Twitter user and probably good person Cory Little brought something to my attention the other day. The San Francisco Giants were playing a game in Colorado, and, following a somewhat ordinary looking sequence of events, from the top of the fifth inning:
- Brandon Hicks flies out
- Brandon Crawford singles
- Tyler Colvin doubles
- Madison Bumgarner strikes out
- Gregor Blanco triples
- Hunter Pence singles
- Pablo Sandoval strikes out
Three-run inning for San Francisco. Three two-out runs. The Giants took the lead, though they’d ultimately lose on a walk-off. What’s interesting isn’t the sequence, as it’s presented. What’s interesting is the sub-sequence. Let’s zoom in on the Bumgarner strikeout. The six pitches:
- Swinging strike
It’s not surprising Madison Bumgarner struck out. It’s surprising how he struck out. He got ahead 3-and-0, and then he swung and swung and swung. In other words, nevermind the last two swings. Bumgarner swung 3-and-0, and he swung because he was given the green light to swing. Bumgarner is a pitcher.
And he’s a pitcher with a career .185 wOBA. It’s actually .323 this year, but this year isn’t a year yet — and last year it was .142. Bumgarner is a poor hitting pitcher — like just about all pitchers — but he’d earned manager Bruce Bochy‘s confidence. Because of that, Bumgarner was given an opportunity to drive a runner home if he saw a pitch he liked.
So what do we make of pitchers with 3-and-0 green lights? We can’t say how often a green light has been given, but we can say how often pitchers have swung. Bumgarner is the first pitcher with a 3-and-0 swing in 2014. There was none in 2013. There was none in 2012. There was none in 2011. There was none in 2010. Here’s everything I could find from the PITCHf/x era:
- June 5, 2009: Mike Hampton swings vs. Jeff Karstens
- May 23, 2008: Jeff Francis bunts vs. Aaron Heilman
- April 19, 2008: Wandy Rodriguez swings vs. Aaron Cook
That’s everything, and one of the swings is a bunt. Said Hampton, who had some pop:
In addition to his single in the third, Hampton also had a sacrifice fly in the sixth, getting the green light to swing on a 3-0 count. He is hitting .500 (8-for-16) in his last eight games.
“I looked down and I saw they wanted me to swing, and I was like, ‘Alright,'” Hampton said. “I was looking for a ball in, and he was out over the plate a little bit. I would rather have got a hit, but at least I got the run in.”
Since 2008, there have been four pitcher swings in 732 3-and-0 counts. That’s a rate of 0.5%. Over the same time, there have been 3,649 swings overall in more than 50,000 3-and-0 counts — excluding intentional walks — for a rate of 7.3%. Pitchers haven’t been given the green light, because pitchers suck, and if a pitcher has an opportunity to maybe draw a walk, managers generally prefer those odds.
So what can be said about this case? Bumgarner swinging was almost certainly a bad idea. Of course a pitcher needs to swing every so often, in theory, just to keep the opposing pitcher honest. But at 3-and-0, the opposing pitcher needs to throw three consecutive strikes. Pitchers aren’t so good at that. The idea was Bumgarner would be able to take a hack at a centered fastball. Conventional wisdom is that’s what 3-and-0 pitches look like. But while 92% of 3-and-0 pitches to pitchers have been fastballs, only about half have been in the strike zone. And only a fraction of those have been centered. Trust was put in Bumgarner’s discipline so he wouldn’t make an out on a pitch that wasn’t dead red, or that was dead red. More specifically, an unhelpful out, since a grounder or a medium fly could’ve scored the runner from third.
As it happened, Bumgarner did get a fastball, almost right down the middle:
And, from earlier this season, against the same team:
So it’s not like Bumgarner is completely helpless. For his career he hasn’t been a hacker, especially against heaters. Bumgarner very well could’ve put something in play, but again, where the at-bat might’ve begun with Bumgarner looking for a productive out. When the count goes to 3-and-0 your priority shifts to drawing a walk because the next guy is an actual hitter and a non-out is better than an out.
“That’s the first time I’ve had that. I was just trying to get something in the air,” he said (he struck out). “That showed a lot from a management standpoint to have that faith. It’s an honor to get to go up there and do that (get the green light and then hit in the seventh). As a staff, we’ve really been working hard on hitting, and if you get just one more hit that can help. We saw in 2010 it can come down to one game.”
From the Giants broadcast:
For something so surprising, Bumgarner did manage to keep a straight face. Once he received his sign, there was no indication something unusual was up:
I’m uncomfortable declaring this a completely bad idea. Bumgarner has some ability, and maybe Bochy saw something. After all, Coors Field is enormous and friendly to balls in play. I’m comfortable declaring that this most likely was a bad idea because Bumgarner has never been much and Franklin Morales can struggle with strikes — which is how he wound up behind 3-and-0 to begin. More than anything, though, I’m glad things like this happen, just like I’m glad position players pitch and sometimes pitchers play the field. Madison Bumgarner swung 3-and-0 and became the first pitcher to do so in several years. It didn’t work out for him, but most plate appearances don’t work out for him. At least this one was interesting.
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