On Thursday, Zach Crizer of Baseball Prospectus wrote an interesting column on trends with the green light when the count hits 3-0. It's behind the paywall, but one of the takeaways is that MLB players swung more often with a 3-0 count (9.4 percent; 14 percent on pitches in the strike zone) in 2017, but not by a large, noticeable margin when compared to recent history. And not by a large margin when considering the current batted ball environment which would suggest that swinging at 3-0 pitches might be a good idea since now more than ever, balls in play are often leaving the yard.
Context plays a big role when the count is 3-0. If the bases are loaded and a team needs just one run, it probably makes sense to leave that bat on the shoulder. If the bases are loaded and a team is several runs in the hole with very few outs remaining, then maybe it's time to swing. Especially if it's Joey Votto standing in the batter's box instead of say Billy Hamilton.
All of that aside, and obligatory reminder that this is a Cardinals blog, I wanted to take a look at what happened when the Cardinals swung at 3-0 pitches in 2017, how they compared to their peers, and maybe leave some room for discussion on whether the Cardinals should have the green light more often in 2018. (Quick caveat: The number of times the Cardinals swung at 3-0 pitches - let alone when balls were actually put in play in those instances - is such a small sample that there's nothing really to learn from them. Consider it more for the "FYI" category.)
First, courtesy of Baseball Savant, here's how often NL teams saw a 3-0 count in 2017, as well as the amount of times the respective player swung at the next offering.
The Dodgers, and Crizer noted this in his column, swung at 17 percent of pitches with a 3-0 count. As you can surmise from above, that was the highest in the NL in 2017. On the other end of the spectrum were the Rockies, who swung just over three percent of the time, which could leave room for some interesting debate given that they play in such a run-inflated environment 81 times a year.
What's not as easy to see, and this can be blamed on the not-so-great graphic, and because they simply blended in with most of the other teams, is that the Cardinals swung at 24 pitches in the 3-0 situation, or 7.8 percent of the time, which was tenth lowest in the NL, and below the NL average of 8.7 percent. Of those 24 swings, only nine resulted in a ball in play. Here they are, and the result of each:
The standard Statcast numbers and the ultimate result both paint a picture that is not great. That's seven outs that could have possibly been traded for an easy trip to first. But again, these results don't really matter given we're only talking about seven outs. I can't recall the setting of these particular at-bats, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Cardinals would have finished with the same underwhelming 83-79 record had all seven of these outs resulted in a walk instead. So let's move on.
If you subscribe to Baseball Prospectus, I really recommend Crizer's column and it paints an interesting case for swinging away perhaps more often at 3-0. That said, success lies not in whether one does swing at a 3-0 pitch, but in actually getting to a 3-0 count in the first place. I'll show you what I mean. From FanGraphs' Splits Leaderboards, here's how each NL team fared in 2017 when reaching a 3-0 count as measured by wRC+.
When players get to a 3-0 count, no surprise here, good things happen. Just take a look at those numbers. And that's because these situations result in a walk over 60 percent of the time (at least in 2017 they did; the Cardinals came in at 64.5 percent), and because 3-0 counts often turn into 3-1 counts, which are still to a hitter's advantage. And, per above, no one did better when reaching 3-0 in 2017 than the Cardinals.
So should the Cardinals swing away more in these situations? I...I don't know. I think it's really context-driven given who's up and whether getting on base outweighs the potential to hit for extra bases. This is a fun trend to keep an eye on in 2018 though and the main lesson herein from a batter's perspective is the obvious one: 3-0 counts are good.
(Further, related reading: You might not remember this, but Matt Carpenter waited until the very last game of 2016 to swing at a 3-0 pitch for the first time in his career (he had 158 prior chances) and he hit a home run. It ended up not mattering - the Cardinals didn't get the help they needed and missed out on the postseason by one game - but it easily could have mattered and August Fagerstrom, who was working for FanGraphs at the time, wrote a wonderful column on it.)
Huge thanks to BotB's own Joe Schwarz for research assistance. If you ever need help navigating through Baseball Savant, Joe is your guy.