Swinging or taking on the first pitch

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:

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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.

Outliers

There 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
1 Aaron Guiel 1098 15.8% 0.233 0.330 -0.097
2 Reggie Willits 1011 7.1% 0.182 0.271 -0.089
3 Roberto Alomar 1435 18.8% 0.250 0.328 -0.078
4 Charles Johnson 1106 36.5% 0.285 0.360 -0.075
5 Jamey Carroll 3965 11.1% 0.235 0.299 -0.064

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%
1 Reggie Willits 1011 7.1%
2 Wade Boggs 6490 7.7%
3 Brett Gardner 1617 8.4%
4 J.J. Hardy 3937 8.4%
5 Ben Revere 1062 8.7%
6 Jeff Frye 2319 9.3%
7 Joe Mauer 4462 9.8%
8 Brian Downing 2411 9.9%
9 Jason Kendall 5322 10.2%
10 Franklin Gutierrez 2629 10.5%

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 rates

Of 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
1 Vladimir Guerrero 5866 48.2% 0.356 0.404 0.048
2 Wily Mo Pena 1841 47.9% 0.295 0.345 0.05
3 Nomar Garciaparra 3328 47.4% 0.342 0.361 0.019
4 Randall Simon 1165 46.6% 0.319 0.297 -0.022
5 Delmon Young 3547 45.8% 0.304 0.333 0.029
6 Josh Hamilton 3110 45.5% 0.373 0.389 0.016
7 Johnny Estrada 1901 44.0% 0.321 0.309 -0.012
8 Jose Molina 2166 44.0% 0.274 0.272 -0.002
9 Jeff Francoeur 4664 43.9% 0.306 0.321 0.015
10 Pablo Sandoval 2275 43.7% 0.334 0.371 0.037

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.)

Notes

Player 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 & Resources
Thanks to Retrosheet and Baseball Heat Maps for the data.

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Comments

  1. Kris said...

    Jim,

    Interesting points. I’m a tribe fan, so here’s how it went against CJ Wilson with Tribe lineup against the Angels for 14 innings(1st inning)- Bourn always takes the first pitch – He was down 0-2 and struck out.  Swisher singled after going 1-2 (he always takes the first pitch, has a funny look on his face when it’s a strike RIGHT down the middle).  Kipnis took the first pitch, struck out.  Santana took 2 out of 3 and struck out – inning over.

  2. John C said...

    I think with Joe Mauer, his success when first-pitch swinging is nothing but a function of his talent. Joe Mauer has a batting eye that is uncommonly good, and exceptional discernment when it comes to what pitches he should and should not swing at. I would venture that his success swinging at first pitches is because he only swings at ones he thinks he can crush—and because his batting eye is so good, he does indeed crush those pitches more often than not.

    Therefore, he shouldn’t swing at more first pitches, because he likely already swings at every first pitch that is conducive to success. The ones he doesn’t swing at are all: 1) ball one; or 2) good pitches thrown for strikes likely to result in an out if Mauer offered at them.

    As for Brian Downing, he was a poor-hitting (and fielding) catcher when he first got to the majors, and developed plate discipline to help himself stay in the big leagues. Then he became a weight-training fanatic, developed power, and became one of the first sabermetric darlings in his 30s, combining his walks with his new-found power as a slugging DH. If he played today, he’d be accused of steroid use, but there’s no evidence that he did. It seemed like he worked every pitcher to a 3-2 count.

  3. James Gentile said...

    Thanks for the comments.

    John, those are very good points. Sometime next week I’d like to look at the pitches Mauer chooses to swing at during 0-0 counts, and see if there is any kind of pattern. Then, of course, look at similar batters of his ilk.

    And maybe look at the reverse, players who swing way outside the zone on 0-0. A quick look at those players reveals a motley crew: Vlad, Hamilton, Freeman, Chris Davis, B.J. Upton, Pablo, Frenchy.

  4. Mike Ford said...

    Do players like Guerrero have a disproportionate number of balls to strikes in the pitches they take or is the ratio inline with players that have a low first pitch swing rate?

  5. Larry laskey said...

    More importantly, how many more runs does an entire team of players that take pitch #1 vs swing pitch # 1 …it is a team game, after all.

  6. mATT said...

    I wonder how much opposing pitchers bb/9 and whip are influencing a hitter whether or not he should take the first pitch. For example, I have not looked up the evidence for this but maybe Mauer plays against the AL central where the pitchers have the worst bb/9 and whip?  Also I see a good amount of Angels and Red Sox on the lists, maybe their coaching philosophy is to let the hitter be himself unlike how the Mariners messed up Ackley.

  7. wsk said...

    as to john c,downing was a decent fielding catcher when he came up.
    he was always a good hitting (v. league) catcher.
    his walk ratios were good from the start; his home run numbers were consistent from comiskey to anaheim.
    he was, from a solid to good left fielder.
    he didn’t change anything, bar home park & position.
    he didn’t develop plate discipline the majors.

  8. John C said...

    The Red Sox emphasize plate discipline, but if a hitter of theirs can be productive with a more aggressive approach, then they let him go with that. Jarrod Saltalamacchia doesn’t walk much, but he has enough extra-base power to be a valuable performer anyway, and they project Will Middlebrooks the same way.

    I have a theory, which I can’t prove, that a team benefits from having a few free-swingers who are still good hitters mixed into a lineup of guys who take a lot of pitches and walk a lot. A pitcher facing a lineup of all disciplined hitters comes into the game with a mentality of pounding the strike zone and making those guys swing the bats. But if you mix in a few hitters who will crush a first-pitch strike, you make a pitcher’s job much more difficult.

  9. James Gentile said...

    I think that’s a great point, John. As much “patience at the plate” is important, it’s also extremely advantageous to mix in a healthy amount of early agressiveness. Pitchers need to be kept honest!

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