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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Giants Capitalize on the First Pitch

After reaching an 0-1 count, the league-average non-pitcher posts a 69 wRC+, which is what Jason Heyward has done over the course of the 2021 season. On the flip side, when reaching 1-0, the league-average non-pitcher produces at the same rate as José Abreu. And that’s just from a single pitch.

First-pitch strikes matter a lot. The easiest way to get those first-pitch strikes? Throw your 0-0 pitches in the strike zone. It works extremely well, for many of the reasons Justin outlined in his piece on the Jays’ offense. The league-average hitter probably doesn’t swing enough in 0-0 counts, and until they do, it makes sense to try to get one over to steal a strike. Look at the league-average zone and swing rates by count, as well as the percentage of total pitches that come in each count. Since an 0-0 pitch has to be thrown to every batter, this count is by far the most prevalent of the 12:

More than half of all first pitches are in the strike zone, but hitters still swing at less than 30% of them. While hitters shouldn’t be swinging at every strike they get, especially when they could be getting a better strike later in the at-bat, it’s pretty obvious that they’re leaving value on the table when not swinging.


RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: September 28, 2021 at 12:27 PM | 12 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Karl from NY Posted: September 28, 2021 at 02:50 PM (#6042151)
The big question that this doesn't answer at all: is the outlying performance on 0-1 a repeatable skill for the Giants, or statistical fluctuation so that we're only seeing an artifact of multiple endpoints (somebody is going to be the highest and we only notice whoever it happens to be) ?
   2. Tom Nawrocki Posted: September 28, 2021 at 03:01 PM (#6042153)
Of course, whether a hitter ends up with a 0-1 or 1-0 count is not random. Juan Soto is going to get a lot more 1-0 counts than Javy Baez.
   3. Walt Davis Posted: September 28, 2021 at 05:08 PM (#6042184)
Walk and K rates

after 0-1: 5.0% 31.6%
after 1-0: 15.9% 19.0%

More than 2/3 of the strikeouts start out 0-1; more than 2/3 of the walks start out 1-0. It's a 6/1 K/BB vs 1.25/1 K/BB -- just a teensy difference. On-contact production is 315/518 after 0-1 and 332/575 after 1-0. (On 0-0 it's 342/579 so about the same as 1-0.)
   4. Ron J Posted: September 28, 2021 at 07:16 PM (#6042198)
Mentioned it before but this was a minor style change McGwire made. Prime McGwire went after the first pitch more frequently than Ichiro.

And it was something McGwire was very aware of. Said something like sometimes the first pitch is the only hittable pitch in the at bat.

It's a curious thing, but I've long thought that disciplined hitters are leaving some good results by taking the first pitch religiously. While undisciplined hitters might well be better of automatically taking more frequently.

What I really like was as a concept is prime Dwight Evans. Supposed he wasn't straight taking on the first pitch but guessed a location. Means you're well positioned to drive the pitch if you guess right. Just don't think we have enough data to verify whether that actually worked.
   5. Random Transaction Generator Posted: September 29, 2021 at 07:27 AM (#6042287)
The Blue Jays hitters have been told to pounce on the first pitch, and it's paid off for them.

Swung at first pitch, 2021:

Team    OPS   PA   AB   BA  OBP  SLG
TOR    .824 2038 1940 .290 .315 .509
SFG    .771 1808 1700 .261 .291 .480
HOU    .771 1861 1756 .281 .307 .464
CHW    .762 1779 1682 .280 .305 .457
WSN    .755 1795 1683 .276 .304 .450
TBR    .754 1883 1787 .261 .290 .463
LAA    .754 1752 1659 .270 .296 .458
BOS    .749 1790 1690 .265 .291 .459
BAL    .737 1730 1641 .259 .284 .453
KCR    .737 1982 1873 .269 .291 .446

Only ATL has swung at more first pitches (2083) than Toronto, but they've been much worse (.736 OPS).
   6. Rally Posted: September 29, 2021 at 07:59 AM (#6042289)
It helps the rate stats to have a Vladito swinging often at first pitch strikes. Not really a plan that other teams can copy.

I mean, they might improve a bit by increasing their first pitch swing rate, but if they don’t have a Vlad or Bo, they aren’t going to get the numbers Toronto gets on those pitches.
   7. Ron J Posted: September 29, 2021 at 09:02 AM (#6042302)
#6. Can't any hitter put up a 1290 OPS by swinging at the first pitch more frequently?

But here's the funny thing. BBREF has a split I'd never noticed: Swung or Took First Pitch of PA

And as good as Guerrero has been when he's put the first pitch in play his results are better when the takes the first pitch.

.307/.358/.576 in the 288 PAs he's swung at the first pitch
.319/.438/.616 in the 388 PAs he's taken the first pitch

So you really want to avoid going 0-1. Guerrero's at a mere .250/.347/.492 -- which looks like 165 swinging strikes on first pitches. Which looks like an absurdly high swing and miss rate (or a data error or a math error)

EDIT: Or a logic fail on my part. Missed that there will also be foul balls on first pitch swings.

