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The Mariners and attempting to advance to first base after an uncaught strike three

Sometimes players try to run to first after striking out on a pitch in the dirt. Sometimes they don't bother. Does it really matter?

Such a balanced swing.
Such a balanced swing.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

One of my biggest baseball-related pet peeves is when a player swings at a lousy pitch in the dirt for strike three and then doesn't even bother to run down to first to force the catcher to make a throw to complete the play. Maybe this isn't something that a lot of folks care about (the success rate of reaching base on a dropped/uncaught third strike is very low), but it just feels like when you make a mistake by swinging at a bad pitch the least you can do is jog towards first base and see if you can force the catcher to make a poor throw. If nothing else, you can think of this as a form of penance - athletes should be used to having to run when they make mistakes.

This was always something that irritated me during games, but it was a fairly fleeting concern until I recently realized that Fangraphs kinda keeps track of whether a batter reaches/is thrown out on a dropped third strike. If you look at the play logs for a player, this event shows up as something like "James Jones out on a dropped third strike." Of course, this play can only occur under a specific set of conditions. If you're so inclined, you're more than welcome to go wade through the specific rules that detail an uncaught/dropped third strike, which are written in sections 6.05 and 6.09 of the Official Rules of Baseball. Simply put, in order for a player to advance to first on a dropped third strike, three conditions must be met:

1. A player must strike out on a pitch that was not cleanly received by the catcher. This generally happens when a batter swings at a pitch in the dirt that bounces before it's caught by the catcher.

2. There must be either two outs or first base must be unoccupied when the strike out occurs. (This caveat is in place to prevent a savvy catcher from intentionally mishandling a third strike to try and turn a double/triple play, similarly to why the infield fly rule is a thing.)

3. After striking out, the hitter must make the ~immediate decision to run/half-heartedly jog down to first base as opposed to simply walking dejectedly back to the dugout. (As a result of A.J. Pierzynski's hijinks back in the 2005 American League Championship Series, an event that most people probably remember with a non-zero amount of irritation, this was clarified with Rule 6.09(b), which states: "A batter who does not realize his situation on a third strike not caught, and who is not in the process of running to first base, shall be declared out once he leaves the dirt circle surrounding home plate.")

If all three of these conditions are met, then a player has the opportunity to attempt to get on base despite striking out. However, if the batter can't be bothered to run towards first, the play is simply recorded as a swinging strikeout. With this in mind, it's very difficult to tell exactly how often/what percentage of the time a player takes the initiative to run down to first as opposed to just slamming his batting helmet into the dirt in disgust. It would be fairly interesting to find out that Willie Bloomquist runs down to first on every dropped third strike, while Kendrys Morales runs down to first on only 10% of his dropped third strike opportunities. This stat would almost certainly correlate very strongly with the amount of grit a player has. In any case, we can still look at the raw numbers regarding how often this situation occurs. Below is a big, honkin' table that details the strike out numbers of Mariners position players in 2014.

Player PA SO K% Called SO Swinging SO Thrown out on dropped third strike Reached base after dropped third strike
Robinson Cano 665 68 10.2% 10 58 1 0
Kyle Seager 654 118 18.0% 30 88 3 0
Dustin Ackley 542 90 16.6% 24 66 2 0
Mike Zunino 476 158 33.2% 30 128 3 1
Brad Miller 411 95 23.1% 30 65 6 1
Logan Morrison 365 59 16.2% 19 40 5 0
James Jones 328 67 20.4% 16 51 12 1
Justin Smoak 276 66 23.9% 18 48 1 0
Michael Saunders 263 59 22.4% 17 42 1 0
Endy Chavez 258 30 11.6% 3 27 5 0
Corey Hart 255 59 23.1% 13 46 0 0
Kendrys Morales 239 41 17.2% 8 33 1 0
Austin Jackson 236 59 25.0% 20 39 1 0
Stefen Romero 190 48 25.3% 15 33 0 0
Chris Taylor 151 39 25.8% 13 26 3 0
Willie Bloomquist 139 32 23.0% 9 23 0 0
Abraham Almonte 113 40 35.4% 11 29 2 0
John Buck 92 24 26.1% 4 20 1 0
Chris Denorfia 90 19 21.1% 2 17 0 0
Cole Gillespie 78 13 16.7% 6 7 1 0
Jesus Sucre 64 17 26.6% 4 13 1 0
Nick Franklin 52 21 40.4% 6 15 1 0
Jesus Montero 17 3 17.6% 0 3 0 0
Humberto Quintero 2 1 50.0% 0 1 0 0
Total 5956 1226 20.6% 308 918 50 3

In looking at this table, I think that a few things stand out.

  • The fact that Robinson Cano led the team in PA but only attempted to advance to first on a dropped third strike once does not seem unfitting. Because Cano's eye at the plate is excellent, he doesn't strike out very often. As such, he's not going to have as many opportunities to advance to first after striking out... still, this number likely won't do anything to dispel the "Robinson Cano is a bum who doesn't run out grounders or give 110% all of the time" narrative.
  • James Jones led the Mariners in this category, attempting to advance to first after a dropped third strike a whopping 13 times. This probably shouldn't come as too much of a surprise; Jones' general lack of plate discipline suggests that he's not unlikely to swing at pitches down in the dirt. This, paired with his speed, suggest that he'd probably be one of the likeliest Mariners to both 1) attempt to and 2) successfully reach base after striking out. This turns out to be true as Jones was one of only three Mariners (in addition to Miller and Zunino???) to advance to first after an uncaught strike three. Still, 13 times is a lot given the fact that he accumulated less than 330 PA last season... a (small) part of me does enjoy watching James Jones play, but unless he makes great strides improving his game this off-season, I sure hope that his playing time is severely limited next year.
  • Out of the 53 attempts to reach base after striking out, the Mariners were successful just three times. This 5.6% success rate, while low, is actually a bit higher than I thought it might be. This fact is only going to exacerbate my pet peeve.

The Mariners received three extra baserunners by attempting to steal first after a dropped third strike in 2014. Two of those men came around to score runs for Seattle. Those three additional outs also allowed the M's offense more opportunities to put runs on the board. For a team that missed the playoffs by a single game last year, two extra runs and three extra outs are not particularly insignificant. I understand that there's an argument about whether or not it's necessarily worth the injury risk to run hard after every ground ball or to try and run to first after every dropped third strike. Avoiding injuries is certainly prudent... but in this instance, I think I'm a fan of players embracing their inner grit whenever possible. If the catcher drops a third strike, run to first!

Go M's.