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May 16, 2014

Pebble Hunting

The Meaning of 3-0 Green Lights

by Sam Miller


On Sunday, in the first inning, Derek Norris homered on a 3-0 pitch from Gio Gonzalez. Then in the second inning, the same guy did the same thing on the same count against the same guy. “They've given me the green light a few times this year,” Norris said afterward, which is interesting. The A’s haven’t generally given their hitters many green lights on 3-0. Assistant GM David Forst once said that “we typically don’t allow guys to swing 3-0. When one of our guys does it, it’s a big deal. It happens only three or four times a year.”

A couple days later, Josh Donaldson got a green light (he didn’t swing), and he was asked about it on a local radio station. “(I don’t know) how Billy (Beane) was feeling about that because Billy doesn’t feel too strongly about swinging at 3-0. Unless it was a home run, but even at that I’m sure he’s pretty upset that (the batter) didn’t get a walk.”

Yoenis Cespedes has swung at a 3-0 pitch this year. Josh Reddick has swung at two. It’s mid-May and the A’s have already topped their three or four times for the year. Maybe swinging at 3-0 is now a thing that teams like the A’s do. Maybe it’s still not. What’s interesting is that, in the past 15 years, count control has been at the center of baseball’s strategic shifts, and yet I couldn’t tell you what 3-0 green lights represent. Are they what statheads do, trying to leverage the hitter’s count they’ve worked so hard to get? Are they what statheads never do, eager as they are to get on base? Are they what teams do when offense is up, or what they do in pitchers’ eras? What does a 3-0 green light mean?

Here’s a graph I put together a few days ago. It shows what percentage of 3-0 plate appearances ended with a ball in play on 3-0. This isn’t exactly a chart showing how often the green light is given; we’ll never know how often a green light is given, since some large percentage of hitters with green lights take the pitch (for whatever reason) anyway, and about half of 3-0 swings are fouled off or missed entirely. So this chart is a proxy, but it works:

Normally, when we look at a chart about league tendencies, it’s easy to see the trend and tie it to one of three things: Teams got statheadier, the offensive environment changed, or expansion happened. But here it’s all jumbled up. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, 3-0 swinging was not particularly rare or common. Then, as offense went up, and as two teams were added to the league, it became very common. Then, as offense kept going up, and two more teams were added to the league, it became rarer and rarer and, eventually, very rare. Then, as Moneyball stuff became common, they kept getting rarer and rarer and practically unheard up until Moneyball stuff had completely saturated the game and… they suddenly became more common. Baseball in 1991, 2002, and 2013 share very little in common philosophically or in terms of offensive levels, except that they all treated the 3-0 green light roughly the same.

Here’s another graph that looks at it slightly differently: The number of batters who put the ball in play on 3-0 at least once each full season—basically, the number of hitters who were deemed worthy of a green light:

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Related Content:  Sabermetrics,  3-0 Count,  Swings,  Green Lights

4 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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ncsaint

I sincerely hope all of those managers are lying. It's tough to keep pitchers honest with the occasional 3-0 swing if you give the press an exhaustive list of the base-out-inning situations in which you are willing to consider it.

May 16, 2014 08:41 AM
rating: 0
 
MGL

That's a very good point above! I doubt they are lying.

It seems to me that a manager's opinion is worthless, as with most of these things. Someone has to do some research and establish rules of thumb for various hitter/pitcher combinations and game situations.

As usual, in each instance, there is a correct answer (or it is a toss-up) and an incorrect one, regardless of what the manager's "opinion" is.

May 16, 2014 15:42 PM
rating: 3
 
WaldoInSC

With all due respect, I think this is the exact opposite of the truth. There is rarely a "right" or "wrong" answer because there are so many variables unknown to us, including whether the pitcher is losing his command, whether the meat of the order is due up or whether the batter is a dead fastball hitter. This is why you pay a manager and not a computer to skipper the team.

May 18, 2014 18:17 PM
rating: 0
 
Brad Clark

This is an interesting article. It's kind of surprising that there aren't a ton of green lights given to power hitters, regardless of the inning, especially if the matchup is favorable (i.e. opposite handed pitcher with a weak fastball), considering that the 3-0 pitch is normally right down the pipe, and considering that the strike zone is huge on a 3-0. I'm also wondering how much of the decision is based on the pitch sequence. For instance, if a pitcher tries to pitch a batter backwards it might go something like this: breaking ball misses, then he tries to paint the outside corner with heat and misses, then tries to induce an early swing with a changeup that misses low. At this point, the breaker and the off speed have failed, and the location on the heat has also failed. Wouldn't it make sense to green light a guy in this situation, as the most practical next pitch for the pitcher would be a fastball down the middle (where, even if he misses by a bit, it will still be a called strike if the batter is taking)?

This is just a thought. Completely off the top of my head and I didn't go back to read it to make sure any of it made sense, so please feel free to tear me apart below.

May 20, 2014 13:17 PM
rating: 0
 
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