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It’s all about strike one, they say

You know...they. People.

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Guardians
Our first pitch strike hero.
Photo by George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Strike one. 0-1 count. Just saying it gives me a little sigh of relief. Like that snowball is gonna stop rolling down the hill. Or Sisyphus might actually get that rock up the hill. Either way, we’re gonna reach the end of the hill.

Ball one. 1-0 count. Ugh. Gross. I don’t like that at all. It’s just one pitch, but now there’s ominous synth music playing in the background. Something bad is going to happen. Visceral feelings.

When it comes to pitching development, the Royals will not accept that current results are not working so well, but fans also do not have anything concrete to say about the process. Well, thankfully, in my quest to understand more about pitching development, GMJJ gave me a thread to pull on. “It sounds so simple, but it’s really throwing strike one,” GMJJ said when asked about changes to the pitching development structure in advance of the winter meetings.

After looking through the data...well, he’s not wrong. It makes a lot of sense, yea? If you can give yourself a head start against the batter, well why wouldn’t you? An 0-1 count makes the pitcher the hunter. A 1-0 count turns the pitcher into the hunted.

Here’s the problem. For the Royals in 2022, it was A LOT easier said than done. To give you a frame of reference before I look at Royals pitchers, Baseball Reference and FanGraphs provide league-wide splits for us to look at. The data is clear.

Baseball Reference splits in 2022 (AVG/OBP/SLG)

After 0-1 —> .213/.258/.334

After 1-0 —> .255/.371/.428

Batter Ahead —> .281/.467/.485

Pitcher Ahead —> .199/.208/.303

Big surprise, right? It is good to throw strikes and be ahead in the count. It is bad to throw balls and be behind in the count. The difference is intense. It’s literally a 50% difference in OPS+. Relative to overall league performance in all counts in general, the average hitter after 0-1 nearly becomes “worst hitter in the league”. After 1-0, the average hitter becomes (roughly) Josh Bell, who just hit .266/.362/.422 (23% above league average, ranked 49th among qualified hitters) and signed a 2/$33M deal with Cleveland.

The pathways are so bifurcated here. The other outcome of course is if a batter swings and makes fair contact, but Baseball Reference’s splits for swinging on 1st pitch vs. taking on the first pitch show a similar-ish OPS+, so there’s not really a ton of strategic value in trying to induce a swing or a take (in general) on the first pitch.

Again, honestly, I think GMJJ makes a great point. Throw strike one. It is so simple. A good pitching development process should be working toward getting pitchers to throw strike one at least league average rates (61.4% in 2022, according to FanGraphs). Obviously there are other things involved in getting outs, but this is a yes/no, go/no-go, binary indicator of success. It is clear and actionable.

Applied to the Royals, again this is where GMJJ’s comments make a lot of sense. Shown below is a chart of each Royals pitcher with at least 35 first pitches to get rid of the likes of Hunter Dozier. The chart shows the difference between that pitcher’s first-pitch strike rate and the average rate for 2022. Being red on the left is ... bad. Being blue on the right is good!

A chart showing the difference between Royals’ pitchers first-pitch strike rates and the average rate. Only four pitchers - Taylor Clarke, Zack Greinke, Anthony Misiewicz, and Max Castillo - were above average.

Getting strike one is good, but most Royals pitchers are bad at it. Ok. That is a concrete, measurable, fixable problem. Is...anyone fixing the problem? The answer is...mostly no. I’ll show another chart. Below shows the % improvement in first-pitch strike rate year to year from 2020 to 2022. Red = got worse. Blue = improved. I also added in the dotted line so you can see the 2022 league average rate.

A visual showing year-to-year changes in first-pitch strike rate from 2020 to 2022 for Royals pitchers. Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, and Carlos Hernández all improved from 2021 to 2022.

I highlighted a few pitchers who improved from 2021 to 2022. But there’s only one pitcher who has data points in all three years and managed to improve in 2021 and 2022.

Kris Bubic.

Granted, he started from 48%, an obscene low point in the bottom left of that chart. He was either going to get better or get a different job. He had nowhere to go but up. But guys like Singer and Brad Keller waffled from year to year. Even Scott Barlow waffled, though he was right around league average all three years.

How about some of those nasty red dots? Jonathan Heasley, Brad Keller, Josh Staumont, and Jake Brentz. If my eyes are right, there’s only one pitcher who has data points in all three years and managed to get worse each year.

Josh Staumont.

Those trends could help explain why Bubic is in the rotation to begin 2023 and Staumont is in Omaha.

Nevertheless, there are so few dots close to the 2022 league average. Some pitchers took a step forward last year. As the year goes on, I will be watching to see what strategic changes pitchers make (pitch type, location) as well as any improvement in overall rate. There’s a lot of untapped potential here if the new coaching staff can just wring out some more strikes.