Swinging or taking on the first pitchby James Gentile
August 23, 2013
Swinging at the first pitch can be a bit of a controversial topic in some corners of the baseball world. To many fans, the practice of casually watching strike one float through the heart of the zone again and again seems ridiculous. But for certain players, like Hall of Famer Wade Boggs and more recently Minnesota's Joe Mauer, laying off the first pitch is a fundamental tenet of their approach at the plate.
Recently, the wonderful data-crunchers at FanGraphs showed us that swing rate on first pitch has dropped significantly since 1988, when pitch sequence data first became publicly available. In recent seasons batters have offered at the first pitch just 26 percent of the time, compared to the far more aggressive rate of 33 percent from the late '80s.
This shouldn't really surprise us, since there has been a definite movement toward patience at the plate in the last few decades. Tom Verducci famously bemoaned this loss of hitter aggressiveness earlier this season, and many continue to echo his concerns.
But batters have consistently shown that laying off that first pitch can lead to better results— or, more accurately, better results are observed in cases where the batter did not swing at the first pitch. From 1988-2012, the ultimate wOBA of all plate appearances where the batter swung at first pitch has remained consistently lower than those when batter did not offer at the first opportunity:
Obviously, most of the "advantage" of laying off first pitch we're seeing here is generated by those at-bats in which the batter takes a ball on first pitch. Getting a 1-0 advantage on the pitcher right away creates an enormous difference on the ultimate fate of the batter-pitcher showdown.
So, naturally, taking a called strike on first pitch leads to fewer favorable outcomes for hitters than taking a ball. But swinging at that first pitch leads to better results than falling behind 0-1 on a taken called strike.
Let's not forget that BABIP on 0-0 counts is fairly high when compared to other counts. 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). Whatever the case, swinging at first pitch seems to give a hitter better odds than falling into an 0-1 deficit.
OutliersThere are always outliers. A few players in the last few decades have actually fared worse when they swung at the first pitch than when they fell in the 0-1 hole. The five most dramatic cases from 2002-2012 are as follows:
|#||Name||PA||First pitch swing%||wOBA first pitch swinging||wOBA_first pitch called strike||Difference|
In these rare cases the batter was better off digging himself out of the 0-1 deficit than swinging at first pitch. Naturally, for players like Aaron Guiel, we are dealing with a limited sample size of just 170 plate appearances where he offered at first pitch. But for more veteran players like Jamey Carroll, we have a sample over 500 first-pitch swinging at-bats. Even borderline Hall of Famers like Rafael Palmeiro and Kenny Lofton fared more than .020 wOBA points better taking a first pitch called strike then swinging at it.
Strangely, both Charles Johnson and Roberto Alomar actually had higher wOBAs when taking first pitch strike than when taking first pitch balls! (Though for Alomar, this is including only the last few seasons of his career. His splits make more sense when looking at his over 9,000 plate appearances). As much as I'd love to say we've discovered some mutant-like batting styles, it's more likely that these oddities would have corrected themselves with more at-bats.
Lowest first strike swing rates
You may have noticed that Reggie Willits, who just barely made the minimum 1,000 plate appearances required in the previous table, showed the most patience of that group, with a minuscule first pitch swing rate of just seven percent. This is actually an historic number, just barely edging out notorious first-pitch-o-phobe Wade Boggs. From 1988-2012 the lowest rates belong to:
|#||Name||PA||First pitch swing%|
Boggs was certainly ahead of his time, ranking at the top of this list with over 6,000 eligible plate appearences and all of them occurring before the turn of the century. Only Brian Downing is similarly a member of this unique club while also debuting almost two decades before the rest of the group. Other active and famously patient hitters like Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia just barely missed making the top ten.
Who should swing more at the first pitch?
I want to briefly draw attention again to Mauer, number seven on the previous table. Despite being one of the most averse to swinging at first pitches, with a rate under 10 percent, he's one of the rare examples of a hitter who seems to fare better when he does swing at them.
I briefly touched upon the possibility of this sort of phenomenon in one of my earliest posts here at Hardball Times, when I looked at wOBA on contact for players who rarely put the ball in play on first pitches.
When looking at the nearly 600 batters with at least 1,000 plate appearances from 2002-2012, Mauer's improvement of .038 wOBA points is the 17th highest of that group. Yet, he's one of only two players to maintain that disparity in over 2,000 plate appearances, and the only batter to do so with a first pitch swing rate below 15 percent.
So what does this mean? Should Mauer try swinging at more first pitches? It seems plausible to me that pitchers would not expect him to swing considering his reputation. His ability to surprise pitchers on first pitch is an advantage, but could he harness the potential of this ambush even more?
When I looked at the 32 batters from that same 2002-2012 time frame with a first pitch swing rate below 15 percent and 1,000 PA, I found that the group had an average wOBA .026 points lower than when they were taking on 0-0. So Mauer is clearly unique in this regard.
Most players who saw this much advantage swinging at the first pitch had much more robust first pitch swing rates. Buster Posey is one notable example of this—he swings at over 26 percent of 0-0 pitches, but his wOBA is .037 points higher when doing so.
Highest first pitch swing ratesOf course it takes all shapes and sizes in baseball, and certain hitters have had considerable success when hacking immediately. From 2002-2012 the top 10 are as follows:
|#||Name||PA||First pitch swing%||wOBA swinging||wOBA taking||Difference|
|2||Wily Mo Pena||1841||47.9%||0.295||0.345||0.05|
I bet you guessed Vlad Guerrero would place first and I bet you're not surprised you were right. Vlad still saw more success when taking than offering, despite the fact that he went after that first pitch a mind-blowing 48 percent of the time. In fact, most of these hitters fared better when taking, with the exceptions of Estrada, Simon and Molina (who showed virtually no split at all).
If it's not broke, don't fix it?For players who showed the most improvement when swinging rather than taking, the Cardinals' David Freese was at the top of the list with a .077 boost in his wOBA. Other notable players with similar massive split favoring an early hack include Gaby Sanchez, Gerardo Parra, Danny Espinosa and the aforementioned Buster Posey.
Interestingly, the focus of Verducci's article was on Dustin Ackley, and how the Mariners' preaching patience at the plate was "getting in these kids' heads." Ackley was right behind Freese with a healthy .067 wOBA improvement.
(I'm looking at you now, Eric Wedge.)
NotesPlayer tables include plate appearances exclusively where pitch sequence data was available. They exclude PAs where an intentional ball is first pitch. "Swings" does not include bunts or bunt attempts. The wOBA formula used here is the non-season-specific "standard" wOBA featured in The Book.
References and Resources
Thanks to Retrosheet and Baseball Heat Maps for the data.
James Gentile writes about baseball at Beyond the Box Score and The Hardball Times. You can follow him on twitter @JDGentile