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Let’s talk about swinging at the first pitch

Should teams preach aggressiveness or patience?

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The term “ambush” became a popular term in Kansas City a few seasons ago as Alcides Escobar swung away at the top of the lineup, smacking the first pitch of the 2015 World Series for an inside-the-park home run. That aggressive approach has been criticized by many in the analytics community, but Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star recently argued in a column that teams are beginning to see the merits of swinging away early in the count.

Judge writes that the Boston Red Sox, the team that employs Bill James and has finished top five in the American League in walks in 14 of the last 16 seasons, grew tired of their passive approach. Manager Alex Cora has advocated getting the team swinging earlier in the count, and now the team leads the league in runs scored. Is there a correlation?

While Cora may have advocated that, it is certainly not what the Red Sox have done. Boston has taken more balls on the first pitch than any team other than the Indians. Only two teams in baseball have had more plate appearances where they took the first pitch. Every team in the top ten of that category is above league-average in runs scored, except the Twins and Marlins (who are dead last). The Red Sox are fourth in the league in walks drawn.

And it is not just the Red Sox trying to take a more patient approach, the number of pitches-per-plate apperance has steadily risen league-wide, which is part of why games are taking longer than they used to. Where hitters used to see on-average, 3.58 pitchers per plate appearance in 1988 and 3.70 in 1998, now they are seeing 3.89 this season.

Still, Judge argues that when hitters swing at the first pitch and put it in play, they are very successful, while if they take the first pitch for a strike, they put themselves in an 0-1 count that is very hard to overcome. It is true that if you swing at the first pitch and you put the ball in play, you may be able to get a better pitch to hit and drive. Judge notes numbers for the 2015 Royals, writing:

“When the 2015 Royals put the first pitch in play, they hit .317 with an on-base percentage of .342 and a slugging percentage of .491. But if the Royals took the first pitch for a strike, after that those numbers were .236/.270/.354.”

This holds true league-wide this year too, with hitters batting .340/.350/.577 on the first pitch and .218/.264/.350 after the count goes 0-1. The first pitch is a pretty good count to hit. The BABIP rates for first pitches tends to be higher, perhaps due to pitchers electing to go with the fastball on first pitch about half the time. But there are two issues with these numbers.

First, Judge is comparing putting the ball in play, versus taking a strike. If hitters KNEW a strike was coming, then of course they should swing at the pitch. But hitters don’t know if a strike is coming, even on first pitches. In fact, 55% of the time a hitter has taken the first pitch this year the pitch has been called a ball, compared to just 45% called strikes, according to Baseball Savant. Drawing a first pitch ball puts you in a very good position. The 2015 Royals hit .297/.381/.467 after a 1-0 count, even better than their numbers on first pitch.

And if a hitter does decide to swing on the first pitch, there is no guarantee he can put the ball in play even if he wants to. He could foul it off, or miss completely, putting him in that 0-1 count Judge dreads so much. According to Baseball Savant, for those that swing at the first pitch, 40% foul it off, 25% whiff, 26% put the ball in play for an out, and 9% get on base. So you have about a 35% chance of putting the ball in play at all. Hitting Major League pitching is hard!

So if you decide to take the first pitch, you have a 46% chance of being down 0-1. If you swing at the first pitch, you have 64% chance of being down 0-1 either by fouling it off or missing entirely. If avoiding 0-1 is your goal, it seems taking first pitch is a better bet.

The second issue is that Judge looks at counts after 0-1, which makes hitters look really bad. But the reason the numbers for the 2015 Royals are so lousy after an 0-1 count - and this holds true all over baseball - is that 0-1 counts lead to many two-strike counts, and THOSE counts are tough to hit. But the 0-1 count is not necessarily a tough place to be.

Let’s take a look at splits from all teams this year when hitters put the ball in play on each count.

MLB numbers on each count, 2018

First Pitch 17836 .340 .350 .577
1-0 Count 10243 .338 .341 .578
2-0 Count 3855 .346 .347 .653
3-0 Count 3296 .387 .943 .873
0-1 Count 14096 .319 .330 .503
1-1 Count 13159 .329 .336 .541
2-1 Count 7860 .339 .340 .574
3-1 Count 7396 .361 .702 .687
0-2 Count 15263 .149 .159 .227
1-2 Count 24971 .161 .169 .243
2-2 Count 23655 .181 .187 .291
Full Count 22549 .204 .449 .348

Putting yourself down in the count 0-1 - either by hacking away and missing, or by taking a first pitch strike is only bad in that it gets you a step closer to a two-strike count. But the 0-1 count is not bad in and of itself. Judge argues “taking even one strike could put the pitcher in charge of the at-bat”, but hitters putting the ball in play at 0-1 fare nearly as well as batters who put the ball in play on the first pitch.

What really hurts is getting that second strike. The 1-1 count seems to be accepted by many around the game as the most pivotal count. Hitters that put the ball in play on 2-1 are hitting .339, while those putting the ball in play on a 1-2 count are hitting .161. That’s the difference between an All-Star and someone no longer in the league.

League-wide, hitters who swung at the first pitch are hitting, .265/.290/.444, regardless of whether they put the ball in play on the first pitch, compared to .242/.330/.396 for hitters that did not swing at the first pitch, according to data from Baseball Reference. We know that those not swinging at the first pitch are getting balls called more than half the time, which puts them at a big advantage to getting on base.

On the other hand, swinging at the first pitch can add slugging, but at the expense of arguably the most important component to scoring runs - getting on-base. Hacking away first pitch makes you much less likely to get on base, for reasons that should be obvious - either you put the ball in play and give up a chance to draw a walk, or you swing and miss (or foul it off) and put yourself down in the count (although 0-1 still isn’t that bad yet). The wOBA for hitters swinging at the first pitch has consistently been worse than those that take.

Judge writes “taking pitches is a good strategy as long as the pitcher doesn’t throw strikes”, but the converse is also true - swinging at pitches is a good strategy as long as the pitcher doesn’t throw balls. If hitters are going to be overly aggressive, pitchers know now to throw pitches in the zone, particularly early in the count. And the book on Royals hitters - particularly guys like Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar - should be clear, they’re going to be swinging early in the count. As Mets assistant GM Paul DePodesta put it, “the one thing that any player — pitcher or hitter — has to be careful of is just becoming too predictable,”

Perhaps the advice shouldn’t be so much “be aggressive early in the count/take pitches early in the count” as it is “swing at strikes, don’t swing at balls.” The Royals have been dreadful at this, leading all of baseball over the last three seasons in pitches swung at outside the strike zone. The Red Sox, who lead the league in runs scored, have swung at the tenth-fewest pitches outside the zone this year.

That advice may be painfully obvious, but there just isn’t a silver bullet for figuring out how to hit Major League pitching. Being aggressive may help some hitters, and it may be the only approach that some hitters can take if they can’t identify good pitches. But there will always be a limit to how much a hitter can contribute if they’re not walking at a very good rate, and smart pitchers can exploit aggressiveness by keeping pitches out of the zone.

There are other benefits to taking pitches, such as giving teammates a longer look at a pitcher’s stuff and forcing a pitcher to work harder, dipping into that bullpen earlier. Swinging at the first pitch may give a hitter the best chance to get a big hit, particularly if they are not the kind of hitter that has trouble turning a 1-1 count into 2-1. But it will also lead to fewer walks and more outs, making it more difficult to score runs.