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 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.