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Swinging 3-0: Rod Allen’s Go To Topic

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Tonight’s Tigers game has been postponed until Thursday on account of rain in D.C., so I thought I’d take this opportunity to consider one of Rod Allen’s favorite topics of conversation: swinging on a 3-0 pitch. This is a topic of interest for me because it exists at the intersection of two things I think are really important in baseball: plate discipline and strategy.

Let’s set the stage for a moment. Generally speaking in baseball, when a hitter gets himself into a 3 balls, 0 strikes count, the manager gives him a “red light” indicating that he is instructed not to swing at the next pitch because the pitcher has recently had trouble finding the zone and the batter should accept a free pass if the pitcher is offering it. If you take a strike on 3-0, you still have two pitches to choose from while the pitcher still has no margin for error. It’s a good percentage play. A quality major league player will recognize the value in accepting a free pass and will take the pitch.

But 3-0 pitches are very often fastballs right down the middle because pitchers are trying not to walk you and that pitch is presumably the easiest to throw for a guaranteed strike. That makes sense, except that it makes no sense at all. If the pitcher had the ability to control his pitches that well, he shouldn’t have gotten behind 3-0 in the first place and even if he grooves one on 3-0, he’s going to go back to nibbling at the strike zone on the next pitch. Either the pitcher shouldn’t have gotten into a 3-0 count or he shouldn’t care about issuing a four pitch walk if he is just going to issue a five pitch walk twenty five seconds later.

It’s a pretty standard paradigm. If you get behind a hitter 3-0, you usually groove a fastball. If a hitter is ahead 3-0, he usually takes. Except when he doesn’t.

Rod Allen, the Tigers TV color man, has made a lot of this during the first few weeks of the season because he thinks really good hitters should attack the 3-0 pitch more often because it’s usually such a good pitch. His logic makes sense. If you know a straight fastball is coming, you can probably do significant damage that might be better than a walk. There is a risk in swinging, in that you might make an out, but if you get exactly what you are expecting, it could be beneficial to swing. Rod tells us Cabrera and Fielder have the green light 3-0, but don’t like to swing too often when they get it. Which makes sense given the risk while also knowing if they get ahead 3-0, they’re probably getting walked soon anyway.

But maybe we have this wrong. I’m a huge proponent of plate discipline and taking the base on balls, but maybe hitters should be more aggressive on 3-0 pitches. After all, so many of them are batting practice fastballs waiting to get crushed. Is there an inefficiency here that hitters can exploit?

Let’s start with some basic data. Tigers hitters have been in 65 3-0 counts so far this season and 39 have ended in walks. Of those 65 plate appearances, 28 ended after the fourth pitch. 25 of those were walks. What this indicates is that Tigers hitters have put the ball in play just three times in a 3-0 count. I don’t have access to the data, but I think we can probably assume the Tigers haven’t swung an missed at a 3-0 pitch this year, but there may be a foul ball in there somewhere and we have to ignore those away.

In those 3 plate appearances in which the Tigers went for it 3-0, here are the numbers. Obviously, they are gaudy: .667 batting average, 1.667 slugging percentage (.964 OBP when you leave the walks in). A three run homerun by Cabrera, a single by Peralta, and an out by Prince.

Notice the pitch sequence during the HR at bat to Cabrera (I mean, what do you expect here?):

cabs

But let’s take this a little further and go back to the 65 3-0 counts in general. If they walked 25 times on 4 pitches and put the ball in play on 3 others, then there are 37 at bats that got to 3-0 and then went at least 5 pitches. So 37 times, the Tigers took a 3-0 pitch for a strike. What happened after they did that?

After the Tigers got to 3-0 and took the fourth pitch for a strike, they went on to hit .391/.595/.609. Not bad at all. It’s not better than when they swing on 3-0, but obviously a sample size of 3 in the first analysis isn’t that predictive. What I think is interesting is the on base percentage. If you get to a 3-0 count, your odds of getting on base at any time during the at bat are .769. If you take the next pitch for a strike, it drops to .595. In other words, if you take a 3-0 strike, you’re sacrificing a ~17% change of getting on base to avoid the risk that you’ll make an out. That’s an interesting trade off to make given that you have a .667 batting average swinging 3-0 so far this year. (If you take out the intentional walks, which you obvious aren’t swinging at, the point holds)

So this means we should think about swinging on 3-0 more often because taking a 3-0 strike, which should be easy to hit, reduces your chance of getting on base pretty substantially, right?

