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Fun with Statcast: 2016 3-2 count superlatives

Examining the hitters who thrive and who struggle in a full count.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Washington Nationals
Arizona Diamondbacks left fielder Brandon Drury
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Last Monday, I dove into the data to see who was most successful and who was not in 0-2 counts during the 2016 season. As just one of 12 possible counts, the series continues this week. Because we can seemingly learn more about a player’s general approach in the more extreme counts (0-2, 0-0, etc.), I’m going to tackle the most extreme count in baseball: 3-2.

I started with 0-2 because I was curious to see how hitters reacted with their backs against the wall, and because I was curious if any of the numerous possible outcomes in those situations could tell us anything about a hitter’s talent level or his approach in general.

Some of those superlatives were instructive — Danny Espinosa’s leading the league in going down swinging — while others, like Jonathan Villar’s crazy average exit velocity, said something far less significant. Regardless, I think it was a worthy exercise, and worth doing again for 3-2.

Of course, I expect little overlap between the players that showed up in those 0-2 superlatives and these ones. The 3-2 approach is much different, but players do have to retain some of the “protect the plate” mentality they utilize on 0-2; they can’t be so aggressive that they’re chasing balls out of the zone because then they’re costing themselves a walk. Likewise, they can’t be so patient as to let a borderline strike go by, because then they’re heading back to the bench with a K.

So let’s get to it. Here are your 2016 3-2 count superlatives:

Most likely to be in this situation in the first place (Min: 1500 pitches seen)

Dexter Fowler, CF, Chicago Cubs

Not much of a surprise here. Only three players in baseball saw more pitches per plate appearance than Fowler, naturally leading to a lot of deep counts. Fowler didn’t have a whole lot of BABIP luck on 3-2, hitting just .182, but just being in such a deep count in the first place is advantageous for a hitter. Fowler ended year season with a .484 OBP after 3-2, walking about ten percent more than he struck out.

Least likely to be in this situation in the first place (Min: 1500 pitches)

Adonis Garcia, 3B, Atlanta Braves

Garcia swings at about 8 percent more pitches than the average big league hitter, which is, of course, not a good approach if the goal is to work deep into counts. On top of that, he’s actually pretty good at making contact on those swings — 80.3 Contact%, slightly above the league average of 78.2 percent — so he’s unlikely to swing and miss and reach two strikes, let alone a full count.

Most likely to hit the crap out of the ball (Min: 1500 pitches)

Adam Duvall, OF, Cincinnati Reds

For a guy that hit 33 home runs and struck out in 27 percent of his plate appearances, you would think that Adam Duvall’s average exit velocity would be pretty high. In general, that’s not true however, as Duvall’s average EV of 89.1 MPH was exactly league average.

There was an exception to that rule on 3-2, however, as Duvall hit the ball harder than anyone else, at an average of 97.9 MPH on 19 balls in play, well ahead of the league average of 90.4 MPH. All of that hard contact, as you might expect, led to a lot of 3-2 productivity for Duvall. His second-in-the-league .500 BABIP carried him to a 190 wRC+ on 3-2, with eight extra base hits in 43 at-bats.

For fun, here’s the hardest-hit ball on 3-2 Duvall all year, a 110.4 MPH laser for a homer in San Francisco:

Most likely to homer (Min: 50 plate appearances with a 3-2 count)

Chris Carter, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers

Though Duvall hit the ball the hardest on 3-2, nobody put the ball in the seats more than Carter, who hit nine 3-2 pitches for homers, three more than anyone else in the league. Those nine home runs accounted for half of Carter’s 3-2 hits on the year, giving him a slash line of .180/.428/.480 on full counts.

