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Pirates’ Aggressive Swings on 3-0 Have Pros, Cons

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MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Adam Frazier did something he hardly ever does: he swung on a 3-0 pitch. It was Frazier’s 834th career plate appearance and the 41st time he had a three ball, no strike count, but it was just the second time he ever let it rip. That swing resulted in something he had only done once before, too: a walk-off home run.

Frazier doesn’t have the look of a guy who would normally swing on a 3-0 count, boasting only 13 home runs and a .414 slugging percentage over his three year major league career. But this isn’t out of the norm for the Pirates. In fact, manager Clint Hurdle says his players have the green light on the automatic take pitch “a lot.”

“It’s a glorified 2-0,” Hurdle said. “Davey Johnson brought it to my attention when I was playing for him in 1983, just the mindset. Same count, you’re looking for a ball over the plate you want to ride.

“We talk about it here a lot. Joey (Pirates third-base coach Cora) is mindful of letting them know I like (3-0 swings). I do. I’m a fan of the swing. Sometimes, it doesn’t always work out. It worked out (Sunday).”

This seems like the type of thing the Pirates do- or at least consider doing- often: trying to create an advantage over the rest of the league by challenging a baseball adage. After all, unwritten rules were made to be unwritten broken.

The Pirates have been the most aggressive team in the NL on 3-0, swinging at 41 “automatic takes” this year, trailing only Toronto. (The next closest NL team is the Nationals, who have only done it 30 times). Going by rate of swings on 3-0 pitches, Pirates batters have offered at 22.8% of their 3-0 pitches. Not only is that the highest rate in baseball, it is more than double the league average.

So the Pirates swing a lot. The real question is “does it work?”

Before we swing into things (I’m so sorry), let’s look at the Pirates on 3-0 this year. Per Baseball-Reference, in the 207 plate appearances where the Pirates got to a 3-0 count, they are slashing .280/.704/.610. That looks impressive by itself, but by using the Baseball Reference Index Finder (subscription required), they are actually 27th in OBP. Even with a very high slugging percentage, they are only 12th in OPS. A successful offense needs to take advantage of 3-0 counts, and while the Pirates are by no means bad, they aren’t particularly good, either.

Aggressiveness may be the reason why. League wide, batters have a .671 wOBA on 3-0 counts, but when there is a batted ball event on a 3-0 count, that figure drops to .531. That is still hilariously good, but it’s a 140 point drop. If the end goal is to get on base to score runs, league wide, taking the pitch is the better bet.

But how can you resist a center cut fastball?! That’s what Frazier hit yesterday, and all 41 pitches the Pirates have swung at on 3-0 have been a fastball. The problem is only a handful of those heaters have been right down the pipe.

Pitch locations of Pirates swings on 3-0. Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Seven swings on pitches over the heart of the plate, 13 on the edge of the zone. That’s not a good ratio.

As for the swings themselves (finally), 26 were a whiff or a foul ball. Assuming all those pitches on the edge were going to be called strikes (which is a leap of faith), then it’s no harm, no foul. It still results in a 3-1 count. So let’s delve in to those 15 batted balls. They are, in order of occurrence:

Polanco home run, Polanco ground out, Josh Bell ground out, Harrison flyout, Cervelli single, Dickerson popout, Cervelli pop out, Polanco GIDP, Diaz double, Diaz single, Cervelli fly out, Bell ground out, Cervelli ground out, Cervelli single, Frazier home run

Overall, that’s 6/15 (.400) with an .867 slugging percentage. Granted, this sample size is incredibly small, but the Pirates basically trade 300 points of their usual OBP when up 3-0 for an extra 150 points of slugging. That isn’t a good trade.

But there’s one more thing that needs to be addressed: context. The Pirates have won two extra-inning games this year on a home run on a 3-0 pitch- Frazier’s winner Sunday and Gregory Polanco’s three run blast opening day. It’s only a bad idea if it doesn’t work, and for the most part, it has.

I’ve written about the Baseball Prospectus Run Expectancy Matrix before. It takes every offensive situation a team can be in based on the number of outs and runners on base and determines how many runs a team is expected to score in that scenario. To calculate it, it’s (RE End State - RE Beginning State) + Runs Scored. Let’s apply that to the situations where the Pirates batted the ball on a 3-0 count.

For example, Corey Dickerson popped up a 3-0 pitch on Apr. 17 to leadoff an inning. Nobody on, nobody out is worth 0.5004 expected runs, while one out, nobody on is valued at .2731. By making that out, Dickerson cost his team -.2273 expected runs. Meanwhile, Frazier’s home run Sunday came with two outs and nobody on. The beginning and end states are valued at 0.102 expected runs, but since the Pirates obviously scored, that swing was worth exactly 1 run (duh). (If you don’t have the hang of it yet, I go into greater detail in my piece on the Pirates stolen base attempts).

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just give the results of the change in run expectancy on the batted balls while also giving a “control” of what would have happened had the batter just walked instead.

0 Outs (4 Plays): Actual Events: -0.5886 RE24, Only Walks: 1.6983 RE24

1 Out (5 Plays): Actual Events: -0.0627 RE24, Only Walks: 1.5499 RE24

2 Outs (6 Plays): Actual Events: 2.9103, Only Walks: 0.9983

Total: Actual Events: 2.259 Only Walks: 4.2415

It is a small sample size, but it’s clear to see that swinging on 3-0 with 2 outs is by far the best situation to go for it. A walk isn’t worth as much then and a big hit is even more valuable since it’s do or die.

There are two amendments that need to be brought up to those “final” totals. First, there was a scenario with two outs where Cervelli laced a single with two outs and a runner on second, but the runner was thrown out at home. Technically, that swing was worth -0.6663 runs, but that’s through no fault of Cervelli. If we omit that out, the Pirates have created roughly 3 expected runs by swinging on 3-0.

Also, not all 15 of these batters are going to draw a walk. Going by the Pirates’ regular .704 OBP through a 3-0 count, let’s assume four make an out. Depending on the number of outs, this means swinging on 3-0 creates a tiny bit more offense or has cost the Pirates a fraction of a run.

You can call it a net zero, but then again, the Pirates have won two games because of their aggressiveness on 3-0. Under a context free microscope, it isn’t a great decision, but in practice there may be some value. The one thing that’s known for sure is Frazier got some Gatorade on his jersey because the coaching staff let him go for it.