Last week, Lewie argued that Terry Francona is wrong to encourage Indians hitters to swing in 3-0 counts. I respectfully disagree.
I love game theory, but I don’t think it always applies in baseball. Here’s why. Game theory implies assembling the odds of all potential outcomes based on various scenarios and deciding which action will lead to the best result. It works great if you are playing blackjack, because even though you may get burned sitting on eighteen every so often, in the long run you will make money if you sit on eighteen every time. Since you don’t know when the next two or three will pop up in the deck, it makes sense to play the odds.
In baseball, though, you have access to information that can impact your decision, and it only makes sense that when that information says that swinging on 3-0 increases the odds of scoring one or more runs, you swing away. It is true that, over the course of a season, a team will fare better by taking every 3-0 pitch than it will by swinging at every 3-0 pitch. But there are situations where swinging is the right move, and Francona is betting that he can identify those situations.
I think Terry Francona is trusting his guys to take the totality of the situation into account. When a pitcher has totally lost his command, it is usually best to take pitches until he proves he can throw several strikes in succession. However, that pitcher, particularly if he is young or in a slump, will often respond to a loss of command by doing whatever he must to get the ball over, which often results in a pitch delivered at slow speed with little break. In other words, a pitch even I could hit. A good hitter—which Francona had plenty of in Boston—will recognize when a pitcher is inclined to do this and make his decision on whether to swing or take accordingly. Whether the hitters on the Indians will earn such trust remains to be seen, but it is Francona’s style to show confidence in his team, probably in the theory that if he trusts them they will be more likely to trust themselves.
There are other aspects of the situation that would impact this decision. The leadoff hitter in an inning should always take on 3-0, because at that point a walk is the most likely way to get on base, the main goal for the leadoff hitter. I would be much more apt to swing with runners on second and third, because a walk is not nearly as valuable as a hit in that situation. The hitter will also matter; a power hitter will be allowed to swing more than a singles hitter because the best case scenario for him of a home run is much better than a walk, while even if a singles hitter makes contact he is unlikely to get past first base. If Jason Kipnis is facing a lefty, he will get the take sign because he has about a 20-percent chance of getting a hit in that situation, but Michael Brantley may not because he has shown an ability to make contact and judge the strike zone, no matter who is pitching. It’s hard to say with Lonnie Chisenhall because he may never take three pitches in a row.
A major problem I had with Manny Acta was his total lack of instinct as to how a game was flowing. He would play for one run when it seemed like a good time to go for the jugular, and the few times his players actually swung on 3-0 always seemed to be when was running up a huge pitch count and swinging let him off the hook. Acta got some slack for his game management because we always had a good record in one-run games (which had more to do with Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez than Acta) and because he looked good compared to his predecessor. But it always felt to me like he had a notepad in front of him with a list of situations and what decision he would make in each, rather than consider what was best at that moment. If Francona feels like he can assess a situation and judge by the flow of the game what the best move is, his track record is good enough that I am willing to trust him.