Carter didn’t actually hit the ball that hard on 3-2 on average, with just a 92 MPH average exit velocity. But when he got a hold of one, he really got a hold of it, which has more or less been the story of his career:

Most likely to hit the ball like a 1940s shortstop (Min: 1500 pitches)

Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Baltimore Orioles

When I did the 0-2 version of this article last week, I was not surprised at all that Michael Bourn had the lowest average exit velocity in that count. Bourn hits the ball anemically in general, so why should it be different on 0-2, when he’s just trying to make contact and not worrying about driving the ball?

It’s a different feeling this time around with Schoop — who hit 25 home runs in 2016 — showing up at the bottom of the list, with an average exit velocity of just 79.1 MPH. Kenta Maeda hit the ball harder, on average, that Schoop did on 3-2 in 2016.

This is almost certainly a small sample size fluke, of course, as Schoop found himself in the third-fewest 3-2 counts of any player who saw at least 1500 pitches. Still, his 3-2 struggles weren’t just a result of not hitting the ball very hard...

Most likely to go down swinging (Min: 1500 pitches)

Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Baltimore Orioles

That’s right. So not only did Schoop make exceedingly weak contact in the few times he put the ball in play on 3-2, but he was also the player most likely to whiff in those situations. The approach was pretty simple: stay away and use Schoop’s 43 percent O-Swing% against him by getting him to chase:

Jonathan Schoop 3-2
Baseball Savant

Needless to say, that combination of poor contact and whiffs was not a recipe for success on 3-2, as Schoop had just a .138 average and .172 slugging in that count.

He was not, however, the worst hitter in the league on 3-2, though we’ll get to that dubious honor later on in the piece.

Most likely to go down looking (Min: 1500 pitches)

Robbie Grossman, OF, Minnesota Twins

I’m not going to expound on Grossman’s passivity too much here, as his 3-2 approach is so interesting to me that I’ll be doing a deep dive into it later in the week. Nevertheless, you now know that nobody was more likely to watch strike three go by on 3-2 than the Twins’ outfielder.

Most likely to earn a walk (Min: 50 PA)

Robbie Grossman, OF, Minnesota Twins

If the last paragraph’s brevity was a bit confusing, then hopefully Grossman’s appearance on the top of this category as well will clear that up. Not only was Grossman the most likely to watch strike three, he was also the most likely to draw a walk on 3-2. Basically, Grossman was going to leave the bat on his shoulder and take his chances no matter what. Isn’t that crazy? I think it’s crazy. But again, more on that later in the week.

Most likely to get a pitch in the zone (Min: 1500 pitches)

Ender Inciarte, CF, Atlanta Braves

In any three-ball count, the pitcher has a choice to make. Does he want to put the ball in the zone, where he’s likely to avoid a walk but risking the ball being hit hard, or does he want to try to get the batter to chase, thereby risking a walk but lessening the chances for hard contact?

In a 3-2, that calculus changes a little bit because not only is he one pitch away from a walk, he’s also one pitch away from a punchout. He’s probably more willing to pitch outside the zone in those situations because the risk and reward are so closely aligned.

With that said, if he’s pretty sure the batter won’t do too much damage even if he does make contact with a strike, then why not put one over the plate and take your chances?

Although Ender Inciarte is a very nice player, he fits that archetype very well. Pitchers aren’t all that afraid of giving him something to hit in a full count. In 2016, Inciarte got a pitch in the zone 61.3 percent of the time on 3-2, well above the average of about 48 percent.

Ender Inciarte 3-2 pitch heatmap
Baseball Savant

Though Inciarte has one of the highest contact rates in the league, he has very little power. If the worse realistic scenario is watching him get an infield single, then why not throw him a strike 3-2, and hope you can keep a good baserunner off the basepaths by avoiding the walk?

Most likely to get a fastball (Min: 1500 pitches)

Tie: Nori Aoki, OF, Seattle Mariners & Billy Hamilton, CF, Cincinnati Reds

The pitching approach here is pretty similar to the one we just laid out in the previous section. Fastballs are generally thrown in the zone, and on a 3-2 pitch, they’re generally thrown to hitters who aren’t likely to hit it very hard.

