Why Work The Count When Attacking the First Pitch Yields Better Results?

June 15, 2012

In watching yesterday’s New York Mets – Tampa Bay Rays game, one big part of the game was when Lucas Duda came up against Jeremy Hellickson in the fourth inning of a tight game. The Mets were already leading 6-4, runners were on first and second with two outs. Rays manager Joe Maddon opted to not bring a lefty from the bullpen to face the lefty hitting Duda, whose OPS is 170 points better facing RHP.

After a brief mound trip by the Rays pitching coach, Duda launched Hellickson’s first pitch of the at bat over the center fielders head for a two-run double, essentially icing the game. Even in the fourth inning, this double gave the Mets an 89% expectancy of winning.

When attacking the first pitch of an at bat in 2012, Duda is hitting .556/.455/1.667/2.121 OPS, with a BABIP of only .250. Yes, those are correct numbers. Main reason is that Duda has banged out three HRs (and yesterday’s double) when attacking the first pitch of an at bat. In those situations, Duda produces no BABIP, but great slugging percentages. Granted it is only 11 PAs, but Duda also has an OPS of 1.128 in his career (47 PAs) when going after the first pitch (4 HRs, 3 2Bs).

When Johan Santana made his first start after his no-hitter, he gave up six runs on four HRs to the cross-town New York Yankees, a game the Mets lost 9-1. Two Hrs were hit by Robinson Cano, who blasted both two-run HRs on the first pitch seen from Santana in each at bat.

When putting the first pitch of any at bat into play this season (41 PAs), Cano is hitting .425/.415/.725/1.140 OPS, with 3 2Bs and 3 HRs. In his career on the first pitch (822 PAs), Cano has an OPS of .953, over 100 points higher than his career OPS and 200 points higher than his career OPS after he is down 0-1 in the count.

So, why do I constantly see many hitters taking a first, very hittable pitch right down the middle? Why do they do this?

Automatically taking strike one might boost up a starters pitch count over time, but is it better to take pitches to add to a pitch count in order to put yourself in a hole you may never get out?

The saber stat crowd constantly talks about good hitters as those who take pitches, work the count, driving the starters pitch count up and “take their walks.” However, the best method of putting up good numbers is attacking the first good, hittable pitch you see in the at bat. I believe it is better to knock out a pitcher based upon hitting them hard as opposed to working their pitch counts up. Plus, the first pitch of an at bat is many times the best pitch you might see in the entire at bat.

After they are down 0-1 in a count (usually by taking the first pitch for a strike), Duda’s slash line is a less robust .243/.287/.375/.662 OPS and Cano’s drops to .283/.304/.462/.766 OPS. Cano’s is not horrible (better than a lot of hitters overall) but is still almost 200 points lower.

Over their careers, the numbers are great for virtually every player who puts the first pitch of any plate appearance into play. Over their careers, the current Yankee lineup averages 278 points higher in their OPS when hitting the first pitch, over when they start out 0-1 in the count.

What is horrible is when these two hitters (and, in fact, ALL hitters ever), get two strikes on them. Over his career with two strikes on him, Duda hits .184/.245/.291/.536 OPS although his BABIP is an above average .311. Cano plummets to .234/.274/.378/.652 OPS with a BABIP of .320.

With two strikes on him, Duda is 270 points less than his career OPS and over 600 points less than his OPS when he hits the first pitch! With two strikes, Cano is almost 200 points less than his career OPS, and 300 points less than when he hits the first pitch.

Widely considered the two best hitters in baseball, Josh Hamilton has an OPS of 1.189 on the first pitch and .629 with two strikes, while Joey Votto’s numbers are 1.166 and .676.

Those are huge differences with even the best hitters in the game.

So, again, why do hitters take good, hittable strikes right over the middle of the plate? The pitcher is trying to get ahead in the count and wants to throw strike one. So why don’t hitters want to attack the first pitch more often?

