The Walks that Weren't: Swinging in Three Ball Counts

If the article is about swinging outside the zone, the picture is going to be of J.P. Arencibia... - Brad White

The Blue Jays walked 510 times last year, but how many opportunities for the free pass did they throw away?

Since the Moneyball era began baseball fans have found themselves discussing walks more than ever before. Although the base on balls isn’t the most exciting play in baseball, its importance has garnered greater appreciation in recent times. When describing a baseball player to a friend you might think to include information on how often he walks now, something that didn’t come up nearly so often in the past. When Blue Jays fans look at J.P. Arencibia there is a multitude of possible ways to criticize his performance, but one of the ones that often comes up first is his lack of walks. In past years it might have been as easy as saying, "HE HIT .194! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!" There is plenty of validity to that statement as well. I’m not trying to paint baseball fans of a certain age as Neanderthals or trying to say baseball fans are smarter now because there is more awareness about walk. Baseball fans are people and people haven’t gotten any smarter in the last fifteen odd years. There has just been a change in the way the game is discussed.

On a personal level, I have always been interested in patience, plate discipline and walks. On that note I thought I would talk about the kind of walks that are rarely discussed: walks that didn’t happen. One of the most basic cognitive flaws that humans exhibit is the failure to consider scenarios that didn’t transpire. Usually we are smart enough to conquer this on a small scale. For instance, if you roll a die three times and the numbers 1,2 and 3 come up it is unlikely that you will forget that 4’s, 5’s and 6’s are equally likely to be rolled, even though didn’t see those numbers rolled. On a larger scale we often lose track of things that didn’t happen because they don’t seem relevant. I give you fair warning that if relevance is what you seek, you might be disappointed with what follows.

Perhaps at this point I should specify what I mean by "walks that didn’t happen". At the core what I really mean is "walks that should have happened". It’s pretty hard to define things that should have happened and I realize how far I’m wading into the wishy-washy here, but hopefully you’ll indulge me. A walk that should have happened is a scenario where a batter has three balls on him and swings for a pitch outside the strike zone. The idea is that the player had a walk available to him and all he had to do was not swing.

Clearly it’s not that simple. Firstly, it’s not fair to assume that hitters have can identify balls and strikes perfectly, if they could baseball would be a much higher scoring sport. Secondly, when I’m working with strike zone data that data comes from PitchFx’s determination of what the strike zone should be in a perfect world as opposed to the strike zone that is called by umpires.

In examining these "walks that weren’t" one way I’ve tried to mitigate these limitations is by steering clear of all 3-2 counts. In a full count situation a hitter may feel the need to go outside the strike zone in order to protect the plate. In order to prevent the called strikeout he does not have the luxury of taking borderline pitches. In this case it’s unfair to criticize a lack of plate discipline when in fact swinging for a pitch outside the strike zone might be the best course of action.

That left 3-0 and 3-1 counts. A ball in a 3-0 or 3-1 count results in a base while a strike cannot result in an out. I thought that this scenario would incentivize hitters to lay off anything that could be a ball because a ball guarantees a base, whereas the consequences for taking a strike are far from disastrous. While hitters almost never swing in 3-0 counts, I figured that in a 3-1 situation they might swing aggressively in the heart of the strike zone but tend to avoid pitches at the margins.

First we’ll take a look a 3-0 counts. In the chart below I’ve listed all the players individually (I included every Blue Jays player with over 200 PA) but the individual results included such small sample sizes that they are virtually meaningless. To be honest, there isn’t a lot to see here because Blue Jays hitters, like most others, tended to let the 3-0 pitch go. It’s an almost unheard of move to reach for a pitch outside the strike zone on a 3-0 count.

3-0 Counts


Player

O-Zone Pitches

Swings

O- Swing%

Colby Rasmus

11

1

9.1%

Jose Bautista

15

1

6.7%

Edwin Encarnacion

15

1

6.7%

Adam Lind

13

0

0%

Jose Reyes

13

0

0%

Brett Lawrie

11

0

0%

Rajai Davis

3

0

0%

Munenori Kawasaki

7

0

0%

Emilio Bonifacio

4

0

0%

J.P Arencibia

5

0

0%

Melky Cabrera

8

0

0%

Maicer Izturis

8

0

0%

Mark DeRosa

3

0

0%

TOTAL

116

3

2.6%

As I said, there isn’t much to see here. Hitters almost never swing in this situation so it follows that they almost never chase pitches outside the zone. Blue Jays hitters missed out on 3 total walks in these situations, assuming the umpires are calling the rulebook strike zone of course. That’s virtually nothing. Things get far more interesting when we look at 3-1 counts.

