Changing Up With the Count 3-0

There are a few things that most people reading this know about 3-0 counts, or at least there some things we think we know about what happens when the count runs 3-0. We know the strike zone gets very big and we know batters take the vast, vast majority of the time. We also know only the best hitters get the green light in this count.

While bat still stay largely on shoulders with the count 3-0, more and more hitters do offer at these pitches – the 3-0 swing rate increased every year since 2009. If you’re going to get a good pitch to hit, why not swing? Since only the best hitters get to unload, the ones understood to be the best judges of the strike zone, the chances of a positive outcome increases. As a rough measure, consider the drop off in slugging from 3-0 to 3-1 is slight compared to the drop from 3-1 to a full count.

MLB splits, 2014 (via Baseball Reference)

Split PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS
3-0 Count 3234 22 .353 .942 .680 1.622
3-1 Count 7281 188 .348 .682 .609 1.291
Full Count 21479 366 .216 .449 .344 0.792

Despite being a trend on the rise, pulling the trigger with the count 3-0 still runs counter to conventional baseball thinking. It is a situational judgement call. If, for example, the batter was Jose Bautista and he’s facing Jeremy Hellickson in the fifth inning of a one-run game, swinging the bat is far from the worst option available to the Blue Jays slugger.

Bautista has swung the bat well of late, allowing Toronto to maintain a “girlfriend in Canada”-style relationship with the Wild Card race. Hellickson hasn’t been great since he returned from a long stint on the DL, especially vulnerable against right-handed batters as he’s been of late. Of all times to swing at a 3-0 pitch, this looked like a fine time for Bautista to zone up and unload on a pitch if he got one to his liking.

The Jays slugger wasn’t alone in this thinking, as Rays catcher Jose Molina and Hellickson were on the same wavelength. They decided to, um, change things up on Bautista, throwing him a 3-0 changeup.

bautista-saturday

So that’s how that pitch got the name! They baffled a very dangerous hitter, getting him a mile out front. He wanted to hit it about 450 feet into the seats but it rolled about 75 feet foul.

bautista cue shot

Though the Rays walked him on the next pitch, they dodged a bullet by avoided the worst possible outcome in this situation (a very long home run). A complete success by taking an unconventional approach. Or so I thought. Offspeed pitches in 3-0 counts are more common than I assumed. Since the dawn of the Pitchf/x era, around 2.5% of all non-intentional walk pitches thrown were classified as changeups, using data from Baseball Savant. Looking at 2014 in particular, nearly 3% of “unclassified” 3-0 pitches were changeups, more than any other non-fastball.

BS is a terrific resource but it relies on the Gameday pitch classifications, resulting in some occasionally wonky results. Looking at 3-0 changeups thrown in 2014, the standard pitch classification system spits out Justin Verlander as the pitcher to throw the most offspeed pitches in this count. A quick look at his Brooks Baseball card, where the pitch types are adjusted manually by their team, reveals they aren’t changeups but 2014 JV frowny face emoticon fastballs, the only pitch he’s thrown 3-0 this season.

The actual list of pitchers getting weird 3-0 reads about as one might expect had one invested time guessing at such things. Jered Weaver throws the most, Justin Masterson , and even Chris Sale threw a handful of changes when in the deepest of holes. In 2014, injury deprived us of the rightful name at top of this leaderboard.

Bronson Arroyo throws more 3-0 changeups than any other pitcher – more than 50% since 2012. His results with the pitch aren’t bad at all, just one single allowed against nine walks and and a pop out. For Arroyo, it plants enough doubt in the mind of hitters (combined with his heavy curveball usage in the ultimate fastball count) that he hasn’t been victimized at all in this count aside from the expected walks.

On the other side of this coin sits Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo served up an improbable four 3-0 home runs since 2010, yet he still throws throws fastballs 98% of the time. Jeremy Guthrie gets hit almost as hard in this count, surrendering three home runs. This year, he threw his first two changeups when behind 3-0, earning a called strike and a foul for his trouble.

The situation is really what dictates the decision on both sides of the exchange. Even great pitchers are unwilling to give in to great hitters from this deep hole. Sale threw five changeups 3-0 this season: one to Miguel Cabrera and two to Billy Butler, always an eager swinger with four home runs in 3-0 counts for his career. As hitters become more willing to swing in this count, pitchers and catchers add wrinkles and switch up their pitch usage.

For hitters. offering at a 3-0 pitch is not unlike swinging at the first pitch: it’s a great idea right up until the moment it fails to produce the desired outcome. Very much unlike the first pitch, there is little to lose for pitchers getting cute when behind 3-0, as the writing for this at bat is mostly on the wall.

Which brings us back to Jose Bautista.

After Jeremy Hellickson fooled him on Saturday afternoon with a 3-0 change, Bautista found himself ahead 3-0 once again on Sunday afternoon. This time it was in the 10th inning, with his Blue Jays trailing 6-5 and Brandon Gomes on the mound for Tampa Bay. With one out, Bautista again saw an opportunity to get a pitch to drive. Gomes worked carefully with three straight pitches down and away, wary of Bautista’s power. His 3-0 was over the plate enough that Bautista unleashed his violent swing…

bautista-sunday

…and popped out to foul territory. The pitch was a good one, down and away enough to induce this easy (yet tricky) out. A big win for the Rays and a lost gamble by Bautista. It’s the sort of thing that drives some fans crazy (go ahead and search “Bautista 3-0” on twitter.)

In the right hands, a 3-0 swing is a dangerous weapon. As word gets around, teams are more and more cautious and unwilling to give in. Even when an at bat looks all but over, the gears are still turning and pitchers will do whatever they can to keep the ball in the park, even if it means throwing your second-best pitch and accepting a walk as the cost of doing business.





Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF

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Catoblepas
7 years ago

“BS is a terrific resource”

That sentence, in the context of a piece focusing on changeups in 3-0 counts, made perfect sense before I realized you meant Baseball Savant.