I call the 0-0 count the attack count, the 0-1 count is the guess/defensive count and the two strikes count are the salvage counts, except maybe 3-2. When taking the first strike and getting down in the count, a hitter then becomes a defensive hitter. After two strikes, unless a major mistake is made by the pitcher, a hitter basically needs to put the ball in play and hope for the best. At this point, the pitcher can throw any pitch he wants, anywhere he wants. The pitcher doesn’t have to throw a strike to get a hitter out. And strikeouts galore happen when hitters get behind in the count.

Why allow the pitcher to get one half of the way (strike one) on the first pitch towards your worst chance for being productive, which is the two strike count?

Hitters are told to “work the count” and try to “get on base.” Getting on base is great and high OBPs are huge benchmarks for quality offenses, but there is a reason why batting average comprises the far biggest component of the OBP stat. Attack pitches which give you the best chance to get on base, which are many times the first pitch of an at bat.

Many people have derided the 2012 Yankees for their inability to hit with runners in scoring position. This goes to show that the RBI is still the most important offensive stat in the game of baseball. I don’t care how many times you get guys on base, it is absolutely important to have hitters who can drive those runs in. It is always much tougher to hit with runner on base than it is to get on base.

This plays into a hitters (and pitchers) mindset during a particular at bat. Nervousness, too many thoughts in the head and an overall “big moment” syndrome can overcome hitters, even a major league veteran. Do you think that David Freese wasn’t feeling it during the 9th inning of Game 6 in last year’s World Series? I don’t care what the results were; the guy was feeling major pressure. With only 100 million people watching, the entire World Series outcome was resting on his shoulders.

Yeah, that might be pressure.

Those pressure factors in a big plate appearance are dismissed by the saber crowd, likely because these variables cannot be tabulated, valued and quantified.

But to become a productive hitter, it is vitally important to be ready to hit and attack the first good strike you see, not work the count to get in a deep hole, especially when a hitter is in a slump. When a hitter is ready to swing, he becomes a more productive hitter. Hitters who go up to the plate looking for the first pitch they can drive and get that pitch, usually do drive the ball. Most slugging percentages of hitters who attack the 0-0 count pitch are substantially higher than their career rates.

See, most (like 99.9%) of all major league hitters have better numbers when they put the first pitch of a plate appearance into play. Almost all of them…..in the entire history of the game.

Look at the numbers of the player which sabermetricians completely agree is the worst player in modern times: Yuniesky Betancourt. Yuni has a career slash line of .269/.293/.392/.684 OPS in over 3700 PAs. That equates to an OPS+ of 83. Betancourt has never had a season which his OPS is completely league average, or 100.

But when Betancourt puts the first pitch in play (likely a pitch down the middle or where he was looking for the ball), his career slash line is .302/.300/.462/.762 OPS. When going after the first pitch, Betancourt’s OPS is almost 80 points higher. That may not seem like much of an improvement, and it’s really not relative to most other hitter’s improvements when going after the first pitch, but Yuniesky is such an overall bad hitter. However, he is much better (especially his SLG percentage) when attacking the first hittable pitch in a PA.

Even teams who attack the first pitch have better overall numbers in this situation. The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates are considered the worst hitting team this season. They have overall numbers of .226/.279/.361/.640 OPS, but these numbers are .282/.287/.487/.774 OPS when hitting the first pitch of an at bat.

I am not advocating swinging incessantly at the first pitch for the sake of doing so. These productive numbers shown above are due to getting a good pitch to hit on the 0-0 count, looking to hit in this count, and driving the ball when you get your pitch. If the pitcher is trying to throw strike one, why let him get it unopposed? I understand sometimes getting fooled on a pitch (looking fastball, then getting curve) or fouling off the first pitch can get a hitter in a hole, but a hitter should attack a pitch he can drive.

Hitters can be selective and work a count, but it should be done to benefit your at bat rather than trying to drive up a starter’s pitch count. One of the reasons Mark Trumbo of the Los Angeles Angels is having a much better year is because he is more selective at the plate, not swinging at everything, but when he gets a 0-0 count pitch in his zone, he attacks. When going after the first pitch this season, Trumbo is hitting .458/.480/.958/1.148.

I’ll take that slash line over “working the count” every time. Seems like Trumbo’s OBP is pretty good.

