May 16, 2014
The Meaning of 3-0 Green Lights
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:
So who supports the 3-0 swingaway, and are we looking at a divide between competing schools of baseball philosophy? We’ve established that Beane and his A’s hated it. Here are some other people you’ve heard of and their stated positions on the green light:
Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez and, Mike Moustakas (even if Moustakas is batting .158).
So Yost gives it to about half his regulars, all of them with some pop if not big-time pop (Perez hit 13 homers last year; Butler 15). And he gives it only later in innings, when this relatively slow group is relatively unlikely to be moved around the bases by a couple of hits.
• Davey Johnson, the stathead’s favorite ex-manager, gave it a lot. "I love to hit 3-0. You just look for a ball the size of a basketball, in the part of the plate you want it." (Quote via Chris Cwik.) The Nationals led baseball in 2013 by putting 19 3-0 pitches in play, with seven players—Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Adam Laroche, Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman all taking advantage of Johnson’s green light. Wilson Ramos, who didn’t put a ball in play on 3-0, swung at five of the 10 3-0 pitches he saw last year, so at least eight batters got the green light. Two of Werth’s came with nobody out (and runners on first and second), so we know that Johnson doesn’t prohibit swinging away early in innings, or in situations where walks would be extremely valuable on their own.
"There are a lot of variables that go into whether or not you are going to allow a guy to swing or not allowing a guy to swing. One, [Springer] had been in somewhat of a funk, and you're trying to get him the best pitch he can get given the particular at-bat.
While all of that sounds like Porter is pro-Green Light, the Astros were near the bottom of 3-0 swings last year, and this is an organization that reportedly has threatened to give minor leaguers take signs on 3-2. (Of course, 3-2 and 3-0 are very different.)
• The Mets are perceived as being anti-Green Light by people who cover them. The New York Post has said this year that “the green light on a 3-0 pitch… is frowned upon in Alderson’s Bases Per Out World,” and that the green light is “perhaps counter to the Mets’ current on-base at-all-costs philosophy.” Anthony Recker was given the green light this year (“You can call it desperation,” Terry Collins said after), which would suggest liberal green lighting, but the Mets put only four 3-0 pitches in play last year, one more than the league’s lowest total.
• After Joey Votto homered on 3-0, Reds manager Bryan Price said, “In a tie game, he has the green light,” which feels like an oddly restrictive thing to say, but the Reds aren’t restrictive: Five players, including Zack Cozart, have already put a 3-0 pitch in play this year.
• Joe Maddon is generally in favor of green lights, and after getting second-guessed on one green light in 2008 he said that “It's something we've done all year.” Since 2008, he has given green lights to at least 21 players, including Brooks Conrad, Ryan Roberts, Jeff Keppinger and Aki Iwamura.
• According to Rico Brogna, “When I played for Terry Francona in Philadelphia, each hitter had the “Green” Light to swing away on any 3-0 count.” It’s true: In just four years, 22 of Francona’s Phillies put the ball in play on 3-0 counts: Mike Benjamin, Tim Naehring, Israel Alcantara, Lou Merloni, Darren Bragg, Manny Alexander, Keith Mitchell, plus some guys who would really surprise you. But that was Francona in Philadelphia. In eight years, just 18 Red Sox put the ball in play under him, and the Indians have been in the middle of the pack since he took over last year.
So, have we learned anything about who gives green lights? Probably not. There are statheads in both camps and traditionalists in both camps. There are also all sorts of reasons to swing or not swing. Tim McCarver, who is pro-aggression on 3-0, is also dismissive of many green lights. In his book Baseball For Brain Surgeons, he writes that “A lot of green lights are given on the 3-0 pitch, perhaps so the batters won't feel insulted.” Pablo Sandoval rarely swings on 3-0, and you wonder whether it might be because he (and some hitters) can’t be trusted—"Some guys can hit 3-0, some guys can't,” as Jason Kendall wrote in this year’s Throwback.
In a 2007 New York Times article bemoaning the endangered 3-0 swing, Keith Hernandez suggested that pitchers didn’t have the command they once did, so even their attempts to groove one no longer reliably lead to hittable pitches. And, he and then-Indians hitting instructor Derek Shelton agreed, experienced pitchers had grown more cautious with their 3-0 pitches.
What’s notable is that David Forst, in that 2007 article, basically prophesied the reemergence or 3-0 swings that we’ve seen in the past four years.
Just as batters may fear being mocked for popping up a 3-0 pitch, Forst said, pitchers “may not want to be on ‘SportsCenter’ as the fool who threw a fat 3-0 fastball to the other team’s best hitter.”
So if you had to put a narrative on those graphs up there, it probably would have to do with this cyclical, game-theoretical response to the offensive era. As hitting got crazy in the mid-90s, more batters had the sort of stats that made it seem like they deserved the green light. As more hitters got the green light, pitchers became afraid, and the 3-0 pitch became a different pitch than it always had been. That trend continued until offense tapered off, at which point pitchers again felt safer grooving a pitch. So more hitters swung at those pitches—even Oakland Athletics hitters. I don’t know. That story is a couple pieces of evidence away from having any evidence to support it. And it's awfully simple. But it’s as good a story as any, for now.