Well, not exactly. This could be a small sample illusion. Last year, the Tigers hit .250 swinging on 3-0 and .192 in at bats that started 3-0. In 2011, it was .250, .232. What’s going on there?

I’m not really sure. The Tigers put 3-0 pitches in play just 4 times in 2012 and 8 in 2011, so it’s not like the sample size is much different than this season. The number of ABs that got that far is much bigger in the two complete seasons however. But the on base pattern does hold in larger samples. It’s around .700 when you get to 3-0, but it drops down substantially when you take a strike.

Essentially, if you get into a 3-0 count, taking a strike substantially changes your odds of getting on base. If you see a strike on 3-0, maybe you should swing. If you’re looking for exactly what you get. There is a chance to out fox your opponent. Pitchers expect you to take, so they groove it. If you swing, there is an above average change you will get a base hit because you know it’s a fastball, but there is also a good chance it will give pitchers pause when throwing you 3-0 pitches in the future because they don’t want to throw a meatball if you’re swinging. Which means in the future, they won’t do that so much and you’ll get more walks 3-0 and won’t have to continue the at bat into counts in which you have worse odds.

It’s kind of fun to think about. There is an optimal rate at which you should swing 3-0 and I don’t think we’re there. You can’t swing too much or you’ll end up on base less overall, but swinging too little also huts you because your odds of reaching base 3-1 are much worse than 3-0 and you’ve also sacrificed a chance at a 3-0 hit.

So next time Rod talks about Cabrera or Fielder swinging 3-0, think about it a little more carefully. There is probably good reason to swing 3-0 at a higher rate. Of course, no one wants to make an out on a 3-0 pitch, so hitters probably won’t be doing this any time soon.

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The Morning Edition (April 6, 2013)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

From Last Night:

  • Josh Hamilton goes 0-4 with 2K as his Angels fall to the Rangers in his return to Arlignton
  • Gordon and Hosmer lead the way as the Royals pummel the Phillies 13-4
  • Zito outduels Westbrook in a 1-0 win over the Cards
  • The Reds throw down the gauntlet in the NL with a 15-0 thumping of the Nats

What I’m Watching Today:

  • Shelby Miller makes his second big league start as his Cards take on the Giants (4p Eastern)
  • Julio Tehran tries to build on his hot spring against the Cubs (7p Eastern)
  • Trevor Bauer makes his Tribe debut against Rays youngster Alex Cobb (7p Eastern)
  • Clayton Kershaw goes for an encore in LA against AJ Burnett and the Bucs (9p Eastern)

The Big Question

  • How long can Chris Davis keep this up?

In 18 PA this season Davis has 4 HR and a .600/.611/1.600 line. Obviously, that pace is a bit unsustainable, but at some point it just becomes ridiculous even in the short run. He’ll get to face Vance Worley tomorrow, against whom he has not recorded a hit in three trips to the plate. Davis, as it appears, will win the New English D “Race to 1.0 WAR” very shortly. He has 0.9 as of this writing. Today, MLB on Fox begins their final season in which they will terrorize our Saturdays by blacking games out. Starting in 2014, MLB.TV won’t go dark on Saturday afternoons. Luckily, the Tigers play the Yankees, so Fox will let me watch. Additionally of note, New English D will publish our usually Saturday edition of The Nine later today with a focus, likely, on ballpark food.

For your reading pleasure, below is a strike zone plot of Prince Fielder’s at bat against Boone Logan from Friday. Observe the location of the pitch that Fielder hit into the seats. A pitcher should reasonably be able to assume that if he misses the strike zone by that much that he should be safe from such outcomes.

location

So Shawn Kelley tried this when he faced Fielder in the 7th. I would not recommend this.

location 2

How Was The Game? (April 5, 2013)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

 

A sight for sore eyes.

