I’m writing this post as a teaser for/addendum to my upcoming article for The Hardball Times which examines swing behavior on 3-2 counts. The basic premise of the article is that batters are too aggressive on 3-2 counts and pay for their approach at the plate by sacrificing more value in walks than they get in hits.
In order to make this a little clearer to understand (and whet everyone’s appetite for the league-wide trends,) I wanted to choose a batter to highlight. I believe that the most harmful thing you can do on a 3-2 count is swing at a pitch outside the zone and so I decided to take a look at the batter who swung at the most pitches outside of the zone (on 3-2) in 2009, Victor Martinez.
Martinez is, by all measures, a very good hitter. He put up a wOBA of .375 last season while hitting .303/.381/.480 in 588 at bats. He also had 75 walks in 672 plate appearances, good for a walk rate of 11.2%.
Of these 672 plate appearances, Victor went to a 3-2 count on 113 of them. In those 113 PAs he walked 36 times and put up a line of .205/.460/.247. Thanks to foul balls he saw 165 3-2 pitches of which 85 were inside the strike zone and 80 were outside the strike zone. He swung at 78 of the 85 pitches inside the strike zone and 50 of the 80 pitches outside of the strike zone which amounts to a batting eye score of 1.07 with a selectivity of -.85.
Let’s take a look at the result of these plate appearances broken down by whether the last pitch was a ball or a strike and whether Victor swung at it or not. For the rest of the article we’re going to ignore foul balls and just look at the last pitch of each 3-2 plate appearance. This isn’t the best way to deal with fouls but I haven’t decided exactly how I’m going to do so and this is the easiest way to introduce my point.
A couple of really interesting things jump out at me here. The most interesting is that Martinez actually drew a walk 7 out of 7 times when he didn’t swing at a pitch which was actually in the strike zone on 3-2. I’m sure that this is because the pitches had to be extremely borderline in order for Victor to lay off of them. On the other hand Victor was only called out on one out of 30 pitches outside the strike zone which he didn’t swing at. So he only struck out looking one time on 3-2 the whole 2009 season.
Next we see that Victor was way more productive when he walked on 3-2 (wOBA = .696 when not swinging at balls) than he was when swinging the bat (wOBA = .237 on swings at strike and .120 on swings at balls.)
I’m not going to go too deep into this (that’s what the Hardball Times article is for and you guys can wait til Monday, I hope) but let’s just take a completely absurd example, one where Victor Martinez sees the same exact pitches which ended his 3-2 at bats in 2009 but doesn’t swing at ANY of them – and see what would have happened. I’m going to do this by keeping exactly 7 walks on the strikes and 1 strike-out on the balls and then counting each additional pitch in the zone as a strike out and each additional pitch outside of the zone as a ball. This is just a thought experiment and of course this is not what would happen but I think it makes an interesting point.
Without swinging at any strikes Victor would still have been quite a bit more productive by just not swinging on any of the pitches outside the strike zone which ended his 3-2 at bats.
Once again, this is not the strategy which I think he should adopt, nor do I think it is a plausible one. Pitchers and umpires would adapt if you just stood there and this also completely ignores the pitches which Victor fouled off. However I do think that this raises an interesting question, one which I will explore deeper on Monday by looking at league wide data.