Getting the green: Baseballs new approach toward 3-0 counts

The Bulls join several teams now breaking one of baseballs oldest rules

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Scorekeeper Chris Ivey changes the scoreboard in the eighth inning of the minor league baseball game between the Durham Bulls and the Charlotte Knights at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham

In an April game against Charlotte, the Durham Bulls were clinging to a 1-0 lead when Mike Marjama led off the fifth inning.Knights starter Lucas Giolito was struggling with his control. He’d walked three batters already and would finish with just 43 of his 90 pitches being strikes.Giolito quickly fell behind Marjama as Charlotte got a reliever up in the bullpen. The count went three balls and no strikes on Marjama, and Giolito was in a jam.Needing to throw a strike in order to avoid putting the leadoff hitter on base, Giolito took a little off of his fastball and threw it down the middle of the plate.Marjama swung and crushed a deep fly ball toward the snorting bull billboard above the left field wall for a home run that doubled Durham’s lead. Two batters later, Giolito was out of the game and the Bulls were on their way to a 6-0 win.The play demonstrates a change in approach for the Bulls — and many other teams — this season, one that requires violating one of baseball’s most sacred commandments: Don’t swing on 3-0.It’s easy to see why batters have long been instructed to leave the bat on their shoulder in that situation. A pitcher that has thrown three straight balls is clearly struggling. Make him throw a strike. More often than not, swinging the bat will help take the pitcher off the hook, giving him a much needed strike, or even an out, when he’s on the ropes.Bulls hitting coach Ozzie Timmons is a longtime proponent of taking in that situation. “There’s nothing you can do at 3-0 that you can’t also do at 3-1,” he said.Still, the Bulls have shown a willingness to roll the dice and break that rule this season. Through the first 35 games, Bulls batters have swung on a 3-0 count 18 times, about once every other day.To put that in perspective, Durham had just 18 swings in that situation in the first three months of last season. The Tampa Rays, Durham’s MLB parent club has just one swing at 3-0 this year and had four all of last season.It’s not a question of batters being less disciplined. The vast majority of the time, the decision to swing is made from the bench. Coaches have a “green light” sign — essentially a permission slip to swing on 3-0—that they flash from the bench, the same as the signs to steal or bunt. Until they see that sign, hitters should assume that the light is as red as it’s always been.When asked about his approach on 3-0 counts, Bulls infielder Willy Adames, one of the top prospects in the Tampa Bay system, responded immediately, “Wait for the green light. There’s no approach unless you have the green light.””At this level?” Timmons asked with a laugh. “No one has a green light all the time. In the Major Leagues, maybe Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera.”A look at the results shows why Bulls batters are getting the green light from coaches on 3-0 so often. Eleven percent of Durham’s swings on 3-0 have resulted in home runs. That compares to two percent of all other swings.”It’s usually the best pitch you’re going to see,” Timmons explained. A pitcher who needs to throw a strike, especially when he thinks there’s no danger of the batter swinging, is going to serve up a straight, slow, hittable pitch the likes of which are usually not seen once batting practice ends.Getting the green from the bench isn’t a guarantee that the batter will swing, however. It would probably be more accurately described as a yellow light: Proceed, with caution.”If you’re going to swing, it’s got to be in your spot, in the very heart of your hitting zone,” Timmons explained, holding his hands in a circle about the size of a softball to demonstrate the sweet spot. “You need to hit it hard. You shouldn’t be looking to go opposite field or anything. I want to see either a home run or a deep foul ball that you pulled hard.””You need to see your pitch,” said Durham’s Jake Bauers. One of Bauers’ three home runs on the season came on a 3-0 count.”It needs to be over the fence,” said Adames. “Either a home run or …” Adames made a whooshing noise and followed an imaginary deep foul ball over his shoulder.Adames and Bauers have combined for eight of the Bulls 18 swings on 3-0 this year.A 3-0 count can represent a batter’s best chance for a home run, something that more and more teams are realizing.”It depends on the pitcher and the situation in the game, but there are times when we’ll give them the green light,” Timmons said. In a recent game against Columbus, Bulls batters twice pulled the trigger on 3-0 counts. “In that case, we were struggling a little bit. We’d lost three in a row and needed a spark against a good pitcher.”While the Rays don’t take many shots on 3-0, other Major League teams are giving it a try. Over the last three seasons, MLB batters swing about once every 27 times they have a 3-0 count. As recently as 2010, it was once every 40 times.MLB batters are doing damage in that situation. Over the last three years, the combined MLB batting average on a 3-0 pitch is .390 with a 1.722 OPS, compared to .254 and .721 on all other counts. Batters have also hit 62 home runs on 3-0 in 683 at bats, a nine percent home run rate that is more than triple the rate on all other counts.Of course, it doesn’t always work out. In the Columbus game where Timmons thought the Bulls needed a spark, the two swings produced four outs. Bauers grounded into a double play on a sharply hit ball up the first base line.”That’s okay,” Timmons said. “He hit it hard. We usually see him get a good swing on it in those situations, and he has power.”The other swing came from Johnny Field, a light-hitting center fielder. Field got under the ball and popped it into the infield. The soft liner was caught, and a runner was doubled off of second base to end an inning.Timmons took Field aside the next day for a talking to.”I told him, ‘You’re not a home run hitter. You don’t need to be doing that.'”In other words, wait for the green light.