   8. Ron J Posted: September 29, 2021 at 12:45 PM (#6042340)
Speaking of which, since we were talking about the Giants:

Swung or Took First Pitch of PA

Swung at 1st Pitch .261/.291/.480
Took 1st Pitch .244/.346/.425

Those seem like remarkable results to me. Only 57 walks in 1808 PAs where they swung at the first pitch, but they've hit 16% of their home runs this year on the first pitch.
   9. The Duke Posted: September 29, 2021 at 12:51 PM (#6042343)
It’s a conundrum because you want to work counts to get the SP out (in most cases ). Swinging at first pitch allows him to go farther. And it typically takes three hits to score so you this works better if you are hitting HRs. But it’s also true that the first pitch might be the best pitch of the at bat.
   10. Walt Davis Posted: September 29, 2021 at 07:33 PM (#6042442)
It's not such a conundrum -- see a pitch you like, swing at it no matter the count. Batters as a whole always do well when they put the first pitch in play and while that doesn't guarantee that they will do well when swinging at the first pitch, it nearly does so. But of course pitches that are swung at (esp on first pitch) are a heavily unrepresentative sample of pitches. That is "swing at the first pitch more" is not a prescription for anything.

As Rally notes -- how well a team does on first pitch will have a lot to do with the quality of its hitters. But yes, at the individual hitter level, it's possible that there are some guys letting pitches they could hit well go by on the first pitch too often. It's hard to believe there are many of those hitters these days. More likely is that maybe a hitter like Joey Gallo only has a small zone in which he can really mash such that he does take first pitch strikes that a more typical hitter should swing at. But having him swing at more pitches he can't mash isn't going to help very much.

Vlad's splits: 123 times he swung and ended the PA** and 165 times he either swung and missed or fouled ... plus another 135 times when he took a strike and 253 times he took a ball. Obviously some of the pitches he swung at weren't in the zone but somebody will have to find fancy data outside b-r to try to track that down.

Now on the times he ended the PA, he's hit 447/843 so he's making some darn good decisions there ... presumably the 135 strikes he took were also mostly good decisions in that he knew he couldn't do much with those. That leaves the 165 mystery swings which are obviously some mix of ones he just missed, ones he shouldn't have swung at and probably mostly pitches on the border of his hot zone. Anyway, about 2/3 of the time he took the pitch, it was a ball.

Interestingly, 1-0 and 0-1 don't have much impact on his HR rate -- 5.9% vs 5.7%. His BB rate of course is much higher after 1-0 and his K rate much higher after 0-1. After 1-0 370/688 on-contact; after 0-1 355/700 ... not a lot of difference there, Assuming good pitchers are more likely to get him to 0-1 than lesser ones, the difference between 1-0 and 0-1 is mainly in BB and K rates, not what he does when he makes contact.

So swing at all good-to-hit pitches (possible exception 3-0). If you don't get a good-to-hit pitch (or you miss/foul/take it) then hope you walk before you strike out. If you are hitting against the Cubs, don't worry, another good-to-hit pitch is coming soon!

** "Swung" at the first pitch includes his HBP on the first pitch so not actually a swing.
   11. Walt Davis Posted: September 29, 2021 at 08:35 PM (#6042454)
McGwire ... the "swung at first pitch" split doesn't go that far back (and fancy splits generally only back to 1988) so all we have is 1st pitch outcomes but there's no real evidence he was any more aggressive at any point in his career -- if anything he was less likely to swing first pitch in his biggest years. Of course pitchers were being extra double careful with him in those years so maybe he just wasn't getting anything to hit. Obviously we don't know what proportion of pitches were in the zone.

%PAs end on first pitch

1988 16.2
1989 14.7
1990 14.3
1991 16.8
1992 17.3
1995 13.0 (hurt/strike most of 93-94)
1996 12.6
1997 12.9
1998 10.9
1999 12.1
2000 14.0
2001 12.1

Digging a bit deeper, certainly he ended up 1-0 more often in the big years suggesting fewer pitches in the zone on first pitch, likely explaining the drop in one-pitch PAs. Interestingly, his rate of ending up 0-1 didn't change which suggests there was a reduction in pitches he would swing at replaced by balls -- i.e. pitchers were concentrating even more on avoiding his sweet spots on first pitch.

With the dawn of sillyball in 93-94 (when he barely played), it's hard to assess changes on first-pitch outcomes -- everybody was hitting everything better. Anyway, he had massive production on first-pitch outcomes in 1990, 92, 95, 96, 98, 99, 2000 ... but the big numbers after 94 are bigger than the big numbers before 93 with 2000 being his biggest year at 533/1190 (22 for 42 with 9 HR, 2 HBP and a SF).
   12. Ron J Posted: September 29, 2021 at 11:49 PM (#6042492)
#11 There was some data on McGwire's big years in the Stats scoreboards. Very limited but it did have swing and miss percentages. (sometimes)

He wasn't missing any less often in his big years but a higher percentage of his swings were in good hitter's counts which very likely helped him in terms of hard contact. In particular as I recall he was hitting fewer foul balls.

EDIT: The other thing I recall was a fairly low percentage of first pitch called strikes.

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