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Salvy is more aggressive than ever, and somehow it’s working

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Salvy is ambushing better than anyone in baseball.

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

Salvador Perez never met a pitch he didn’t like.

Or so it has seemed for the free-swinging, three-time Silver Slugger-winning catcher. Since he entered the league in 2011, Salvy has the lowest walk rate out of anyone with at least a 1,500 plate appearances. Over that time, he has swung at 55 percent of pitches he has seen, the 14th-highest rate in baseball, and 44.3 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, the highest-rate in baseball.

Baseball is a game of adjustments, and you might think that in his older age, Salvy might try to become a more selective hitter. Quite the opposite has been true! This year, Salvy has been swinging at nearly 60 percent of all pitches, tops in baseball and the highest rate of his career. He has swung at over 50 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, also the highest rate in baseball and highest of his career.

And yet, somehow it has been successful. Salvy has been masterful at the art of the “ambush”, jumping on the first pitch. Here is how he has increased his swing rate on the first pitch in the at-bat over the years.

Salvador Perez on the first pitch

Salvador Perez Take Swing
Salvador Perez Take Swing
2015 71.1% 28.9%
2016 63.9% 36.1%
2017 61.5% 38.5%
2018 59.2% 40.8%
2020 60.5% 39.5%
2021 58.2% 41.8%

All data from Baseball Savant

And this year those ambushes have paid off. Salvy is destroying opponents on the first pitch, batting .457 in 36 plate appearances with a league-high seven home runs on the first pitch.

The odd thing is, Salvy isn’t doing a better job of putting that first pitch in play. He is actually whiffing more on the first pitch than ever before.

Salvador Perez, on the first pitch

Salvador Perez Ball Called Strike HBP Swinging Strike Foul In play
Salvador Perez Ball Called Strike HBP Swinging Strike Foul In play
2015 39.0% 31.6% 0.5% 3.4% 11.0% 14.4%
2016 32.8% 30.8% 0.2% 6.6% 13.9% 15.6%
2017 36.3% 24.6% 0.6% 7.6% 14.4% 16.6%
2018 32.5% 26.3% 0.4% 10.3% 14.7% 15.8%
2020 35.0% 25.5% 0.0% 8.9% 16.6% 14.0%
2021 34.4% 23.4% 0.4% 13.3% 14.8% 13.7%

All data from Baseball Savant

It’s just that when he does make contact on the first pitch, he’s hitting it harder. When he puts the ball in play on the first pitch, Salvy has an average exit velocity of 95.7 mph, higher than his average exit velocity of 93 mph.

Salvy is not alone in being aggressive on the first pitch. Mike Petriello at MLB.com recently found that league-wide, hitters are swinging at the first pitch more than they have in recent memory. With strikeout rates up all over baseball, it makes sense. As he points out - you can’t strikeout on 0-0! But more importantly, being aggressive early in the count can help a hitter avoid a two-strike count, when pitchers have a huge advantage and offensive numbers plummet.

Petriello also points out that hitters are more likely to get a pitch in the zone on the first pitch. He found that 52 percent of first pitches are in the zone, compared to 45 percent of 0-1 pitches, and just 43 percent of two-strike pitches. Past studies have also found that the BABIP on first pitches is higher. Alec Lewis of The Athletic wrote that over 61 percent of first pitches are fastballs this year, so it seems like the first offering is one that tends to be grooved in there, so the pitcher can get ahead in the count. In othe words, it tends to be the one that is easiest to handle for a hitter like Salvy.

Of course, the “ambush” strategy has been criticized in the past, because while you can’t strike out on the first pitch, you can’t walk either! Being aggressive early in the count is great if you put the ball in play, but if you foul it off or whiff altogether, suddenly you’ve given the pitcher a big advantage. Petriello looked at how hitters ultimately fared when they swung on the first pitch (regardless of whether they put it in play or not) versus when they took the first pitch. For a long time, hitters who were more patient ended up with doing better in their at-bat, but that advantage narrowed over time, and in the past six seasons, there has been virtually no difference.

In 1992, for example, there was a 54-point difference in ultimate OPS between taking (.716 OPS) or swinging (.662 OPS). It crept closer for years, until finally in 2015 (and again in ‘18 and ‘19), swinging at the first pitch saw better outcomes.

Since 2015, it’s a dead heat. Batters have a .737 OPS whether they go after the first pitch or not. That might sound like it doesn’t matter, but also saying “it doesn’t matter whether you take the first pitch or not” would have, for almost all of baseball history, been blasphemy.

For a player like Salvy, he has actually done better when swinging at the first pitch this year (.308/.312/.664) than when he takes the first pitch (.268/.316/.430). As Twins manager Rocco Baldelli told Lewis:

“He covers a lot of the zone. He’s an aggressive hitter. He goes up ready to swing at anything he can get the barrel to. That’s not for everybody, but he’s able to do it successfully. He’s a strong guy. He can get the barrel to spots up in the zone. He can get the barrel to the ball down in the zone. He can hit the fastball.”

It would be nice if the Royals had more selective hitters like Carlos Santana who only swings at 25.7 percent of first pitches and are able to discern between good pitches and bad pitches. But it is difficult to develop plate discipline at the Major League level, and you have to work with what you have. A leopard can’t change its spots, and Salvy can have more success early in the count than trying to guess on a two-strike count.