I listened to Sunday's Twins game on the radio because I was doing some cleaning. I tucked my phone into my apron and listened away. The Twins were off to a great start, leading 5-2 in the top of the 3rd inning. They had the bases loaded with Aaron Hicks coming to the plate. Justin Masterson wasn't pitching well and he was wild in this particular at-bat. Hicks "worked" the count to 3-0. The radio crew started talking about how you have to take on 3-0 and that's exactly what Hicks did.
I flipped my lid.
I hate the automatic 3-0 take. It's one of those silly traditions that baseball loves and really only makes sense if you play a passive, scared version of baseball. At least, that's how I feel. I played ball. I played in high school. My plate discipline was awful. I never worked a 3-0 count. If I had, I'd have swung out of my shoes when given that 3-0 pitch. Are you really going to get a better pitch in that AB? Are you going to get a better pitch in that game? Why not be aggressive and jump on a fat meatball?
I'm not saying swing no matter what, although, that was kind of my approach when I played. However, if that fat meatball is heading right down the middle, why not take a hack? To finish the Hicks at-bat, he swung aggressively at a 3-1 pitch that was down and in (possibly ball four) and then looked at a nasty pitch that cut the bottom of the strike zone. At-bat over, Hicks strikeout, 2 outs, Florimon up, 3 outs inevitable.
I was livid. My lid had already been flipped, but if it hadn't, I would have flipped it right then. I could have flipped it again, but that's really painful. Mostly, I hate absolutes. You absolutely take on 3-0. You absolutely help an elderly woman cross the street. What if she just knocked off a liquor store? Now you're aiding an abetting a fugitive. You could go to prison.
Ok, this particular 3-0 take didn't matter in the grand scheme. The Twins won 10-7. The right baseball play is to take on 3-0 because you might draw a walk. Blah, blah, blah. I think the situation called for a swing. The bases were loaded. Hicks hasn't proved to be a great hitter. There's no reason for Masterson to not throw a strike in that situation. Odds are, if Hicks swings, he'd pop out or something and then Ron Gardenhire would eat his face in the dugout. That's exactly why a swing makes so much sense in that case. No one would have expected it.
Of course, I went back later that night and looked at the 3-0 pitch. Here's a gif:
Ok, that's a pretty tough pitch. It was just an 85 mph fastball, but the location was good, considering it sunk into the upper corner of the strike zone. In my most aggressive dreams, I would probably lay off that pitch too. At best, Hicks can take it the other way and maybe drive a double into the gap. At worst, he tries to pull it and pops out or worse, rolls over and grounds into a double play. That's not his pitch. Fine. Don't swing at that one.
What if it had been a fat meatball though? Should he just stand there like a goon and watch it go by? What do the stats say about these counts?
First, a little calibration. Since 1988 (the first year this split data is available), the league has hit .263/.331/.413 in any count. That's basically what the average batter has done in the past 26 years. When someone came up to the plate over the last 26 years, there was a 26.3% chance we'd see a hit and a 33.1% chance that we'd see that batter on-base after the at-bat. Over that same span, the Twins hit .270/.334/.407. Keep those figures under your hat for now.
Since 1988, when batters work a 3-0 count, they hit .371/.951/.729. The Twins have hit .369/.932/.695. Basically, when you get to the point of a 3-0 count, you're going to get on-base over 95% of the time, mostly through walks. Ok, that doesn't really support my side of this argument. Of course, these stats only account for the at-bats that end on the 4th pitch, that very 3-0 pitch that we all just can't wait to take. This is evidenced by the fact that batters hit .295/.761/.505 after seeing a 3-0 count, still outstanding, but not quite as lofty as the numbers when the batter has that exact 3-0 count.
So, a 3-0 count is as good as a walk, in most cases. So, why swing? It makes sense to take. At the same time, if a more hitting-challenged hitter like Aaron Hicks gets to a 3-0 count, maybe he should swing the bat. It's possible that he's going to get the best pitch of the at-bat right there. Here's a picture of the at-bat from Sunday, with the pitches tracked:
Like I said earlier, the 3-0 pitch (4) wasn't right down the middle, but it was easily the most hittable pitch he got in that at-bat. Pitch 6 was in the strike zone, but it completely fooled Hicks, resulting in a strikeout. Pitch 5 was actually closer than the radio broadcast indicated, so I like Hicks' aggressiveness on that pitch.
Back to pitch 4, if that pitch had been the 0-0 pitch and he just watched it float by, he'd be open for criticism. In a 3-0 count? He's lauded. I don't get it. If Hicks decides to watch a 3-0 pitch go by on his own, that works for me. It's his at-bat. If he was instructed to watch that pitch go by or he did so out of some tradition within baseball? That doesn't make sense to me.
Nobody embodies the 3-0 philosophy of patience more than Joey Joe Joe Mauer. Mauer has worked the count to 3-0 456 times in his career. The at-bat has actually ended on the fourth pitch just 239 times. Of those 239, Mauer has walked 231 times and was hit by pitch twice. He has swung just six times with the count 3-0, totaling a single, a double, and an RBI on a sacrifice fly. That's good for a .400/.983/.600 line.
Where's the power, Joseph?
Oh, it's in the 3-1 count. He hits .458/.731/.754 in a 3-1 count. Well then. I guess if a guy is just going to watch a 3-0 meatball head down the middle, it's okay if he can hit like that when the 3-1 pitch arrives. In fact, lots of great Twins hitters are great in a 3-1 count: Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau, Denard Span, Jason Kubel, Matt Lawton, Shane Mack, and even...Aaron Hicks. In 19 plate appearances with a 3-1 count, Hicks has hit .500/.789/.625, just obliterating my argument from earlier.
Let's go back to the overall MLB numbers since 1988. With a 3-1 count, the batting numbers dip to .348/.685/.610, a huge drop in OBP (obviously) but just a subtle drop in batting average and slugging percentage. Therefore, it is quite evident that a 3-1 count still provides a massive advantage to the hitter. Perhaps taking that extra strike isn't such a bad thing.
On a 3-2 count, the numbers shift more into the favor of the pitchers - .227/.465/.371. The OBP is still quite high, but batting average and slugging percentage dip well below the overall average from the last 26 years. The overall OPS is still better than a pitch in the average count. Basically, batters have their greatest advantage at 3-0, but if they take, they better not miss the 3-1 pitch because the pitchers regain most of the advantage when they bring the count full.
For the record, here are the stats for the Twins and MLB during that time:
- 3-0 count - Twins - .369/.932/.695; MLB - . 371/.951/.729
- 3-1 count - Twins - .343/.669/.559: MLB - .348/.685/.610
- 3-2 count - Twins - .231/.465./.357; MLB - .227/.465/.371
- Overall - Twins - .270/.334/.407; MLB - .263/.331/.413
I guess in the end, the 3-0 take wasn't the problem. It was the fact that Hicks missed the 3-1 pitch or perhaps wasn't patient enough to take the 3-1 pitch (debatable, it looked like a strike to me). Should we ban the 3-0 take? It doesn't look like that would be wise. The fact is that over 95% of the time, a 3-0 take results in a walk. The other 5% of the at-bats move to a similarly advantageous hitters' count at 3-1. If you trust your batter, that 3-1 count can be just as fruitful as a wild hack at 3-0.
My emotions are back in check. Thank you once again to numbers for putting me in line.