clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Robinson Cano and the 3-0 green light

New, 9 comments

Examining the rate at which Robinson Cano swings away on a 3-0 count.

Swing?
Swing?
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

As baseball fans, when we're watching/listening to a broadcast, there are many phrases that we hear repeatedly throughout a game. One such phrase, utilized on pretty much every 3-0 count in a ball game, refers to whether or not a batter is going to get "the green light" from his manager to swing away. Generally, if a batter is either 1) legitimately good or 2) looks like a "slugger", the announcer will readily proclaim that "this guy probably has the green light". But which players are taking advantage of this freedom to swing?

On the Mariners, it's impossible for me to know who has actually been given the green light (unless I go talk to Lloyd, which seems like an unlikely scenario), but it's easy to look and see who has been swinging the bat on a 3-0 count. ALERT, ALERT: SMALL SAMPLE SIZES AHEAD. Based of the relative infrequency with which 3-0 counts occur in a single season, I'm not going to make any solid claims/assertions regarding the following information. It's mostly just here just for you to look at and think about. Maybe you'll go "Huh?" and scratch your head. Whatever. The following table shows the propensity of Mariners hitters to either swing at or take the next pitch on a 3-0 count this season. (I should mention that this information excludes intentional base-on-balls because batters don't have the opportunity to swing at these pitches... unless, you know.)

Player 3-0 PA Ball Called Strike Whiff Foul In play, out Hit 3-0 swing%
Seager 22 9 11 0 0 1 1 9.1%
Cano 20 10 9 0 0 1 0 5.0%
Smoak 20 9 9 0 0 1 1 10.0%
Ackley 10 4 6 0 0 0 0 0.0%
Jones 8 2 6 0 0 0 0 0.0%
Hart 8 4 2 1 1 0 0 25.0%
Miller 6 3 3 0 0 0 0 0.0%
Zunino 6 1 4 0 1 0 0 16.7%
Chavez 6 1 5 0 0 0 0 0.0%
Almonte 6 1 5 0 0 0 0 0.0%
Saunders 5 2 2 0 0 1 0 20.0%
Morrison 5 0 2 2 1 0 0 60.0%
Buck 4 1 1 2 0 0 0 50.0%
Franklin 4 1 2 0 1 0 0 25.0%
Bloomquist 3 0 3 0 0 0 0 0.0%
Romero 2 0 1 0 1 0 0 50.0%
Gillespie 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0.0%
Total: 137 49 72 5 5 4 2 11.7%

Overall, it doesn't seem like the Mariners are swinging at a ton of 3-0 pitches. This isn't surprising; they're not so good at hitting. I have no problem with ~90% of these hitters adopting a statuesque pose on every 3-0 pitch. As a team, the M's have only put the ball in play six times on a 3-0 pitch, and only two of those were hits: an RBI single up the middle by Smoak and this beauty by Seager. I was a little surprised that Cano has only swung at one 3-0 pitch this year (an RBI groundout). Being the best hitter on the team, you'd probably expect him to get the green light to swing away every time. And ~half of the 3-0 pitches he's seen this year have been strikes, so it's not as if he's received only complete garbage to swing at.

His seemingly low swing rate in 2014 led me to go back and look at his career 3-0 numbers. To do this, I used a combination of data from baseballsavant.com and baseball-reference.com, which limited my search to data from 2008 onward (Cano's first three seasons are not included). Surprisingly, Cano's 3-0 swing% during this period is actually lower than it's been so far with the Mariners: only 2.7%. Also, he has only one career hit on a 3-0 pitch. These numbers seemed pretty low to me... but maybe I've just bought into the idea, as stipulated by every baseball announcer ever, that good hitters will swing away when the count is 3-0. HAVE I BEEN THINKING ABOUT BASEBALL INCORRECTLY THIS WHOLE TIME???

To find out, I obtained some context for Cano's number by looking at a bunch of other top hitters. I limited my search to the top 25 hitters (by wOBA since 2008) who are currently playing who've had at least 150 PAs with a 3-0 count (again, excluding IBBs). Cano ranks 17th in this group. Sample size concerns might still be somewhat of an issue at 150 PA, but since strikeout and walk rates (which are closely related to swing%) have stabilized at this point, I reckon it should probably be okay. (I apologize for the two beefy tables in this post.)

