The Blue Jays and the "Green Light"

Brett Lawrie is tied for the Blue Jays team lead with five 3-0 swings - Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it is by accident or by design the Blue Jays are swinging at a lot more 3-0 pitches in 2014.

The idea of the "green light" has always been a strange one to me.


The way TV broadcasters explain the concept of hitting with a 3-0 count is usually far more binary than it can possibly be in reality. If you are an established great hitter, or are "seeing the ball well" you have the "green light", AKA permission to swing. If you are inexperienced, or just not very good, you have to be "taking all the way".

When a 3-0 pitch comes in, there is a very high chance that one of those phrases will be used to explain the actions of the batter by whoever is calling the game. However, there is no way it is that simple. There are surely times when a guy has the "green light" but lays off because the pitch wasn't what he had in mind or decides to swing despite being advised against it because the meatball is too juicy.

We don't even really know how explicit instructions to hitters might be or how active a role a manger takes in this matter. Surely different managers and/or hitting coaches have different ideas about who should swing the bat in 3-0 counts and when. Yet, despite all this uncertainty and all these complications, the imagery of the green light and stop sign endures in the imagination of commentators and, as a result, fans.

Whichever way you slice it, 3-0 counts can be a fascinating thing. The outcome is virtually certain, but it's just uncertain enough that it doesn't feel automatic. Whenever that fourth pitch comes in part of our brain, probably not the sharpest part, is thinking "Come on just swing for it, you know it's going to be right down the pipe, you can kill it". That thought process is activated despite the fact that even the most casual fan knows that a batter will take a 3-0 pitch almost every time. That "almost" creates some drama though. This year, hitters have swung for 3-0 pitches a measly 7.4% of the time, but it's just enough to be captivating.

Interestingly, the 2014 Blue Jays have bucked the trend when it comes to swinging for 3-0 pitches, doing so on more occasions than any other team in baseball. As a team with a bunch of accomplished sluggers that shouldn't seem altogether surprising, but it is when put in the context of what they did in this area last year with an almost identical lineup.

The following chart shows, how often the Blue Jays have swung 3-0 in 2013 and 2014 with their MLB ranks in each category in brackets.

Year

3-0 Count%

Total 3-0 Counts

3-0 Count Swings

3-0 Count Swing%

2013

4.5% (T15th)

276 (T19th)

12 (27th)

4.3% (27th)

2014

5.7% (1st)

128 (3rd)

14 (1st)

10.9% (3rd)

The individual sample sizes here are tiny, but I think it is worth noting that the Jays have already taken more 3-0 cuts this year than they did all of last season. Not only that, but they have gone from one of the most conservative "green light" teams to one of the most aggressive in a single year.

It's hard to give a satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon. Perhaps the hitters on this club have earned a longer leash with the hot bats they've been wielding so far. Maybe this is a Kevin Seitzer thing, as he is the most obvious difference maker to this team's hitting approach and he wasn't here in 2013.

What we do know is that in an overall sense this doesn't really make a dent. The 14 3-0 swings the Blue Jays have taken this year have resulted in two singles and three outs, so this is an interesting quirk to look for going forward as opposed to any kind of explanation for anything that has happened in 2014.

In fact, this year when it comes to overall approach the Blue Jays have been almost identical to last season's team regardless of what Buck and Pat are trying to sell at the moment about a more selective squad.

Team

O- Swing%

Z-Swing%

Swing%

O-Contact%

Z-Contact%

Contact%

SwStrike%

2013

30.5%

64.7%

45.4%

69.4%

87.9%

80.9%

8.4%

2014

29.4%

62.9%

44.2%

65.5%

88.7%

80.1%

8.7%

Ultimately you could look at the this team's increased aggressiveness on 3-0 counts and be justified in saying "so what?" given the minimal effect it will have on how this team produces offensively. That would be a completely reasonable stance.

However,  it might also be reasonable to think that the Blue Jays are going to do something interesting and improbable when they have three balls and no strikes against them more than the vast majority of the teams in this league. On a microscopic level I think that makes them more fun to watch. It's definitely going to have me watching more carefully on 3-0 counts.


When it comes to pure entertainment value being slightly less predictable in predictable situations beats towering home runs any time. Right?

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