Although sometimes going after the first pitch even if it is out of the strike zone**can have good results, Trumbo is not swinging at first pitches off the plate anymore, forcing pitchers to come back over the plate early. And that is another major positive of attacking first pitches. Pitchers will adjust and throw balls off the plate. When a hitters takes pitch, it puts him in eaven a better position to produce.

**In fact, Cano’s second home run off Santana in that game was a high slider out of the zone. But Cano was looking for something to hit, got it and pounced. Even when the pitch is out of the zone, Cano hit a bomb. Why? Because he was looking to hit and was aggressive on a pitch he could drive.

Best plan of attack might be to look at a smaller location WITHIN THE STRIKE ZONE and then hitting that pitch. When a hitter is looking for a pitch in a certain location, it is much easier to turn on an inside fastball, or go the other way on a pitch on the outer third. If the pitch is not in your location, then let it go. Looking location then swinging at a pitch outside this location is when swinging at the first pitch likely gets you out.

Swinging the bat, and not looking for walks, drives in runs. So when runners are on base, and you have the chance to drive them in, look for the first pitch in your zone which you can drive and attack. Being an aggressive hitter on the 0-0 count at pitches in your zone produces tremendous results, which helps your statistics and your team win games.

Why New York Mets Manager Jerry Manuel is the Stupidest Man in Baseball

July 19, 2010

It has been said that the definition of stupid is doing the same wrong thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome.

As cruel as it might sound, I believe the industry of major league baseball is stuck in a method of managing of pulling your starters before they are cruising. Continuing to use the same failed pitching mistakes continues to only lead a team into more and more losses, and wasted efforts of the starting pitcher. 

I believe New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel is a stupid person, and one of the worst culprits of this pitching change phenomenon.

He obviously does not read my Bleacher Report articles .

What else would there be to explain why he continues to pull the best pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana, out games in which he is pitching great? Can you honestly believe that was the correct move today against the San Francisco Giants?

Especially when your team needs a victory in the worst way to avoid being swept in the first four games on this important road trip?

How about the Sunday game before the All-Star break against the Atlanta Braves ? Does Manuel himself honestly believe pulling Santana AFTER SEVEN SHUTOUT INNINGS of a game against the leader of the NL East was the correct move?

Well, Santana did already throw 107 pitches in that game. OMG! Call the papers!

And the Mets were only ahead 2-0 in that Braves game. Why would you remove your best pitcher in that game to put the ball in the hands of Bobby Parnell?

Granted, the Mets did win both games, but Manuel has to realize (especially after Frankie Rodriguez blew another save today) that Santana, no matter how many pitches he has thrown, is the best option for him at the end of the game.

Check out the photo accompanying this article. It is the on-field hand slapping between Manuel and Santana after Johan was allowed to finish his own game.

It might never happen again.  

Manuel already managed the Mets into many losses this season by pulling Santana early, and even pulling R.A. Dickey in this game where the Mets had Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals beaten.

Parnell and K-Rod gave up four runs in two innings in the eighth and ninth, but I doubt that Dickey would have allowed any more runs to the that Nats lineup. In watching the recorded game later on, they looked flustered trying to hit Dickey’s hard knuckle ball.

But Dickey threw 115 pitches already. What are we doing Jerry, trying to save the 35-year-old journeyman’s arm?

I remember driving home that day from umpiring a double header and listening to the game on the radio. I smiled when I heard that Dickey was being removed from the game. That gave the Nationals a chance.

But let’s get back to the Mets’ most effective, and highest paid, starting pitcher.

I don’t care how many pitches he has thrown into the later innings. If the game is tight and Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, or Albert Pujols was coming up, I WANT MY BEST PITCHER TO FACE THEM in that situation.

I already got on Manuel’s crosstown manager, Joe Girardi, last week regarding his pitch count limit shenanigans .

And it is not just Manuel and Girardi, but MLB in general. This entire notion that a middling relief pitcher, who isn’t good enough to be a starting pitcher and is not good enough to close games, is better than one of your starting pitchers when a game is tight is ridiculous. You can see this trend as middle relievers continue to get more and more win/loss decisions.