Player 3-0 PA Ball Called Strike Whiff Foul In play, out Hit 3-0 swing%
Ryan Braun 210 68 138 1 0 0 3 1.9%
Robinson Cano 183 76 102 0 1 3 1 2.7%
Joe Mauer 251 96 148 2 2 3 0 2.8%
Troy Tulowitzki 170 66 96 0 1 3 4 4.7%
Edwin Encarnacion 167 52 106 2 2 1 4 5.4%
Shin-Soo Choo 197 77 108 2 4 5 1 6.1%
Chase Utley 209 62 132 0 5 7 3 7.2%
Mark Teixeira 202 70 116 2 7 4 3 7.9%
David Wright 180 53 110 3 7 7 0 9.4%
Adrian Gonzalez 240 92 124 7 7 9 1 10.0%
Miguel Cabrera 182 70 91 5 6 6 4 11.5%
Giancarlo Stanton 155 62 74 7 3 7 2 12.3%
Andrew McCutchen 174 65 87 4 13 0 5 12.6%
Evan Longoria 202 70 106 0 10 7 9 12.9%
Carlos Beltran 197 68 103 1 12 10 3 13.2%
Hanley Ramirez 176 50 101 2 12 7 4 14.2%
Prince Fielder 310 111 151 4 22 16 6 15.5%
Matt Holliday 192 69 89 6 20 7 1 17.7%
Jose Bautista 220 78 103 3 22 9 5 17.7%
Joey Votto 208 70 94 5 23 7 9 21.2%
Jayson Werth 238 71 116 9 23 7 12 21.4%
Mike Napoli 175 46 82 12 21 7 7 26.9%
Justin Upton 172 60 65 7 19 10 11 27.3%
David Ortiz 189 43 94 5 23 16 8 27.5%
Albert Pujols 270 90 92 9 31 28 20 32.6%

I've sorted this by "3-0 swing%" to show that Robinson Cano has the second lowest swing rate (only Ryan Braun is lower). In contrast, the average swing% for this group of elite hitters is about 13%. In 183 opportunities, Cano has swung only five times. Although all 25 of these men are great hitters, it is a little disingenuous to directly compare Cano to players like David Ortiz or Albert Pujols. Cano is certainly more of a line drive hitter who can spray the ball to all fields, as opposed to a traditional "slugger" (his ISO is 21st in this group). However, if we go to baseball-reference and check out which players have the highest batter similarity scores with Cano, we see that Chase Utley and David Wright are two of his three closest comps. Conveniently, these two men are listed in our table above, and they both have significantly higher 3-0 swing rates than Cano (7.2 and 9.4%, respectively). Additionally, of these 25 men, Cano actually has the highest overall career swing rate (51.8%), so his hesitance to swing on 3-0 pitches seems particularly enigmatic. He has a very uncommon approach, which he appears to share with few other MLB players.

In closing, I am not saying that Cano should swing more on a 3-0 count. I'm merely marvelling at how infrequently he does so. He's obviously been a superb hitter throughout his career with his current approach, and the wide range in swing rates shown in the table above clearly demonstrates that swinging either a lot or very little on a 3-0 count does not preclude you from being an amazing hitter. Furthermore, hitting is highly situational. Looking at just the numbers, it's difficult to know what the typical context for Cano's at bats have been. Maybe it has made sense for him to seldom swing at a 3-0 pitch. I don't know! I simply found all of this to be very interesting and wanted to share it with you.

***All of the statistics herein were compiled on 7/23/14, so they do not include the last few days.

- - -

A few questions...

1. Are you surprised by the infrequency with which Cano swings at 3-0 pitches? Or does this jive with your perception of him?

2. Do you endorse Cano continuing this approach as a member of the Seattle Mariners? Or would you like to see him jump on more 3-0 pitches, considering there aren't many other players on this team who have the skill to regularly knock him in after he takes his walks?