It almost happened on Wednesday. Brian Dozier was batting in the eighth inning, with the Twins leading Detroit 3-2, and Tigers reliever Neftali Perez was having trouble finding the plate. The count got to 3-and-0 and, “I thought, ‘I’ve seen his pitches, I might get a good one here,’ “ Dozier said. Sure enough, Perez threw a fastball on the outside edge of the strike zone, and Dozier … watched it.
Of course he did. Like most of his teammates, Dozier is trained to do anything he can to get on base, and in most cases, that means letting 3-0 pitches go by in hopes of drawing a walk. The Twins are one of the most conservative teams in baseball on 3-0 pitches, in fact, with players like Joe Mauer and Miguel Sano known for drawing walks.
But it’s not just the middle of the lineup. Twins hitters have faced a 3-0 count 187 times this season (not counting intentional walks), and according to MLB’s Pitchf/x data, only 11 times have they so much as swung at the next pitch. They have looked at called strikes 124 rimes, almost exactly two-thirds of such at-bats, and only five times have they put the ball in play, going 0-for-5. They are one of two teams, along with the Rockies, never to collect a base hit on a 3-0 pitch this season, and they didn’t have one last year, either.
No Twin has swung at a 3-0 pitch more than once this season except Trevor Plouffe, who has swung seven times (going 0-for-4) — and there’s a reason for that.
“I like to swing on 3-0. I think more guys should,” said Plouffe, who has two career hits on 3-0, including a home run in 2012, but none since 2013. “The way pitching is now, pitchers are getting more dominant. [Hitters] don’t have the advantage very often, so 3-0 is a time where you can maybe get a good one.”
Manager Paul Molitor gives each hitter a take or swing-away sign, relayed through third-base coach Gene Glynn, on every 3-0 count, with veteran hitters and power hitters trusted a little more. “For power hitters, it’s a good risk sometimes, because a big swing from those guys, you might take that over a walk, since he’s not going to be much of a baserunner,” Glynn said. “Most of our guys are pretty smart about it.”
Including Plouffe. “For the most part, you’ve seen three pitches, you’ve been able to time [the pitcher] a little, and 99 percent of the time, you’re going to get a fastball,” Plouffe said, who isn’t exactly hacking wildly at 3-0 — his seven swings have come on 21 chances. “But you have to zone up and get the right pitch. You’ve got to know it’s a pitch where you can do what you want to accomplish.”
It’s not for everyone, of course. Joe Mauer hasn’t swung at a 3-0 pitch since May 13, 2014, and has offered at only two in 248 chances since 2009. Of his 1,686 career hits, only two came on 3-0 counts, both in 2006. Torii Hunter used to do it more often; he has 10 career 3-0 hits, but none since 2011.
But some teams are more willing take a cut at a 3-0 pitch. Sixteen teams have homered on a 3-0 pitch this season — St. Louis’ Justin Upton and San Francisco’s Brian Crawford have connected twice — but no Twin has done so in more than two years, since Justin Morneau on Aug. 8, 2013. (That’s also the Twins’ last 3-0 hit of any kind.)
Dozier would seem a likely candidate, since he’s led the Twins in home runs in each of the past three seasons — but he has never swung at a 3-0 pitch in the major leagues, not even once in his 105 career chances. He has taken 77 called strikes instead, and walked 28 times.
“I think about it sometimes,” Dozier said. “It needs to be the appropriate time. But with Joe up after me most of the time, trying to get on base makes more sense.”