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Green light: a study of 3-0 swings

How often do hitters swing on 3-0, and what results do they get?

Stephen Dunn

Nothing says hitter's count like 3-0. Most of the time, the pitcher takes a little something off the pitch, and the hitter gets a juicy fastball. The batter is truly in the driver's seat. However, in the vast majority of 3-0 counts, the hitter does not swing. It's an interesting study in game theory. If the hitter knows the pitcher is trying to throw a very hittable fastball, there's a distinct advantage, but at the same time, the risk of making an out when the hitter is so close to reaching base via the walk is quite significant.

Usually the hitter gets the take sign, or, even with a green light, the hitter decides against swinging. Using data from the Pitch f/x era, I produced the following table.

Fastball% Strike% Swing%
95.0 79.0 8.4

Tons of fastballs, tons of strikes, and not many swings. This excludes intentional walks, which hitters tend not to swing at. Except for Miguel Cabrera.

When hitters do swing in 3-0 counts, how well do they fare?

Since 2008, there are just over 3500 swings on 3-0 counts. Not surprisingly, Albert Pujols has the most, with 81. Ryan Howard is next with 51. You get the point, the guys who swing 3-0 are sluggers. It doesn't make much sense for a hitter bereft of power to hack away at 3-0, because the expected payoff isn't that great, even with solid contact. Though, Rick Ankiel has swung at a higher percentage of 3-0 pitches than Prince Fielder.

Here's a look at the swing rates and batted ball types that have resulted from 3-0 hacks.

Whiffs/Swing O-Zone Swing% FB% GB% LD% HR/FB BABIP
13% 28.0 47.0 34.0 19.0 13.5% .308

The line drive rate is a shade lower than average, and the fly ball rate is significantly higher than average (MLB average fly ball rate has ranged from 34-38 percent since 2008). Home runs, and to a lesser extent doubles and triples are more likely to occur on 3-0 swings than in other counts.

Count HR/Swing 2B or 3B/Swing
3-0 4.1% 3.8%
Other 1.5% 2.9%

This is largely a product of the types of hitters that swing in 3-0 counts. As mentioned before, it's the big boys who get the green light.

The most successful of these 3-0 swingers is Pujols, who has recorded 20 hits in these situations, on 81 swings. Obviously it's not a large sample to work with, but that's a big step above his normal rate of hits per swing, which sits at 16.5 percent.

Mike Napoli has the most home runs, with six. Oddly enough, those are the only 3-0 hits he has collected on 44 swings. Just twice in the Pitch f/x era has a hitter swung at a 3-0 pitch in the dirt. One of these wild hacks belongs to Napoli, and the other is to Josh Hamilton (shocking, I know).

The most aggressive team on 3-0 has been the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have totaled 196 swings since 2008. On the other end of the spectrum, the Oakland Athletics have swung just 49 times in these situations. The Tampa Bay Rays have usually embraced the 3-0 swing, but they cut back last year, while the Baltimore Orioles started swinging away.

The 3-0 swing is a very rare occurrence, but it's a very exciting, high-stakes play. Those who swing 3-0 generally possess plenty of power, and a discerning eye to boot. For a pitcher, the best advice is just not to go there. Easier said than done of course. Not everyone has Greg Maddux like control.

. . .

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Savant and Baseball-Reference

Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves