First unnecessary reminder: big-league baseball players are extraordinarily talented, each and every one of them. Second unnecessary reminder: big-league baseball players are also imperfect, prone to frequent mistakes. For evidence of the former, consider most of the action in every game, where pitchers are throwing balls that move at 95 miles per hour and hitters are sometimes hitting them fair and far. For evidence of the latter, consider missed spots or off-balance swings. Consider errors on what would ordinarily be routine plays. Baseball games are littered with material for the positive and cynical alike.
A fun thing to examine is pitcher strike rates in 3-and-0 counts against pitchers, or in 3-and-0 counts with the bases loaded. You’d expect much higher strike rates than you actually observe. In this way, we see that pitchers are flawed when it comes to their ability to throw to a rectangle. Sticking with 3-and-0 counts, we can find something of a hitter equivalent. In those counts, pitchers usually want to throw strikes. In those counts, hitters usually want to swing only at hittable strikes. So we can find hitter mistakes by exploring swings in 3-and-0 counts at pitches out of the zone. You can think of them as momentary breakdowns in discipline.
For the 2013 season, here are the locations of pitches swung at in 3-and-0 counts, from the catcher’s perspective:
Meanwhile, here are the locations of pitches swung at in 3-and-2 counts, from the catcher’s perspective:
Clearly, at 3-and-0, it’s a tighter zone. In full counts, batters need to protect against a strikeout. At 3-and-0, batters, in theory, should only swing if they see a pitch they believe they can punish. Let a strike go by, and you still have two more strikes. More chances to either walk or get something more hittable. It makes fine sense to swing at 3-and-0, but only if you’re confident you can hit the ball hard somewhere.
If the count’s 3-and-0, and a hitter is given the green light, he’ll be sitting dead red. He’ll be looking for his favorite pitch — presumably, a fastball — in his favorite spot. That spot won’t always be right over the middle of the plate, but it won’t be far. So when we look at 3-and-0 swings, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a good decision and a mistake, most of the time. Swing at a ball and that’s a mistake. That’s the hitter inarguably doing something wrong. It can be fun and occasionally illuminating to watch players do things wrong.
So now you’re going to see five bad swings in 3-and-0 counts, from the 2013 season. These are the five 3-and-0 pitches furthest from the center of the strike zone that were swung at. In all cases, you’re looking at a probable fourth ball. So, these are sacrificed four-pitch walks. Note that it tends to be more helpful to whiff or foul a ball off than to put a ball in play, with these swings. Balls in play are unlikely to generate positive results. Strikes keep the at-bat alive, in the hitters’ favor. Two of the swings below put the ball in play and the balls in play didn’t work out.
These are not bad hitters. These are hitters making momentary bad mistakes. Their job is hard and now let’s read and watch and feel superior to them for a short while.
I haven’t played a baseball video game for a while, but it seems customary for the games to give you options when you’re at the plate. You can elect to take a weaker swing, improving contact rate, or you can elect to take a power swing, with greater odds of whiffing. Though it varies by game, in general power swings are best left to either the elite players, or hitters in favorable counts. If you have a good sense you’re going to get something down the middle, it follows that you should try to hit the crap out of it. Montero found himself in a favorable count, and he had a good sense he was going to get something down the middle. As evidenced by what his head does during the swing, he decided he’d try to hit the crap out of it. There was just one problem.
Two pitches later, Montero struck out.
The first pitch was an obvious ball. Gomez took the second pitch, a sinker just a bit too low. Gomez took the third pitch, a sinker just a bit too low. The fourth pitch was another sinker just a bit too low, but this time Gomez decided to attack. Making matters worse, there were two outs and the bases were loaded. In the most favorable of all situations, Gomez swung at the pitch that Boggs wanted to throw. Gomez was fortunate to foul the ball off, because in that way he didn’t end the inning with a soft grounder. The Cardinals’ announcers responded after this swing that Gomez deserved to make an out. The Brewers’ announcers simply expressed surprise. A few pitches later, Gomez walked anyway. Then Trevor Rosenthal made all the fun end.
The second pitch of this at-bat was a sinker in a very similar place. However, it was a little more elevated, and Ethier took it, and the umpire call it a ball. That allowed Ethier to reach a 2-and-0 count, which allowed him to later reach a 3-and-0 count. In a more favorable count, Ethier swung at a less hittable pitch, and though we’re talking about a matter of inches and though we’re talking about sinkers thrown in the mid-90s, it’s still a perplexing inconsistency. Ethier hit this fair and bounced into an inning-ending double play, erasing Yasiel Puig, who had just walked on five pitches right before. That’s exactly what he deserved. Ethier, I mean. Puig probably deserved better so you can go ahead and pour one out for him.
- Batter: Nate Schierholtz
- Pitcher: Mike Leake
- Date: September 11
- Location: 19.6 inches from center of zone
Nate Schierholtz didn’t swing at a 3-and-0 pitch in 2007. He didn’t swing at a 3-and-0 pitch in 2008. He didn’t swing at a 3-and-0 pitch in 2009. He didn’t swing at a 3-and-0 pitch in 2010. He didn’t swing at a 3-and-0 pitch in 2011. He didn’t swing at a 3-and-0 pitch in 2012. He swung at three 3-and-0 pitches in 2013. This was one of them. It probably hurt and on the next pitch he grounded out harmlessly on another inside cutter that was probably a ball. Thankfully for Schierholtz the Cubs were terrible and Anthony Rizzo had just gone after three straight similar pitches. It’s okay to be bad so long as you blend in.
- Batter: A.J. Pierzynski
- Pitcher: Liam Hendriks
- Date: August 30
- Location: 20.7 inches from center of zone
Unfortunately the godawful camera angle disguises how bad a pitch this was to swing at. A bad stadium camera angle seems like a silly reason to choose to root against a team, but here I am anyway, annoyed by the Rangers, and when you get right down to it all the reasons to root against a team are silly. All of this is silly so why bother establishing different levels of silliness? The deserved outcome is that Pierzynski put the ball in play and made an out. The softening outcome is that, in so doing, Pierzynski drove a runner home, and therefore Pierzynski returned to the dugout to applause. He did his job, after all, even though he could’ve done his job better, and even though he did his job by way of a lousy process. This was Pierzynski’s one 3-and-0 swing of the entire season, which caught me by surprise. And unfortunately he can’t compare to last year’s at-bat by Yoenis Cespedes, also against the Twins. If there’s one thing you take away from this post, it’s a chance to re-visit last year’s miserable at-bat by Yoenis Cespedes. That’s the stuff of unpopular legends.
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