When Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a grand slam on a 3-0 pitch with a seven-run lead against the Texas Rangers on Aug. 17, it set off the controversy that won’t go away.
In the week that followed, writers debated and broadcasters argued to no end about the rights and wrongs of the “unwritten rules” of baseball that pop up and cause trouble every now and again.
We’re not going to add any more to that ongoing discussion, but we can definitively say that the San Diego Padres’ rising star isn’t the only one taking a home run cut with a 3-0 count this season – score and game situation aside.
In fact, while the swing rate has decreased from 11.0% last season to 9.8% in 2020, swinging for the fence has become the norm when a hitter cuts loose on 3-0. MLB-wide, batters have gone 18 for 53 (.340) on 3-0 pitches this season. And of those 18 hits, 12 have been home runs.
That batting average is actually down from the previous five years, but slugging and isolated power is way, way, up. At the 590 plate appearance mark on 3-0 pitches last year, MLB hitters had a .317 isolated power. At the same amount of plate appearances ending on that count this season, batters have a stunning .717 isolated power number.
For context, Babe Ruth, the all-time leader, had an isolated power of .348 against all counts (isolated power is simply slugging average minus batting average).
Here are the league-wide batting averages, isolated power numbers and slugging percentages on 3-0 counts since 2015:
|Season||Batting Avg.||Isolated Power||Slugging|
The fact that fly ball percentage on 3-0 is also way up to 55.6% from just 44.4% in 2019 further backs the point that hitters are trying to launch the ball on that count.
Here’s a closer look at the league-wide ground ball and fly ball percentages on 3-0 since 2015:
Why is this happening? Well, as we’ve noted, batters are still far more likely to take a 3-0 pitch – 90.7% of plate appearances (535 of 590) on that count end in a walk. But 2-0 and 3-1 are no longer the clear-cut fastball counts they were in the past; the home run surge of recent years has discouraged pitchers from trying to get back into the at-bat with their heaters. As a result, 3-0 has also become the only count on which hitters can pretty much rely on getting a fastball.
Four-seam or two-seam fastballs have been thrown 90.9% of the time on 3-0 counts this season, enabling hitters to swing for the fences with confidence when they’re given the green light. In comparison, four-seamers and two-seamers have only been thrown a combined 67.2% of the time on 2-0 and 3-1 counts.
Fastball counts are even more at a premium when considering hitters have a far higher average against them than any other pitch and fewer of them are being thrown overall.
The increased reluctance to throw No. 1, especially in what used to be fastball counts, is also explained by the leaguewide batting average against fastballs (.265 vs. four-seamers and two-seamers, .267 vs. cutters entering the week), which is higher than against any other pitch. As we dissected in our recent piece about the MLB’s offensive resurgence, four-seamers and two-seamers are being thrown less than 50% of the time this season after they were used 52.5% in 2019.
So who has made the most of their 3-0 opportunities in recent seasons? Starlin Castro certainly isn’t known for his home run power – he’s never had more than 22 in a season – but he’s unloaded in those situations. The 11-year veteran has gone 5 for 9 with four homers on 3-0 counts since 2017.
Over the past three seasons, Cincinnati Reds slugger Eugenio Suarez has ambushed opposing hurlers by going 6 for 10 with four dingers on 3-0 while Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves has gone 4 for 6 with three home runs.
Here are the players who have hit the most home runs on 3-0 counts since 2017:
|Ronald Acuna Jr.||2018-20||4||6||3||.667|
While we’ll leave it to others to determine whether Tatis was right to swing under the circumstances of his 3-0 count, know that the 21-year-old shortstop wasn’t alone when he aimed to go deep with his controversial swing.
Research support provided by Evan Boyd.
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