I’m not sure that it’s quite right to say that Pujols has been issued 33 free passes. What we know is that the pitcher gave up and issued the final ball for free. But we don’t know how many times the pitcher three three unintentional balls and then threw a fourth intentional one, at least not from the data I have handy.

  7. Peter Jensen said...

    philosofool – I only looked at April and May.  12 of the 17 IBBs were normal ones with 4 intentional balls.  3 were three balls and an intentional ball, and 1 was 2 balls and 2 intentional ball, and 1 one ball and 3 intentional balls.  Plus 13 walks that were 4 straight balls and were most likely pitch around walks as well.

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