Escape Artistry: Rare Strikeouts

Watch a baseball game. Pick a side. Now, wait for a pitcher on the team you’re rooting for to fall behind in the count 3-0. It feels pretty bad, doesn’t it? There is, I think, no feeling quite like the helplessness that comes when your team is behind in the count 3-0. There are worse feelings, sure, even within the confines of baseball. There’s the feeling of losing a close game, coughing up a lead, or seeing a favorite player injured. Nothing is quite the same, though, as the long dread of trying to escape from 3-0.

Why does 3-0 feel so uneasy? I think it’s because there are no good quick ways out of the jam. You feel nervous, and you’re going to feel nervous for a while. Next pitch a ball? That’s disappointing for obvious reasons, but at least the tension is over. No, the real problem is that a strike doesn’t feel much better than a ball. So what are you hoping for? You certainly don’t want a swing — swings on 3-0 are tremendous for the batter.

Do you want a take, then? The pitcher grooves a fastball, and the batter watches it fly by? Sure, that’s probably the best outcome you can hope for in the situation, but that’s small consolation. Get a strike, and it’s still 3-1; time for another 30 seconds of watching your team in a tough situation. Even then, what are you hoping for? Batters are producing a .475 wOBA after 3-1 counts this year, better offensive production than any player in baseball’s overall line.

Even if, and this is a huge if, your team gets two straight strikes — now it’s 3-2. This is after a nerve-wracking minute of real time, potentially involving some loud foul contact. You’ve worried about walks for two straight pitches, wondered if the pitcher has it today, and still — 3-2 is a hitter’s count. At the beginning of the at-bat, if I told you it was headed for a 3-2 count, you wouldn’t have been happy. That’s the best case scenario after you reach 3-0. No wonder 3-0 feels so bad.

I did leave one thing out, when I was talking about how miserable it feels to get into a 3-0 count. There’s a chance, however slight, of a splendid reversal. Put in the worst count possible by his own mistakes, our hero rallies, reeling off three straight strikes to turn the at-bat from a rout in the batter’s favor to a comprehensive victory for the good guys. That feeling, the wait-are-we-sure-this-is-happening sugar rush that comes from snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, can make the whole ordeal worth it.

The only problem is, that doesn’t happen much — only about 4% of 3-0 plate appearances have ended with three straight strikes for a strikeout. There are other strikeouts, to be sure. Still, going from 3-0 to a 3-2 battle replete with foul balls isn’t an unqualified win in my book. It’s merely swapping one form of emotional drain for another.

No, the three-pitch strikeout is the most satisfying way out of the jam. Take this Luis Cessa-Michael Brantlely face-off, for example. Cessa not only falls behind in the count 3-0, he does it against one of the hardest batters to strike out in all of baseball. Brantley is striking out less than 10% of the time this year, and for his career, he strikes out after reaching a 3-0 count only 2.3% of the time. To make matters worse, Cessa has already shown his two secondary pitches in getting to 3-0:

Okay, then — we’re going to need a miracle. No chance that Brantley is swinging here, one would assume: he’s swung at only 5% of 3-0 pitches in his career, and only 7.5% of 3-0 strikes. This one is a gimme — if Cessa’s command holds up, that is:

Alright, game on. Now we’re back in a count that forces Brantley to make something of a decision. Not a particularly fruitful decision for Cessa, mind you: Brantley has a career .326/.599/.474 slash line after 3-1 counts, and he still only strikes out 3.8% of the time. What’s the play?

Well, okay. I guess Brantley had a free swing there. That pitch had to be perfect to get him to swing, and it was. Still, one more to go. Brantley never strikes out! He only strikes out 14% of the time in full counts, and with a shortened swing, he only whiffs on 12% of two-strike swings. The man is basically a strikeout end boss; if you can strike Michael Brantley out, you can get anyone.

You already know how this ends. I’m writing an article about 3-pitch strikeouts that start in 3-0 counts. Still, that shouldn’t stop you from appreciating this pitch:

Just like that, Cessa wriggled out of a bind. What sweet catharsis! One quick question, though — why did I show you this specific at-bat? There are over 250 of these improbable strikeouts this year. Why show a low-leverage appearance by a middling reliever to make my point? Couldn’t I find something with more juice?

You couldn’t have known it, but I tricked you. Well, maybe trick isn’t the right way to say it — I withheld information from you. You see, this isn’t a duel between a middle reliever and a strikeout-avoidance god. No, it’s a duel between Michael Brantley and a pitcher who has converted 3-0 counts into three-pitch strikeouts at one of the highest rates in baseball. That’s right — Luis Cessa is arguably the king of the improbable escape.

Cessa has gone to a 3-0 count 13 times this year — not great. Three times already, however, he’s turned trash to treasure with three straight strikes. That might not sound like much, but that 23% rate is the best among pitchers who have at least 10 3-0 counts to their name this year. Is there an argument that Jose Leclerc (3-for-9) should be the true champion of this completely meaningless rate statistic? Sure! My arbitrary definition isn’t particularly great — I just wanted a way to feature Brantley. For the Leclerc fans, please enjoy a GIF of him throwing a pipe shot fastball on 3-0 that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. improbably thinks is a ball:

Okay, so Leclerc and Cessa are the ones you want on the mound if your team has to fall behind in the count 3-0. (Note: This is a terrible use of want! This “statistic” isn’t predictive at all.) Who’s their opposite? To be honest, a lot of pitchers are. The overall rate of converting 3-0 counts to quick strikeouts, after all, is around 4%. No one is particularly good at it. Still, there are some standouts.

