First Pitch Swingin’
If you’re anything like me, watching Orioles batters swing at the first pitch can drive you up the wall. “Take pitches!” I yell at my television, “Wait for one you can actually hit.” It’s exasperating, and in a season like 2014, it’s nit picking a truly wonderful thing. The Orioles, after all, are told to be aggressive, to swing when they like what they see. And it’s working.
Swing away on the BSL Forums.
Only three of the nine Orioles batters fare worse in terms of average on the first pitch of an at-bat in 2014: Markakis, Hardy, and Machado, when healthy, have a slightly lower batting average when they put the first pitch in play. Only JJ Hardy has a lower slugging percentage on the first pitch than he does overall this season. Check out the table below of 2014 stats and splits:
Note: I didn’t include OBP in this table because there’s no way to walk on the first pitch. The OBP formula includes HBP and sacrifice flies, so there is a difference between BA and OBP in a 0-0 count, but I don’t believe any Orioles to show HBP as a repeatable skill and sac flies are context-dependent.
Chris Davis is a monster on first pitches in 2014! Struggling to even scrape .200 on the season, Davis is crushing the ball – for average and for extra bases – on the first pitch of at-bats.
This table shouldn’t be a huge surprise, for a number of reasons:
- Small sample size: putting the ball in play on the first pitch of an at-bat only happens sometimes, especially for part-time players like Steve Pearce. Good results in a handful of chances can inflate these numbers.
- Pitch recognition: this goes hand-in-hand with small sample size: remember that these are Major League hitters that don’t necessarily swing at every pitch they see.1 They’re probably only swinging at the first pitch if it looks hittable and letting it go if it doesn’t, since there’s not really a bad outcome to taking on 0-0. It creates small sample size bias and a sort of selection bias on the part of the batters themselves.
- Strikeouts: No opportunity to strike out on the first pitch exists. Season BA includes outs from strikeouts, whereas first pitch BA is really just hits and fielded outs. A team that strikes out often, like the Orioles do, should have a better average in 0-0 counts because it takes that pesky K off of the table.
- Fastballs: Pitchers typically throw fastballs early in the count in an effort to get ahead and set up their breaking pitches. Fastballs are easier to hit because they move less.
I selected three batters to profile in 0-0 counts. Two are batting extremely well on first pitches, one of whom is terrible on everything else this year, and one batter who seems to fall apart in 0-0 counts. Want to see more? Sound off on the BSL Forums and let me know which batter you want to see checked out.
Davis leads the team in strikeouts (we’re #1!) and has a “very good eye” for hard pitches per Brooks Baseball, so it’s not unexpected to see him get a boost when working with the first pitch of an at-bat. While he tends to get a majority of 0-0 pitches low and outside this season, he swings at first pitches in the middle and upper middle of the plate very often:
These are Chris Davis’ happy zones, particularly middle away, where he holds a career .463 ISO(!). Over the course of his career, Davis has actually slugged better in the bottom of the zone. He misses surprisingly often when he swings at the first pitch, but has hit 4 home runs in 0-0 counts. One came in the top left zone, a pitch he swings at often, one came middle away, and the other two came on pitches in the lower third of the zone.
It appears that lefties pitch Davis largely the same on the first pitch as they would in any count, with the exception of throwing him far fewer fastballs and way more sinkers. That could be because he fouls off 40% of all sinkers he sees and puts 36% of all sinkers he makes contact with on the ground, thereby letting pitchers get ahead or get an easy out. It’s clearly not working this season, and Davis hits home runs on nearly 30% of the sinkers that he puts in play for line drives and fly balls.
As expected, given his good fastball eye and the propensity for pitchers to throw hard pitches to get ahead, Davis mashes on the first pitch of at bats. This season, he’s seen 261 hard first pitches, turned 15 of them into at bats (meaning he put the ball into play) and is hitting .600 and slugging 1.333 in those at-bats. He’s a good first pitch hitter because he’s a good fastball hitter, plain and simple.
Like Davis, Nelson Cruz is an excellent fastball hitter, hitting .299 and slugging .583 against hard pitches in his career, and has a “good” eye for hard pitches. Pitchers are apparently not aware of this, because they continue to throw him hard pitches early in the count, including 66% of first pitches from left handed pitchers this season. Of course, he’s absolutely dismantling hard first pitches in 2014, with a .907 SLG and a .512 ISO in 43 at bats.
He’s also doing very well against breaking pitches in 0-0 counts this season, which is very unlike him. Cruz’s batting average, slugging percentage, and isolated power against breaking pitches are all below the same for hard and offspeed pitches in his career.
Most 0-0 pitches to Cruz are low and away – pitchers know where he makes his money. When they leave a pitch in the middle of the plate, my goodness does Cruz love to jump on it:
You’ll notice that he’s not particularly discerning with regards to swinging at anything near the strike zone. That’s worked out in the Orioles’ favor this season, as Cruz has a great SLG nearly everywhere in the zone on first pitches. In fact, all of Cruz’s teams have benefited from his willingness to offer at 0-0 pitches. His career SLG on first pitches in inside, middle, and up zones would all be enviable OPS numbers.
When Cruz gets two strikes on him, pitchers stop throwing him hard pitches and toss way more breaking balls. He swings and misses at a lot of breaking balls, has only an average eye for them, and rarely hits them for power. Maybe it’s because he’s seeing a number of them in the middle third of the zone:
Maybe it’s because he seems to do a pretty good job of swinging at 0-0 breaking balls that he can do something with (he’s slugging 2.000 on the four breaking balls he put into play down the middle):
What’s his secret? Well, he whiffs on the breaking balls low and low-away, which does a lot more damage when he’s got 2 strikes against him. In 0-0, he can afford to miss pitches because they don’t sit you down after 1 strike. The ones he puts into play do some damage, but the ones he misses don’t have very much of a risk associated with them.
Hardy is one of the few Orioles that bats and slugs worse early in the count. He has always seemed like a tremendous fastball hitter, but Brooks Baseball profiles him as having a “tremendously poor eye” for hard pitches this season, meaning he’s willing to swing outside the zone for them. That could very well be the reason that both lefties and righties are throwing him fastballs about 80% of the time in 0-0 counts. He’s got just two singles, a HBP, and nothing else to his name in 9 hard first pitch ABs this season.
Hardy gets a lot of first pitches up and in, middle away, and low and away, but a surprising number down the middle of the plate. He’s actually not very willing to offer at these pitches, perhaps knowing his strength lies middle in and middle up. Fact is, he’s not particularly willing to offer at many first pitches at all. He’s swung at just 19 first pitches and put 13 of them in play. He’s one of the few Orioles that I might suggest swinging more often on 0-0, given his career averages down the middle and middle away inside the zone being both over .315. He even gets a lot of hard pitches in the middle band of the zone in 0-0 counts, and he has hit pretty well there and even just outside the zone in his career on hard pitches in those locations:
1. Looking at you, Nelson Cruz.