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Letting it go on 3-0: Who takes and who rakes?

January 10, 2018

One of the main reasons we love baseball is because the game remains true, across generations and time zones, to itself and to its core. Sure, the particulars are always changing -- the players, the road uniforms, the stadium names. But the essentials of the thing, the vital organs, the

One of the main reasons we love baseball is because the game remains true, across generations and time zones, to itself and to its core. Sure, the particulars are always changing -- the players, the road uniforms, the stadium names. But the essentials of the thing, the vital organs, the bedrocks of strategy, enough of those remain the same, whether you're 5 or 50.
Get ahead in the count. Don't slide into first base. These are mantras coaches repeat from Little League to the Majors.
Using this as a backdrop, let's examine a classic: the 3-0 count, and what to do when you're in one. Conventional wisdom on the subject goes a bit like this: A 3-0 count means, more often than not, the hitter takes -- unless, of course, he's given the green light.
Even then it's a gamble, an exercise in selective aggression. And depending on the outcome, either a reckless risk or an excellent opportunity lost. On one hand, a hitter will never be in a better hitter's count than on 3-0, and he'll likely see a straight, hittable pitch in the middle of the zone as a result. On the other hand, he's that close to a free pass. At what point does the risk of swinging at a bad pitch outweigh the possibility of getting a good one?
That depends on how you execute, and who you ask.
Which teams swing the most?
The Dodgers, for instance, would probably speak highly of the strategy of selective swinging. Los Angeles hitters hacked at 17 percent of the 3-0 pitches they saw last season, the second-highest rate in baseball. And they did so to relatively great success, collecting 13 hits, four more than any other team. Dodgers' batters hit .500 when they put the ball in play on 3-0. All other times they either swung and missed or fouled off the pitch. No harm, no ... well, you get it.

But the strategy can backfire, as it did more often than not for the Royals. Kansas City hitters swung at 22 percent of 3-0 pitches last season, by far the most in baseball. They collected nine hits, but ranked just 19th in weighted on-base average (wOBA) in 3-0 counts, meaning few of those hits went for extra bases. What's more, the Royals finished 28th in on-base percentage. It stands to reason they could have reached base more often by letting some of those 3-0 pitches go by.
Which teams swing the least?
For the most dedicated 3-0 takers, look to the Braves and Rockies. While the Royals collected nine hits on 3-0 counts, Colorado hitters swung at just nine 3-0 pitches total in 2017. And they didn't manage a single hit, going 0-for-4 when they put 3-0 pitches in play.
The Rockies were the only team to come up completely empty on their 3-0 swings. The Braves finished a close second, with a Freddie Freeman single in April accounting for their lone 3-0 hit, on 14 swings.
In terms of efficiency, the Brewers (3-for-4 on 3-0 balls in play), Mets (7-for-10), Rangers (6-for-9) and Indians (6-for-9) ranked among the best at converting on 3-0.

Which players let it fly?
Of course, being aggressive on 3-0 doesn't guarantee success. Let's look at the individual players who swung most often on 3-0, and compare their results.
Most 3-0 swings

  1. Joey Votto, 18
  2. Nelson Cruz, 16
  3. Eric Hosmer, 14
  4. Corey Seager, 13
  5. Cody Bellinger, 13
    Votto went 4-for-9 when putting 3-0 pitches in play, using a double and a homer toward a .561 wOBA on such swings. That was above the league average of .503 wOBA when putting 3-0 pitches in play, enough so to probably outweigh the risks involved. (Votto also led baseball with 134 walks, and is considered the game's premier hitter in terms of plate discipline.)
    Bellinger (four hits, .725 wOBA) and Cruz (four hits, .829 wOBA) also benefited greatly from swinging 3-0. Hosmer (two hits, .257 wOBA) and his former teammate Kendrys Morales (seven swings, zero hits) did not.
    For the most efficient 3-0 swingers, look at Cruz and Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro, who put five 3-0 pitches in play and hit two three-run homers.

Which players don't?
On the flip side, there are far more hitters that simply refuse to swing on 3-0, no matter the situation.
There were 59 regulars who swung at just one 3-0 pitch last season, led by new Phillies first baseman Carlos Santana, who ranked fourth overall with 54 chances. The three hitters in front of him -- Votto, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton -- all offered at at least 11 of those. Santana spit on all but one, a 98-mph fastball from Craig Kimbrel, and fouled it off.
After 15 other 3-0 pitches, or 28 percent of the time, Santana walked.

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.