Over the past few weeks, I’ve been examining the superlatives in baseball’s most extreme counts. After covering 0-2, 3-2, and 0-0, we’re going to conclude the series today by talking about the ultimate hitter’s count: 3-0.
Of the four counts I’ve examined, I have to admit that 3-0 is the one that is probably least instructive. There is a lot of discrepancy in how often players get to a 3-0 count, but there is an almost universal approach in such a situation: don’t swing. For that reason, we’re dealing with much smaller sample sizes that are therefore less likely to carry over into the future.
However, that is not to say there is nothing we can learn from digging into the 3-0 data. Even if the general approach is static on a league-wide level, how pitchers pitch to different batters on 3-0, and what players accomplish, or don’t accomplish, when they do swing, can shed some light on the quality or tendencies of the player at the plate.
With that said, let’s get to it. Here are your 2016 3-0 count superlatives:
Most likely to be in a 3-0 count (Min: 1500 pitches)
Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
No surprise here. For as much as Harper struggled relative to his 2015 performance, he remained both extremely patient in his approach, and widely feared by pitchers across baseball.
In last week’s article on first pitches, we went over how nobody saw more 0-0 pitches out of the zone. Combine that with the fact that he has excellent strike zone judgment and it’s no surprise that Harper saw a league-leading 2.7 percent of pitches in a 3-0 count.
Obviously, seeing a lot of 3-0 pitches is great for your batting line, and Harper had a 263 wRC+ after getting up 3-0.
Least likely to be in a 3-0 count (Min: 1500 pitches)
Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Baltimore Orioles
Also, not much of a surprise here. Schoop swings at over 60 percent of the pitches he sees, which is almost 14 percentage points higher than the league average. It’s hard to ever get to 3-0 counts if you’re swinging at everything. Just 8 of the 2231 pitches Schoop saw in 2016 — 0.36 percent — came on 3-0.
Most likely to swing on 3-0 (Min: 1500 pitches)
Wilson Ramos, C, Washington Nationals
Coming into 2016, Ramos had seen a small number of 3-0 pitches in his career (54) and had swung at a well-above-average percentage of them (6 swings; 11.1% Swing%). That’s a small sample size, of course, but Ramos proved that the aggressiveness he’d shown in 3-0 counts heading into the season was no fluke:
Ramos swung at 9 of the 20 3-0 pitches — 45 percent — he saw in 2016. The league as a whole swung at 9.8 percent, meaning Ramos was almost five times more willing to take a hack than the average player.
Ramos had a great season in 2016 (124 wRC+), so it’s not as if he was undeserving of the green light. He did at least swung at mostly driveable pitches, but it wasn’t 100 percent fastballs down the middle. Ramos could have earned at least a couple more walks had he just kept the bat on his shoulder:
The majority of other players that showed up near the top of this category were three true outcome guys like Mike Napoli (37.8 percent Swing%), Khris Davis (33.3 percent) and Justin Upton (30 percent), so it’s debatable whether, for all of his success, Ramos has the power to justify his willingness to take a hack.
Most likely to swing and miss on 3-0 (Min: 1500 pitches)
Khris Davis, OF, Oakland Athletics
This is a small sample size alert, as is much of this article. But speaking of Davis, nobody whiffed at a higher percentage of 3-0 pitches than Khrush, who swung through three of them in just 15 total opportunities:
As you can see, he really only no-doubt should have swung at one of those pitches. That whiff on the outside corner is particularly bad, and it actually allowed Colby Lewis to come back and strike him out in that at-bat.
Most likely to take strike one on 3-0 (Min: 1500 pitches)
Robbie Grossman, OF, Minnesota Twins
Hey look, it’s our old pal Robbie Grossman. I wrote a whole article a couple of weeks ago about Grossman’s passivity on 3-2, and considering he has even less of an incentive to swing on 3-0 than he is on 3-2, it’s no shock to see him lead the league in percentage of called strikes, at 87.5 percent.
In fact, Grossman was one of 58 players to meet our 1500 pitch minimum that never swung on 3-0, as he let all 16 of those pitches pass:
Those 3-0 strikes understandably did more harm than good for Grossman, however, as his sOPS+, which measures a player’s split relative to the league’s split in a given scenario, was just 79 after 3-0.