Though Aoki (53.2 percent) and Hamilton (50.5 percent) didn’t see nearly as many pitches in the zone as Inciarte, they are nevertheless players pitchers aren’t afraid to throw a fastball to. The two light-hitting outfielders tied for the league lead with 83.9 percent of their 3-2 pitches being fastballs.

Least likely to get a pitch in the zone (Min: 1500 pitches)

Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

We just went over the choice a pitcher makes when deciding on a 3-2 location, and how lesser hitters are more likely to get a pitch to hit because pitchers aren’t as afraid of them. That does not, however, mean that the opposite is necessarily true.

It’s certainly not true in the case of Nieuwenhuis. Pitchers don’t throw the ball outside the strike zone to him because they’re terrified of the damage he’ll do if they give him a pitch to hit. He does have a career wRC+ of 92, after all.

He’s also a guy with a 32 percent strikeout rate for his career, and someone who, despite having an above-average O-Swing%, had the sixth-lowest O-Contact% in baseball. Pitchers knew that if they did get Nieuwenhuis to expand the zone, they’d have an excellent shot at a whiff, and that’s why he saw a league-low 31.8 percent of pitches in the strike zone, nearly five percent less than the next closest player (Marcell Ozuna).

Kirk Nieuwenhuis 3-2 pitch results
Baseball Savant

As you can see in that chart, however, that approach didn’t quite pan out as planned. Nieuwenhuis did a pretty good job of laying off those pitches. In fact, if it weren’t for the aforementioned Grossman, it would have been Nieuwenhuis who would have led the league in walk rate on 3-2, with 48.5 percent.

Most likely to get an offspeed pitch (Min: 1500 pitches)

Salvador Perez, C, Kansas City Royals

This is a simple case of pitchers recognizing a batter’s aggressiveness and altering their approach accordingly. Among players who saw 1500 or more pitches, Perez was the only one who saw offspeed pitches more than half the time (54.4 percent) on 3-2:

Salvador Perez 3-2 zone
Baseball Savant

And as you can see from the chart above, they didn’t throw those offspeed pitches for strikes. And why would they, with Perez up? His plate, discipline, or lack thereof, is somewhat legendary.

If you can reliably get him to do what he does in the video below, why would you ever throw him a fastball in the strike zone on 3-2 (or any count, really)?

The worst hitter in a 3-2 count (Min: 50 PA)

Aaron Hicks, OF, New York Yankees

Hicks was a terrible hitter in general in 2016, ending the year with a 64 wRC+. But he was especially terrible in 3-2 counts, where his wRC+ of 40 was 20 points lower than the next-worse hitter (Ketel Marte).

After finding himself in a full count, Hicks went 4-for-44, with all of his hits being singles. The average hitter has a BB-to-K ratio of 1.38 on 3-2. Hicks’ was just 1.

He was just the gold standard for being awful in a full count.

The best hitter in a 3-2 count (Min: 50 PA)

Brandon Drury, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

In contrast to Hicks, Drury was excellent on 3-2, as he had a 265 wRC+ in such situations in 2016.

Part of that was giving himself more bites at the apple. Drury saw 83 3-2 pitches on the year — a below-average figure — and fouled off 34 of them, a higher percentage of anyone in baseball that saw at least 1500 pitches. Likewise, he wasn’t caught looking once, and only went down swinging three times. That meant he was either walking or riding a .469 BABIP to some phenomenal 3-2 results.

Drury’s excellence on 3-2 was fluky, of course. A 265 wRC+, no matter the situation, is unsustainable, and unlike Mike Trout, who was the best hitter after 0-2, Drury isn’t a good enough overall hitter that you’d think he’ll repeat this feat any time soon.

But as I said in the 0-2, not all of these categories are instructive. Some are just random, but they’re still fun. Brandon Drury, 3-2 Masher, was fun while it lasted.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.