3-1 Counts


Player

O-Zone Pitches

Swings

O- Swing%

Colby Rasmus

26

10

38.5%

Jose Bautista

37

13

35.1%

Edwin Encarnacion

40

12

30%

Adam Lind

34

12

35.3%

Jose Reyes

16

4

25%

Brett Lawrie

16

4

25%

Rajai Davis

8

1

12.5%

Munenori Kawasaki

15

1

6.7%

Emilio Bonifacio

6

3

50%

J.P Arencibia

11

6

54.5%

Melky Cabrera

17

5

29.4%

Maicer Izturis

18

5

27.7%

Mark DeRosa

12

5

41.7%

TOTAL

256

81

31.6%

The individual samples are tiny here but is anyone surprised that J.P. Arencibia has swung for the highest percentage of pitches in this situation and Munenori Kawasaki has swung for the lowest percentage? I didn’t think so.

There are a couple of things going on here. Firstly, in theory, Blue Jays hitters have forgone the opportunity for 81 walks due to free swinging in 3-1 counts. That’s half a walk per game, which is pretty significant. Once again, that number isn’t exact because of the discrepancy between the Brooks Baseball strike zone and the one the umpires actually call, but it’s a good estimate. Half a walk per game goes a long way, if a pitcher tacked on 0.50 BB/9 to his stat line people would take notice.

What’s more interesting than the volume, of what would largely be considered costly and ill-advised swings (I didn’t include it above because the sample was so small, but for the record Blue Jays hitters hit .241/.241/.379 on these pitches) is the rate at which they are occurring. Even though Blue Jays hitters should be erring on the side of caution when it comes to pitches on the edges or outside the zone in 3-1 counts they are actually swinging outside almost exactly as often in these situations as they are overall (31.6% O-Swing in 3-1 vs. 30.5% overall).

The reason for these swings is a matter of speculation. Often 3-1 is described as a perfect "hitter’s count" where hitters can expect a fastball. As a result, perhaps hitters are more concerned with sitting on a fastball than that pitch’s location. Perhaps the assumption that they will get a pitch to hit puts hitters in an aggressive mindset. It's impossible to say definitively.

What I do know is that when it comes to 3-0 hitters have no problem laying off a pitch because they have so little to lose and a base to gain. In 3-1 counts they similarly have more to gain by taking a pitch than by swinging at one and yet there aggressiveness outside the strike zone is unaltered. I limited this to 2013 and to the Blue Jays because it gives a tangible idea of the amount of walks that are lost on a yearly basis to what I would generally describe as needless swinging in three ball counts. Such a small target gives merely a snapshot at this strange phenomenon. To give another snapshot, this is Joey Votto’s career swing rate by zone in a 3-1 count:

Even the master of the walk is taking his share of healthy out of the zone cuts in 3-1 counts.

If you break it down it really doesn’t makes sense:

  1. Swinging for pitches outside the strike zone is bad, unless you stuck in a two strike count. You are less likely to make contact and even if you do it’s less likely to go for a hit.
  2. Walking is good. Getting bases without giving up outs is a good deal.
  3. When you are sitting at 3-1 taking a strike isn’t the end of the world.

That’s pretty much it. Of course it’s unfair to expect perfect strike zone recognition and discipline, and of course umpires don’t call a perfect strike zone. It still seems that players would become more conservative when the walk was in play. I haven’t even looked at any pitches in the strike zone here. I would expect hitters to swing aggressively for strikes the way they always do. Swinging for strikes tends to be a good idea.

Nowadays the walk is getting more love than ever before. The free pass is sexy for the first time in baseball history. However, just because something is well regarded by baseball fans, or even baseball executives, it doesn’t mean it makes it way to the field. The players don’t really care about Moneyball, they just play baseball the way that got them to the big leagues. Where an outside observer sees walks that might have been, it's possible that a baseball player just sees good cuts in a hitter's count. The league-wide BB% in 2013 was 7.9%. That’s exactly the same rate as in 1913. Although baseball is changing in many ways, the rising K% and sinking offensive numbers come to mind, it’s still fundamentally the same. The bigger change going on right now is the way segment of the fan population has chosen to observe the game. As part of that segment I find that instead observing the swings that happen, I’m seeing the walks that could have been. It’s a fun way to see baseball, but it’ll also drive you a little bit nuts.

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