Tigers 8, Yankees 3

The Tigers unveiled the the 2012 AL Pennant before the game and they played like a team looking for another one this afternoon. Doug Fister wasn’t at his best, but he held the Yankees to 3 runs in 5 innings which would be good enough. It was good enough because Prince Fielder smashed a 3 run bomb in the bottom of the 5th to put the Tigers back on top 6-3. He and Avila would add solo shots later in the game as well. But the story of the day was Drew Smyly. Smyly came on in relief the 6th inning and told everyone in the bullpen to pack up their gear. The Tigers erstwhile starter cruised through the Yankees and retired all 12 in order to end the game. As always, it was a party at Comerica Park on Opening Day as they packed more than 45,000 fans into the park. Those fans were treated to a fun one that ended with the Tigers evening their record to 2-2 on the season.

They’ll be back at it tomorrow at 4pm with Max Scherzer toeing the rubber. If you recall, New English D has their eye on the Silver Hammer early this year because we want to see if he can repeat his delivery and take the leap into the College of Aces. Baseball returned to the Motor City today. All is right with the world.

The Moment: Prince Fielder hits a 3-run HR in the bottom of the 5th to put the Tigers ahead for good.

2013 Detroit Tigers Season Preview

101712tigers

Well folks, the time has come. Less than two weeks from now, the Tigers will be at Target Field taking on the Twins and getting the 2013 season under way. It has seemed like a quiet offseason for the defending AL champs, but they actually made some big moves by signing Torii Hunter to a two year deal and re-upping with Anibal Sanchez for five seasons.

The Tigers have two consecutive division titles under their belts and a pennant flying this season for their work thwarting the rest of the AL in 2012. With essentially the entire team coming back in addition to the aforementioned additions and a healthy Victor Martinez, all signs point to another big season for the Tigers. Things can go wrong, but the expectation surely is that the Tigers will repeat as AL Central champs.

You can read my AL Central preview here, my preseason power rankings here, and my standings prediction here, all of which point to my agreement with the conventional wisdom about the Tigers chances. I think they’re going to be very good and a force with which to be reckoned. Here’s why.

The Starting Pitching

The Tigers have six starters who belong in a major league rotation. The staff is led by Justin Verlander, who is the best pitcher in the game according to most, and backed up by three pitchers who can make a strong claim to #2 starter status: Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. Those potential number twos are the strength of the rotation because it makes them extremely deep. It would surprise no one if any of those pitchers accomplished something close to a 4 WAR season (they’ve all done it before), and it would be incredible if they all managed to do it.

Think about this, Verlander is the oldest member of the rotation. The Tigers have three pitchers in their primes with a history of strong performance behind the game’s best starter. That’s pretty good.

And then there are Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly. Both of which deserve to start this season. I wrote here that I’d go with Porcello and he is making his case this Spring with an excellent strikeout to walk ratio and a much better breaking ball. To his credit, Smyly isn’t struggling either. It’s a good problem to have.

I would argue the Tigers have the best rotation in baseball and I can’t make a case for them being any worse than third entering the season. In the next two weeks, the Tigers are going to trade, send to the pen, or demote a pitcher capable of a 2-3 win season. That should be all you need to know.

The Lineup

At this point, it just sounds like I’m naming parts of a baseball team, but the lineup is very good. Austin Jackson was a top five AL outfielder last season and is joined by fellow top ten AL outfielder Torii Hunter at the top of the lineup. If that wasn’t enough, MVP and elite hitter Miguel Cabrera follows them, sitting ahead of Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez.

If there is a better first five hitters in the sport, I haven’t found them. Behind that force lurks the underrated Andy Dirks, the on-base machine Alex Avila, and the poised for a bounce back Jhonny Peralta. Omar Infante will hit ninth and hopefully prevent anyone whining about second base this season.

The Tigers are blessed with exceptional depth on the bench, but the overall quality of the lineup is impressive. They can’t replace many of their players, but they should be able to weather one serious injury at a time without much problem. Every player in the Tigers lineup has either been an All-Star or had an All-Star type season very recently with the exception of Dirks. The infield defense is sub par, but with a much improved outfield defense and strikeout inclined starters, they can probably outslug any problems.

Experience

On occasion, pundits overrate the value of experience over talent, but in the Tigers case, it should help. The Tigers have been to the playoffs in consecutive seasons with a very similar roster and the experience of having worked through long seasons with trials and tribulations should play to their advantage. The Tigers players should be well conditioned for October baseball after seeing what it takes to keep themselves in top condition over the last two seasons deep into the Fall.

