A large chunk of the game theory involved in batter-pitcher relations is what should each actor do with the first pitch? Pitchers don’t want to get behind 1-0 as it takes away parts of their repertoire, but they also can’t be predictable and just throw first pitch fastball down the pipe. In the American League in 2010 batters that were led off with a ball went on to triple slash .278/.390/.445 while those that started off 0-1 ended up slashing .229/.271/.348. That’s a huge difference of .o49 Batting Average points, .119 On Base Percentage points, and .097 Slugging Percentage points.
This being a Rays blog, let’s see which of our batters are more concerned with going down 0-1 and which ones are willing to play the game a bit more using the Pitch F/x data hosted by Joe Lefkowitz. Here’s a look at the number of takes and swings and total plate appearances for each player with the percentage showing the likelihood that they would take the first pitch (ball or called strike):
Likelihood to Take First Pitch
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that John Jaso, Dan Johnson, and Ben Zobrist can be found near the top of this list, but I bet you didn’t think Longo was just as likely as these guys to take first pitch. As a team, we were taking about 7/10 first pitches which seems to make a lot of sense as the average pitcher threw a first pitch strike between 58% and 59% from 2002 – 10. Those numbers represent called strikes, but not necessarily hitters pitches so it would make sense that the team is willing to take a few more called strikes, relatively. You should be able to sense that the guys near the bottom of the list are going to have pitchers adjust to them by offering fewer strikes and vice-versa for the top. What this means is that when you do commit to swinging at the first pitch you have to do something with it so that your patience is rewarded in the future.
% of Swings That End Up as Balls in Play
The above chart takes those swing numbers from the previous chart and we’ll use those a denominator with the number of Balls in Play (BIP) as our numerator. The quotient spit out is basically a contact percentage that tells us the likelihood of a ball being between the chalk (and the occasional foul out) per first pitch swing. It’s really interesting to see Dan Johnson and Ben Zobrist so high on this list. We just saw that they swing pitch around 1/5 of the time, but when they do commit to swinging they put the ball in play roughly half the time. These are good examples of good selection/good contact. My boy Beej is an example of a bad approach here. He’s swinging at 40% of first pitches, but he’s only putting around 30% of these in play. That’s a lot of foul balls and swinging strikes that are getting him down 0-1. Take away from this what you will now that you should have a good idea about what’s being shown here.
Enough with the process stuff, how about the results. We can use wOBAcon and BABIP to get an idea of not only how often these guys are putting it in play (as shown in the second table), but we can use the linear weights to get an idea of which guys are having more success with their approach:
BABIP & wOBAcon on Balls in Play
Sean Rodriguez is a guy that we haven’t touched on yet. You can see that he’s below the team average in both of the first two tables, but he’s having fantastic results when he does make contact. You have to expect that to regress a bit in his second go around with the Rays, so I would still hope that he starts taking more first pitches. This number seems like it’s more likely to encourage him to swing more on the first pitch, which I wouldn’t like to see. Longo is also a bit inflated, but he’s playing the game better so numbers like this might be more sustainable. In short, guys that are more selective, but can still hammer the ball when they do swing are going to drive pitchers to piss themselves. I like Jaso’s approach as he almost never swings first pitch, but when he does he’s hitting for a bit more power than normal even if he’s not making contact at a team average rate. It’s concerning that Dan Johnson’s wOBAcon is so low as he shows a good approach and actually puts the ball in play at a good rate when he does swing. I also love Zobrist’s approach as he’s a lot like Longo in his mindset, but didn’t have the phenomenal BABIP that carried his numbers. I’d look to him to have a fantastic bounce-back year if he’s healthy and he gets a bit more luck.
I’d love to hear the takeaways that you, the audience have from this piece as it’s something I haven’t really seen much research on.