Trend toward swinging at 3-0 puts pitchers on alert

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer said he refuses to groove a fastball and goes '100 percent' on 3-0 counts.

Detroit — Alex Gordon, the No. 9 hitter in the Royals lineup batting a robust .203, swung at 3-0 pitches from Michael Fulmer Tuesday night — not once but twice in three at-bats.

Gordon fouled one back in the first inning before singling on a 3-1 pitch and he ended the seventh by grounding out on a 3-1 pitch.

Brandon Moss swung and fouled off a 3-0 pitch on Monday. Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain — the Royals are a team that freely hacks at 3-0 pitches. And the Tigers are very aware of it.

“Yeah, for sure,” Fulmer said. “It’s one of those things where on most 3-0 pitches I am throwing a sinker. That way if they do swing, hopefully they can be on top of it or it misses the barrel.”

It’s not just the Royals, either. The trend across baseball, especially in the American League, is to green light hitters on 3-0 counts.

“It depends on the situation, but I think there are so few true fastball counts anymore, 3-0 might be the last one that’s left,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “It used to be 3-1, 2-0, 3-0 were all fastball counts. That’s not the case anymore.”

Using Baseball Reference, there have been 102 swings at 1,120 3-0 counts in the American League entering play Wednesday. That 10.9 percent swing rate is up from 7.2 percent last year.

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The Royals, Blue Jays, Tigers and Astros are among American League teams who swing most often on 3-0.

“Oh, for sure,” Justin Verlander said when asked if he felt hitters were swinging at 3-0 more often. “I think some of the data is showing that even if you swing 3-0 and don’t put it in play, your percentage (of hits) really jumps on 3-1.”

Gordon’s first at-bat against Fulmer was an example of that. He fouled the 3-0 sinker straight back, then singled on the 3-1 pitch.

“It’s like your timing is off,” Verlander said. “You haven’t swung at three pitches, then all of a sudden you swing. How many times have you seen guys foul off 3-0 pitches? The next one comes and you have your timing.”

The days of throwing a cookie — a get-me-over fastball on 3-0 — are over.

“There are numbers that show the percentage of guys who hack at 3-0,” catcher James McCann said. “And with the amount of guys who are swinging 3-0, it’s no longer, ‘Let’s groove a heater right here.’ You almost have to treat it like a 2-0 or a 2-1 count.

“You see who is on deck and say, ‘OK, do we want to chance walking this guy to face the guy on deck?’ There are no more free strikes on 3-0.”

McCann said he started noticing more guys swinging 3-0 last season and it’s been more prevalent this year. And it’s not just the sluggers who are hacking 3-0.

“For years there were always guys who you know you could trust — a guy like Miggy (Cabrera) — to have a good approach and not swing at a bad pitch 3-0,” he said. “There were guys like Joey Votto or Jose Bautista who you knew would be up there swinging.

“Now, you see guys up and down the lineup doing it. It doesn’t matter. Very few guys are automatic takes.”

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Fulmer and Verlander rarely throw get-me-over pitches in any count — probably more on 0-0 than 3-0 counts. But they are getting to the point where 3-0 isn’t an automatic fastball count.

“I can’t back off,” Fulmer said. “I can’t throw a BP (batting practice) fastball at 90 mph right down the middle. I can’t do it. I have to go 100 percent. So if it’s 3-0, you are still going to see 100 percent out of me. And that helps me get back in the zone, too. If I do try to slow down and miss, it just messes me up.”

In his start in Kansas City last weekend, Fulmer threw a 3-0 change-up to Hosmer.

“He just looked at me,” Fulmer said. “I just said, ‘Well?’ The Royals do it a lot. Their coaching staff lets them swing 3-0. I mean, Gordon’s not having his best season offensively, but he wants that fastball. You have to learn to make a pitch.”

Tigers' Justin Upton has swung at six 3-0 counts this season and is 0-for-1 with five subsequent walks.

“I’m not a big 3-0 guy, but if the situation dictates it, I will swing,” he said. “The way the game is going, I can see guys swinging at 3-0 more. It might be the only count where pitchers are trying to throw a strike and the percentage of fastballs is high.

“Every other count is a crapshoot. Everybody throws anything in any count at any time. It’s pretty smart to take a shot 3-0. If it’s not a fastball or something you can handle, you’ve got two more pitches to work with.”

McCann agrees.

“I don’t think it’s the dumbest thing to swing 3-0,” he said. “You get up 3-0 and you give up a strike. Now it’s 3-1 and the pitcher makes a pitcher’s pitch and he’s right back in the count. Then you get a 3-2 slider and you missed the only pitch to hit, the 3-0 pitch.”

American League hitters are hitting .401 with a 1.793 OPS on 3-0 counts this season. They hit .411 with a 1.717 OPS last season. So, it’s been a productive count, to be sure.

“Yeah, but then you get a situation like with Gordon (Tuesday night),” Verlander said. “Two out, guy on first, top of the lineup coming up, and he swings at the 3-0 and grounds out — that’s a huge favor (to the pitcher).

“But you know how things go in baseball, in cycles. People are saying right now that it’s wise to swing 3-0. Five years ago, you just didn’t swing 3-0 no matter what. There is less emphasis on getting on base now. Guys are looking to hit those 3-0 pitches out of the park.”

Twitter: @cmccosky