Luis Castillo is wild. He’s tied for first in the number of 3-0 counts he’s reached this year, with 31. That’s not good, obviously — you want to avoid 3-0 counts as a general rule. Still, that’s a lot of opportunities to pull off something grand. There’s one problem — Castillo hasn’t done it yet. Oh, he’s gotten close — he’s done the 3-0 to 3-2 part 10 times already. One of those even ended in a strikeout of Kyle Schwarber after a long battle. For someone with Castillo’s prodigious talent, though, you’d expect at least one flawless victory. Alas, it’s eluded him so far.

Brad Keller is a very different type of pitcher than Luis Castillo. While Castillo is a stuff monster with a wipeout changeup and radar-wowing velocity, Keller is more of a pitch-to-contact type, running a 16.8% strikeout rate and getting by on grounders and home run suppression. For someone with that skillset, you’d hate to see a lot of 3-0 counts — and oof, he’s reached 29 already this year. It gets worse from there — none of them have ended in a 3 pitch strikeout.

At least Castillo and Keller have turned 3-0 counts into strikeouts (once each). They may not be the clean, satisfying three-pitch variety, but they’ve gotten the job done. Dakota Hudson, like Keller, is a sinkers-and-grounders type who gets into far too many 3-0 counts. Of the 26 he’s gotten into, he’s walked 15 batters while striking out none. He’s not even giving himself the chance — he’s only gotten from 3-0 to 3-2 four times.

Just as there are many ways to think of who’s worst at going 3-0 to punchout, there is a variety of ways to rank the best reversals. There’s normally a free strike available to pitchers on 3-0. How about strikeouts where that free strike is gone — where all three strikes are swinging? There have actually only been two of those this year. We’re talking about something elite, something rare.

Now, one of those two was Pablo Lopez striking out Roberto Perez. That’s a professional hitter right there, but let’s talk about Ian Kennedy and Jose Abreu. Two runners on, one run game, and Kennedy was wild like you wouldn’t believe to get to 3-0:

It’s fair to say the fastball wasn’t working. What would you do in Kennedy’s situation? Groove one down the middle? After the last three pitches, Abreu would have to be out of his mind to swing. Kennedy hadn’t been within a stone’s throw of the zone yet. Abreu’s aggressive (33% swing rate at 3-0 strikes in his career), but come on. No way he’s swinging, right?

Oh. Well then. Nothing to see here — just a standard curveball in the dirt on 3-0. By “standard,” I mean the only instance of “Swinging Strike (Blocked)” on a 3-0 count in the last two years. I don’t know who called that pitch, but I’d absolutely love to talk to Kennedy and Martin Maldonado about it.

Okay, then. 3-1. Stayin’ alive. Back to the curve? It’s not as though Kennedy’s fastball command was pristine this game. Abreu is an aggressive hitter. Why not try a curve again?

Phew! That one was a near thing. Even against an aggressive swinger, three curves in a row is too much. There’s no threat that Kennedy will ever locate one of these for a strike. I can’t say for certain, of course, but I can’t imagine Abreu swinging at a third straight hook. That reduces the options to a cutter and a fastball, and the cutter had been wild. Fastball it is, then:

Oh my. That’s a good enough pitch to get Abreu out, but it wasn’t even a strike. Six straight pitches out of the zone — one that went to the backstop, and one that was blocked. This was a huge spot in the game — the difference between loading the bases and getting an out is immense. With second and third and no one out, the White Sox were 65% to win the game. That doesn’t even take the 3-0 count into consideration — their live odds were even better than that. Instead, the strikeout dropped their odds to 55%, and the Royals managed to escape the inning with no damage, though not with Kennedy — he was pulled after this at-bat.

So there you have it. 258 3-0 reversals this year, and Ian Kennedy has my favorite. It wasn’t particularly pretty. At-bats that involve the pitcher falling behind 3-0 rarely are. Still, it was effective, and it needed to be effective, as Kennedy had no margin for error. It was a high wire act, a reminder that even in a bad spot, there’s a chance for the sublime.

My suggestion to you, as a fan, is to not end up in situations where your team faces the bad end of a 3-0 count. Given that you have no control over that, however, let me give you an alternate suggestion. Instead of feeling powerless and resigned, feel hopeful. Most of the time you’re not getting a good result out of this situation, there’s no getting around that. But who cares? Who needs a good result most of the time? One Luis Cessa magic trick, three Ian Kennedy swinging strikes — you’ve just witnessed something rare and magical.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Cave Dameron
4 years ago

What is Vlad Jr. doing in the first gif of him? That ball was right down the middle, why is he surprised it was called a strike?

4 years ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

Maybe he was just bowing to the dugout?