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The First Pitch

Posted By Bill Baer On May 21, 2012 @ 8:35 am In MLB,Philadelphia Phillies,Sabermetrics | 21 Comments

The Phillies are much improved in the month of May in terms of offense, but they are still lacking in some areas. They still have the second-worst walk rate in all of baseball at 6.5 percent. Among players with at least 40 PA, only Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix have a double-digit walk rate while five of the ten qualified Phillies are below six percent.

As the saying goes, a leopard cannot change its spots. The Phillies, based on who made the 25-man roster out of spring training, were never going to have an offensive that exemplified great plate discipline. Nevertheless, it has been frustrating at times to watch them hit with easy-to-get runs on the bases, only to pop-up weakly or go down swinging on three strikes. In particular, one of the most frequent complaints I have seen has been the Phillies’ propensity to swing at the first pitch.

Saturday’s game against the Boston Red Sox is a good recent example. In the bottom of the eighth, Jimmy Rollins had brought the score to 7-5 with an RBI infield single against Alfredo Aceves. Rollins then stole second base and Aceves walked John Mayberry on four pitches. Shane Victorino stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and a chance to be a hero, if he could find a spot for a single to the outfield. Aceves was laboring and showed a lack of control, so it might have been a good idea to take the first pitch. Most hitters would have done that, but Victorino swung at the first pitch and popped it up in the infield to end the inning.

Here is one example of many afterwards on Twitter:

twitter.com/MichaelRadano/status/204032314072772609

(I don’t mean to single out Mr. Radano, by the way. There are plenty more examples here.)

The Phillies see the sixth-fewest first-pitch strikes in all of baseball (58 percent). Victorino sees the fewest on the team (54.6 percent) and the 44th fewest among 175 qualified players. However, over his career (393 PA), Victorino has a .905 OPS on the first pitch, which is much greater than his .779 career average. Obviously, he’s been doing something right.

The average player sees a fastball on the first pitch 57 percent of the time. This year, Victorino has seen them at a 65 percent clip, the 49th-highest rate out of 178 players*. Victorino likes fastballs: since 2009, he has a .374 wOBA against first-pitch fastballs. The following heat maps show where they’ve tended to cluster:

*Data comes from a different source, which explains the disparity in qualified players.

Additionally, Aceves had thrown fastballs 61 percent of the time, which is at about the league average among relief pitchers. Batters posted a sub-.300 wOBA against his first-pitch fastballs. Here’s where they’ve typically been:

The bases were also loaded and Aceves just walked Mayberry on four pitches. The odds of Aceves throwing a fastball over the plate were quite good, about as good as they’d ever be, save if Victorino had managed to get to 3-0. As baseball is a mixed strategy game, hitters are always trying to predict (imperfectly) what the pitcher will throw. As players fall into patterns and the rest of the league gains of knowledge of those patterns, adjustments will be made. For instance, if Victorino ends up swinging at a significantly larger portion of first pitches this year, he will get even less to hit on the first pitch later in the season and into next year. Likewise, if Aceves starts throwing more sliders on the first pitch, then hitters like Victorino will be less likely to assume a fastball is coming.

This was the end result:

The key word is “result”. When analyzing the validity of a strategy, the result is completely meaningless. In Blackjack, I can hit with 20. It’s a very stupid idea, because the only cards that don’t ruin me are aces. If I hit and happen to spike an ace anyway, it doesn’t mean hitting on 20 was therefore smart.

Victorino swung at the first pitch (which might have been a few inches further inside than he anticipated), popped up, and ended the rally. It was certainly frustrating to watch, but Victorino’s strategy cannot be faulted. Victorino himself did not fault the strategy:

Damn right. I would swing at that every single time. He just beat me. I went up there looking for a cutter. I faced him in spring training and went up there looking first-pitch cutter*. I got the pitch I wanted and he just beat me. I tip my hat. He got me. It is what it is. I’m not going to sit here and question what I did.

*For clarification: my data source lumps cutters in with all fastballs.

This is just one example; there are plenty more throughout the first 42 games. Not all of them are justified, but some are. One cannot make a blanket statement such as “swinging at the first pitch is always bad.” The concept, rather, is fluid — you have to weigh each situation individually according to its unique set of variables.

The Phillies as a team have the third-lowest OPS in the National League when swinging at the first pitch. Victorino is not part of the problem, however.

Player Pitches OPS
Hunter Pence 23 .870
Jimmy Rollins 21 .211
Shane Victorino 19 .895
Freddy Galvis 15 .500
Carlos Ruiz 13 1.122
Ty Wigginton 13 .769
Placido Polanco 10 .222
Brian Schneider 7 1.714
Juan Pierre 4 1.417
John Mayberry 4 .500
Pete Orr 3 .667
Jim Thome 3 .000
Laynce Nix 2 3.500
Mike Fontenot 1 .000

The biggest offender is Rollins, who has swung at 21 first pitches to the tune of a .211 OPS. Galvis and Polanco have also not had the greatest fortune swinging at the first pitch. Just because Rollins has performed so poorly, though, doesn’t mean that he should altogether stop swinging at the first pitch. Part of the fun in being a fan is being emotionally invested in each and every pitch, but when the dust settles, let’s not fault the players’ strategies without giving them due diligence.


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