Most likely to take ball four (Min: 1500 total pitches, 10 3-0 pitches)
Tie: Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers/Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Castellanos is a pretty aggressive hitter overall, so it might be a bit strange to see him finish with the highest percentage (53.8 percent) of four-pitch walks. But it’s pretty clear that the Tigers just put the red light on him in 3-0 counts, because, like Grossman, he didn’t swing at a single 3-0 pitch in 13 opportunities in 2016.
Nieuwenhuis, however, is much more selective, but also a much worse hitter than Castellanos. Whether it was his choice or the Brewers’, he likewise didn’t swing at any of the 13 3-0 pitches he saw.
Again, we’re working with a small sample size here, so the explanation for Castellanos’ and Nieuwenhuis’ appearances at the top of this list is probably more due to luck than anything repeatable in their approach. Both saw fastballs for 12 or their 13 3-0 pitches, but if pitchers were trying to just get those pitches over for strikes, they did a terrible job with both hitters.
Most likely to make an out on 3-0 (Min: 1500 pitches)
Albert Pujols, DH, Los Angeles Angels
Watching someone on your team make an out on 3-0 is may be the most frustrating experience in baseball. Pujols, apparently thinking it was 2006 and that he should be swinging, made eight outs on 3-0 pitches in 2016. He only saw 29 total 3-0 pitches, which means nearly 30 percent of the time he got into that count, he was making an out on the next pitch.
No other player in baseball made more than five outs or had a higher percentage of 3-0 outs than 13 percent. Pujols was twice as likely as the next worst offender in the entire league to make an out on 3-0.
But maybe he just got a bunch of pitches down the middle and was smote by the BABIP gods. That would at least justify the swings, if not the outs, right? Well sure, it would — but that’s not what happened:
It is probably not a great idea to swing at this pitch when there are two strikes, let alone on a 3-0 count:
Most hits on 3-0
Tie: Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore Orioles/Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves
In order to lead the league in hits on 3-0, you need to not only be a good hitter overall, you need to have some pop too. It’s more difficult for a singles hitter to justify risking an out by swinging when he’s so close to earning a walk, but if you’re someone with a lot of power, it might be worth the risk.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that Davis and Freeman led the league in 3-0 hits with five, as they have some of the best power in the game and therefore have the green light more often than most.
Both players justified those 3-0 swings. Davis had a 2.293 OPS in that count, while Freeman’s was 2.806, including a pair of homers.
Most 3-0 home runs
Tie: Jefry Marte, Util., Los Angeles Angels/Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves
We just talked about Freeman above, and it’s probably not that interesting to you that he was only one of two guys with 3-0 homers in 2016. He’s really good. Instead, let’s talk about the guy he tied with at the top of the leaderboard, because you might not even know he exists.
Marte is a 25-year-old utility player for the Angels. He debuted and played in 33 games in 2015 for the Tigers, before slashing a respectable .252/.310/.481 in 284 plate appearances last year. After hitting for very little power prior to reaching AAA in 2015, Marte has a career .222 ISO in the big leagues.
He does have some power, apparently, but a non-prospect utility player isn’t the typical profile of a 3-0 slugger. And yet, here we are.
Marte only saw seven 3-0 pitches last year, and he only swung at two of them.
Obviously, you know by now what he did on those two swings:
Most likely to strike out after going up 3-0 (Min: 10 PA)
Scott Schebler, OF Cincinnati Reds
Nobody did a better job of completely blowing this enormous advantage they’d been given than Schebler, who struck out four times in the 13 plate appearances in which he had a 3-0 count. That’s a 31 percent strikeout rate after getting up 3-0. Small sample size or not, it’s really just a spectacular display of incompetence at the plate.
Combine that with the fact that Schebler never got a hit after going up 3-0, and that’s how you arrive at a wRC+ of 7, even after finding yourself in the best hitter’s count.
Schebler’s post-3-0 performance is one of the worst we’ve ever seen (though nobody is likely to ever touch Miguel Olivo’s 2006 performance), dating back to 2002, the limit of FanGraphs’ splits leaderboard.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.