The Leadership

Again, this is a quality that is somewhat controversial, but the Tigers have a lot of personalities in their clubhouse that will nurture a winning environment. Losing streaks will be handled appropriately and there shouldn’t be any infighting or problems. Victor Martinez’s presence will be welcomed back this season along with the addition of Hunter and the ever-present Jim Leyland, whom everyone seems to adore. Experience and leadership are hard to measure, but if they matter at all, they should work in the Tigers favor.

The Bullpen, Even the Bullpen

I wrote at length recently about why Rondon will succeed as the closer and why it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t. Benoit, Dotel, Coke, Downs, Below, Putkonen, and others are all available out of the pen. The Tigers don’t have anyone like Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, but they have many, many pitchers who could be solid, reliable relievers. The position is volatile and unpredictable, but the Tigers are well stocked with potential arms in the pen. They won’t lead the league in bullpen-ness, but they won’t be bad.

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I don’t think it is too bold to say that the Tigers are among the best teams, on paper, entering the 2013 season. I would argue they are the second best team, behind Washington. Things can always go wrong, but they go wrong for every team. I always hedge and say that so long as the Tigers are no less unfortunate than their competitors, they should win the division quite easily.

The Royals and Indians are better and the White Sox aren’t pushovers, but the Tigers are the class of the Central. With upheaval in the East and a strong West, the road to another pennant will be trying, but it is certainly within the Tigers’ grasp.

With elite level star power in Verlander, Cabrera, Fielder, and others, it’s hard not to dream on the Tigers 2013 potential. They have it all, including a chip on their shoulders after a poor showing in the Fall Classic.

For the Tigers, this could be the year that the roar is officially restored.

The Book on Prince Fielder

What Other People Think:

No one would question Prince Fielder as an offensive force. He hits for power, has excellent plate discipline, and has improved his ability to limit strikeouts over the last couple seasons. He’s a top flight slugger. He tends to get downgraded for his below average defense and often comical running of the bases, but at the plate, there is little disagreement about his ability.

To the general populace, Fielder is a top five first basemen and usually only trails the great Joey Votto and Albert Pujols. He’s an all-star level player who is better defense short of the MVP conversation.

But he is working on it. Someone I know who was down in Lakeland last spring reported that Fielder spent extra time with Tom Brookens working on his glovework and the same person told me that Fielder was not only hard at work, but was extremely receptive to Brookens’ teaching. Fielder might never be a good defensive player, but I like that he’s trying to improve his defense to go along with a bat that everyone respects.

What the Numbers Say:

Prince is more or less a model of consistency. He’s never played fewer than 157 games since his first full season and is a virtual lock for .270 or better with 30 or more homeruns. Fielder has never walked less than league average and is often near the top of the leaderboard in that category.

By looking at his stat page, it is clear that Fielder is a power hitting force with great plate discipline and an improving hit tool. The baserunning and defensive numbers are discouraging, but they are not so terrible that one would demand he become a DH.

What My Eyes Tell Me:

Over Fielder’s first six seasons I watched him from afar and generally knew no more about him than I did any other non-Tigers player. I saw him during interleague play and on highlight reels in addition to the occasional random game during a Tigers off day, but I never got the chance to watch him day in and day out.

Let me tell you, it was eye opening. I knew he could hit for power, but I never realized how talented he was as a pure hitter. While he does swing and miss on occasion, he is not a power hitting whiffer like Adam Dunn or Mark Reynolds. Fielder has exceptional hand eye coordination and is actually a very good contact hitter despite a body type that says otherwise.

About that body type. Everyone seems to think he’s going to break down and age poorly because of his size, but in seven years, he’s never missed more than five games in a season. He moves pretty well for someone of that size and absolutely never dogs it on the field. He’s giving max effort 162 games a year and doesn’t get hurt. I’m not going to worry about his size until he gives me a reason to.

Fielder’s glove is a bit of a liability, but I know that he is working on it. He’s never going to be a star on defense and we should all accept it. On the bases, he’s a bit of a wild card. He’s always hustling, which I appreciate, but he can sometimes run into outs and get hosed due to his limited horsepower.

