Prior to Monday’s game against the Mets, Cincinnati Reds batters were hitting .327 this season when they swung at the first pitch of an at-bat and put the ball in play. That was a surprising discovery, so we did some extra checking, thinking that number may be a fluke.

Turns out, the number for this year just might be a fluke on the low side. In 2018, the Reds hit .349 as a team when they put the first pitch of an at-bat in play. Both statistics are considerably higher than the team batting average overall, or for all pitch counts.

Let’s take that a step further. Prior to Monday’s game against the Mets, the Reds had the lowest team batting average in the majors on batted balls in play, .244. In 2018, the Reds were fourth-best in baseball, at .307. Like many other numbers in the small sample size of about one month’s worth of games, the 2019 numbers appear to be skewed low, at least compared to the previous season.

Reds hit for high average on first pitches

The Reds, as a team, hit for a considerably better average when they put the first pitch of an at-bat into play as opposed to all balls put into play on any pitch of a sequence, both last season and so far this season.

In an era of baseball when the practice of batters “working the count” has become standard operating procedure for most organizations, do the numbers above indicate that swinging early in the count as possible might have benefits that are being overlooked? Some might ask, if – as the Reds did in 2018 — you hit .307 when you put the ball in play, and .349 when you hit the first pitch, doesn’t it make sense for hitters to go up there ready to swing the bat aggressively?

In recent years, the statistic of on-base percentage (based on the times a player gets on base via hits plus other methods such as walks, hit by pitch, etc.) has become more widely valued than ever before. Neither drawing a base on balls nor being hit by a pitch is possible when one swings at and puts the first pitch of an at-bat into play. As a result of the relatively recent analytics-driven change in how the merits of a given plate appearance are viewed, most batters take a much more patient approach. That has developed into a mindset among managers that patience at the plate is valuable in that it, among other benefits, will usually force an opposing pitcher to make more pitches, and possibly wear him down quicker.

Joey Votto (Photo: Doug Gray)

Joey Votto (Photo: Doug Gray)

Joey Votto was 36-for-95 in 2018 when putting the ball in play on first pitches, a .379 batting average. He slugged .589, and had an OPS of .981 on those plate appearances. However, in all other at-bats when he did not put the first pitch in play, he drew 108 walks and recorded 107 hits, resulting in a .417 on-base percentage when he did not put the first pitch in play.

Even though Votto did well in recording hits when putting balls in play on first pitches, he actually reached base 10 percent less often when he did so (.379 batting average compared to .417 on-base percentage). Since walks and being hit by a pitch are not possible when swinging and putting the first pitch in play, two of the three statistical ways a batter can reach base are thereby removed from the on-base-percentage computation.

It’s not an every at-bat strategy

Clearly, swinging at the first pitch can’t be an every-at-bat strategy. Opposing pitchers would never throw a fastball to such a hitter on the first pitch, opting to take their chances on a breaking pitch that might be swung upon even if it is out of the strike zone. It would be fair to say that hitters who swing at first pitches usually are doing so because they anticipate a certain type of pitch and-or location prior to the pitch being delivered. When they see that pitch in that location, they are much more prepared to “square it up” than if they are waiting to make a judgment as the ball is in flight.

So while the raw numbers, at first glance, make a case for swinging aggressively at the first pitch, a deeper dive confirms the value in not swinging from the heels on the first pitch on a consistent basis.

6 Responses

  1. MK

    Most pitchers do not want to get behind in the count so they work hard to throw a first pitch strike. Might be the only pitch of an at bat that the odds are in the hitters favor for getting a strike.

  2. SultanofSwaff

    Problem is, some guys (Peraza/Puig) were sleeping thru the part of the tutorial that said swing at the first pitch IF IT’S A STRIKE. I mean, if you’re just going to give away an at-bat by swinging at stuff off the plate at least give the team the benefit of driving up the pitch count a little.

  3. lwblogger2

    No real surprises here in that the data confirms some very old-school thoughts on hitting strategy. An old, standard approach by a lot of hitters at different levels of the game is “one pitch, one zone” approach. That basically means you look for a particular pitch in a particular part of the zone. If you get it, you let ‘er rip. If not you take it. You keep that approach until you’re even or behind in the count. If you’re even, you may look expand the approach on the zone or the pitch side. If you’re behind, you go into “plate protection” mode and you shorten up and just try to put in play or spoil anything that the ump may call a strike.

    Keep in mind that “one pitch, one zone” does not mean you’re looking for your favorite pitch in every single plate appearance, though it often does. Circumstances may dictate that you look for a pitch you feel you can hit the other way or can hit in the air, or whatever the situation may be.

    On another note, the data in this analysis is leaving out a bit of data that also makes swinging at the first pitch less palatable in each AB. The data is only really there for balls put in play. When the batter swings and misses at the first pitch, then he’s in an 0-1 hole and the numbers for putting a ball in play in that count need to be considered. It gets uglier as a hitter gets further behind in the count. Of course if you take that first pitch, you also may be 0-1.

  4. lwblogger2

    Good point. So Linear Weight back a few years ago was something like a BB being worth .55 runs and a single being worth .70 runs. I’m pretty sure I remember those numbers correctly. That very well may offset the OBP difference. So does the possibility of an extra-base-hit, which is reflected in the slugging. Of course see my comment below for my opinion overall.

  5. Zachary

    I think there’s a couple reasons why more guys are being seemingly more aggressive at first pitches…

    1) For a similar reason you pointed out and that Votto swing at 3-0 pitches. The count is favorable from an analytics standpoint. Most guys who are swinging at first pitches are (hopefully) swinging at good pitches they’re anticipating, rather than something out of their comfort zone and got fooled on.

    2) The mentality used to be that you wanted to see a lot of pitches to get the starters pitch count up to get him out of the game and get to the bullpen. With this new shift of pitchers getting pulled before the 3rd time through the order, this strategy is becoming less effective. Additionally, the guys out of the bullpen are much better than they used to be so you aren’t winning by much unless you’re getting an ace out of the game.

    Interestingly enough, pitchers are reacting to this as well and now aren’t afraid to show all of their pitches early in the game and use more off-speed early in counts. Why save your repertoire when you’re only going to see a hitter twice rather than 3 or 4 times?

    Swinging at first pitch has to be a situational thing. Should be something done when a hitter is anticipating a certain pitch in a certain area and gets it. This could be their “sweet spot”, a ball away in the zone when trying to move a runner, or maybe an elevated pitch when trying to hit a sac fly. As long as theirs a legit approach at the plate, it should be successful.

    • Zachary

      Haha there’s*. I didn’t see an option to edit for grammar