Alcides Escobar has led off in every game he has played this year, despite going into this season with a career on-base percentage of .302. He has been credited for "ambushing" pitchers, which means swinging at the first pitch in a count. Lee Judge explained it recently in a column.
When a hitter swings at the first pitch it’s called an "ambush," and Royals fans have been seeing Alcides Escobar ambushing pitches all season. Pitchers tend to throw first-pitch fastballs to get ahead in the count, so a hitter can take advantage of that by swinging at that first pitch. And in Esky’s case, the numbers seem to justify that approach: Escobar is currently hitting .268 overall, but when he leads off a game he hits .314. When he hits the first pitch of an at bat, his average goes up to .389. What’s not to like?
The .389 number sounds great until you consider, as Rany pointed out to me, that this is his average only on balls he has put into play. Let's dive a bit deeper into ambush hitting.
Alcides Escobar swings at the first pitch 32% of the time in all of his at bats. The league average is 28%. Marlon Byrd and Carlos Gomez lead the league in swinging at the first pitch at 49.5%. So Esky is actually a bit more patient than previously thought, at least with the first pitch of an at bat. Alcides has swung at the first pitch 170 times this year, putting the ball in play 45% of the time. Here's how it breaks down:
The league as a whole is hitting .329 when putting the ball in play on the first pitch. Out of 106 players in baseball who have put the ball in play at least 50 times on the first pitch, Alcides Escobar ranks 30th with his .389 batting average. J.D. Martinez has done the best, hitting .541 in 63 plate appearances when putting the ball in play on the first pitch. Ryan Braun has 11 home runs on the first pitch. Jose Altuve has put the ball in play the most times on the first pitch, doing so in 99 plate appearances.
Esky does a bit better when leading off a game. He swings at the first pitch 41% of the time, but produces more hits. We're dealing with a sample size of 49 times he has swung to lead off a game, so there is probably quite a bit of noise in these results.
He explained his approach to ambushing pitchers in the first inning in this interview, saying "I like to swing the bat. if you told me there's a fastball right down the middle in the first inning, I'm swinging the bat. That's 100% the way to swing in that situation."
Why does ambush hitting seem to work when the hitter makes contact? The BABIP rates for first pitches is higher than average. As James Gentile of Hardball Times hypothesizes:
Perhaps pitchers tend to groove first pitch more often to get ahead, perhaps they take a little off their velocity, perhaps the cut flattens out a bit (this is certainly an interesting idea for a PITCHf/x study for another day
He also points out, however, that the wOBA for hitters that swing at the first pitch is ultimately lower than that of hitters that take on the first pitch. If Alcides Escobar is missing or fouling a pitch off 55% of the time on the first pitch, he's putting himself in a 0-1 deficit. The league is a whole is hitting .226/.265/.349 after starting with an 0-1 count. Alcides himself is hitting .234/.262/.286. So while "ambush hitting" is a gamble, its a gamble that doesn't seem to pay off on a regular basis.
Lee Judge also points out that ambushing pitchers does not give your teammates a chance to see the pitcher, although Rusty Kuntz dismisses that notion, arguing that with video and advanced scouting, the players have already seen the pitchers several times. Jason Kendall argues that's not the same as seeing a pitcher live, but I'll leave it to those wise old baseball men to figure out who is right.
It should also be noted that not all first pitches are created the same. A fastball down the middle that goes by a hitter will produce the same 0-1 count than a first pitch that the hitter swings and misses at. Dave Cameron (with the help of Jeff Zimmerman) has an excellent article here that shows that hitters are swinging at fewer first pitches, but getting better overall results. Hitters are being selectively aggressive. Swinging at the first pitch is not a bad idea if it in fact, a good pitch to swing at.
Finally, Lee Judge points out that while some hitters can work the count and have a terrific at-bat like Mike Moustakas did on Sunday against Boston, many players just simply don't have that skill. It has long been said that plate discipline is a skill developed at an early age, and asking aggressive hitters to become more patient is a fool's errand. In that case, perhaps it makes sense for Alcides to be very aggressive in the count, because once he gets down in the count, he's finished. Ambush hitting is not really a problem with Alcides. Hitting his .307 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot is, but that's a whole different article.