That said, the offensive performance is fantastic and I value his leadership and personality in the clubhouse. Fielder is definitely a well-adjusted, relaxed guy who doesn’t take plays and games off. He isn’t the perfect player, but we can’t all be Mike Trout. I really like what Fielder brings to the table and was surprised to see how much of a complete hitter he was when he joined the Tigers last season.

The Dotted Line:

Let’s see. Year two of a nine year, $214 million deal. As long as no one runs out of checks, Fielder’s contract isn’t much of a story. He’ll be with the club for years to come.

Fantasyland:

Fielder is a player who is worth more to the fantasy owner than he is to the real one because Fielder’s iffy defense won’t hurt you in a standard league. He provides great value at every category except steals which should make him a top two or three round guy. Grab him if you can.

The Lead:

Prince Fielder is an excellent hitter who mixes power, contact, and plate discipline in a very effective manner. Despite his poor defense and questionable baserunning, he’s a perennial all-star type player who appears to have a positive effect on the clubhouse and the city. He’s as durable a player as there is in the game today, and if he keeps that up, he’ll be a centerpiece of every Tigers team for the next decade.

The Nine Best First Basemen for 2013

Last week I rolled out the best catchers for 2013. And let me tell you, that list was a lot easier. The first base crop is great at the top, but then it gets a little bit less clear. Plenty of debate should come from this, but here are my top nine first basemen for the 2013 season.

9. Eric Hosmer (Royals)

Yeah, yeah, yeah his 2012 was a disaster. But I’m a believer. He’s very young and I’m comfortable writing off one bad season after he broke onto the scene in style in 2011 and during spring training last season. I love his glove and when he squares up a pitch, it can go a long way. If 2013 doesn’t go well for him, I’ll back off, but for now, I’m still a believer.

8. Anthony Rizzo (Cubs)

If you multiply the half season he played in the majors in 2012 by 2, he’d have been a top five first basemen. Not everyone is capable of doing that over a full season, but I think Rizzo is. His defense was good for the Cubs and I really like his swing. Solid average and good power. If he can improve the patience a touch, which I think he will, Rizzo could be a star.

7. Allen Craig (Cardinals)

Craig is a bit of tossup. His glove at first isn’t wonderful, but he’s a phenomenal hitter. He mixes contact and power in an excellent fashion. If he can stay healthy he’s great, if not, he won’t be. Simple as that. I’ll bet on only a couple weeks on the DL and say he’ll be a top nine 1B.

6. Mark Teixeira (Yankees)

Teixeira does certain things well. He hits for power. He walks. He plays excellent defensive. What he does not do well, is make contact. People who don’t make contact don’t crack the top five.

5. Freddie Freeman (Braves)

Freeman walks, hits for power, and plays solid defense. The average needs a boost and I buy a breakout from the young Braves first basemen. His lineup is better than last year and he’ll be another year older and wiser. Freeman is a guy to watch in 2013.

4. Adam LaRoche (Nationals)

LaRoche is also someone who combines power, walks, and defense. Well he did in 2012. He’s a bit of a wild card, but I’m going for it. He was a mess in 2011 due to a low BABIP, but I’m going to bank on him for one more year in the middle of that great Nationals lineup.

3. Prince Fielder (Tigers)

Prince is an excellent hitter. He hits for average. He draws walks. He has prodigious power. He hits behind the game’s best slugger and is one of the most durable baseball players in the world. He doesn’t play good defense though, so he can’t crack the top two.

2. Albert Pujols (Angels)

2012 was a down year for The Machine, but 30 HR and 3.9 WAR is better than a down year for almost every person on Earth. Pujols just set a very high bar. The future Hall of Famer is probably on the decline, but coming down from his insane peak still leaves a lot of room for him to be great. Look for a couple more great years before the party is over.

1. Joey Votto (Reds)

There is a case to be made the Votto is the best offensive player in baseball. In 75% of a season in 2012, he posted a 5.9 WAR. He’s a good defender, too, but man the offense. I’m just going to let his slash line do the talking, because really, what could I say that it doesn’t? .337/.474/.567. Read that again and let it sink in. Unbelievable.

Read the Midseason Update

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