In 2008, Manuel pulled Santana early in four games which the Mets either held the lead or was tied but eventually lost , including two heartbreakers to the Philadelphia Phillies on July 4 and July 22 .

I heard on today’s radio broadcast that Santana had eight leads that season in which the Mets bullpen could not hold the lead.

How about Santana holding the lead?

Not until I wrote a piece two years ago did much talk center on letting Santana go longer in games because he is the team’s best pitcher, not Pedro Feliciano, not Fernando Nieve, not Elmer Dessens, not even the newly-anointed eighth inning guy Bobby Parnell or K-Rod are better than Johan Santana in these spots.
If you are talking pitch counts, and that Santana needs to be preserved for an August/September stretch run, there won’t be a late stretch run if Manuel continues to micro-manage the Johan Santana-pitched Mets games.

During those two Phillies games in July 2008, Santana had thrown 95 and 105 pitches, respectively, before he was pulled with a lead. As a reminder, the Mets lost the National League East by three games last season to those same Phillies, but were out of the National League Wild Card by a single game.

Leaving Santana in those four games when he was pulled would have likely returned three victories for the Mets.

If I am Manuel, I don’t care if Santana is at 95, 105, 115, or 135 pitches on a specific night. If Santana is still dealing and getting guys out, he is the man to be in the game. Not the aforementioned middle relievers.   

And do not pinch hit for him late either when there is no one on base or two outs in an inning. Having Santana on the mound is more important than gambling on getting a late insurance run.

Despite some successes this season, the Mets rotation is far from elite. The Mets need to win every game that Santana pitches, and that means letting your ace pitch very deep into games, if not a complete game every time out.

Then you can use the bullpen to try and bail out Mike Pelfrey, Jonathan Niese, and new rotation member R.A. Dickey—because you know Manuel, for a variety of reasons, is not going to be allowed those guys to go the distance.

Manuel needs to stop becoming more stupid—because if you have ever heard the comedian Ron White , “You can fix almost anything, but you can’t fix stupid .”

Jerry Manuel still doesn’t get it with Mike Pelfrey

August 16, 2009

In Sunday afternoon’s game, Mike Pelfrey entered the 8th inning with a 2-1 lead. He had thrown 90 pitches entering the frame, had retired his last seven batters and was in the midst of a three-hit gem.

After getting the first batter on a ground out, Pelfrey gave up back-to-back doubles to Eugenio Velez (his second hit if the day) and Randy Winn which tied the game at 2.

After that run scoring double, Mets manager Jerry Manuel trudges to the mound to remove his starting pitcher during the 8th inning “mess.” He brings in another right handed pitcher Brian Stokes who gets Freddie Sanchez swinging for the second out. After an intentional pass to Pablo Sandoval, Manuel brought in Pedro Feliciano to face the lefty swinging Fred Lewis, knowing full well the Giants had Ryan Garko on the bench to pinch hit.

But Jerry was in one of his Jerry moments, eschewing the future for the present, and proceeded with his mix and match madness. Feliciano ended up getting Garko to line out to end the inning, much to the delight of Mets TV broadcaster Gary Cohen.

I have to ask a question? What is more important, winning a meaningless game in mid-August for a team which is not going anywhere (meaning the Mets), or letting your #2 starter Pelfrey, get out of one of his own jams late in a game?

Similar to how Joba is being babied by the Yankees, Pelfrey is treated like a 14 year old entering his freshman year of high school. Pelfrey is no baby, but is 25 year old full grown man. And at 25 years of age, should be past the Verducci rules.

Pelfrey also has tremendous mechanics, throws free and easy and was not laboring at all.

At his point of the season, I say Manuel needs to let Pelfrey get out of late inning jams. Even if the Mets were in a divisional or wild card race, Manuel would need to let Pelfrey pitch. Manuel needs to understand that if Pelfrey is to develop into a top pitcher, he needs to learn how to clean up his own mess.   

Cleaning up 8th inning messes will only help Pelfrey down the line when tough situations occur to him early, mid or late in future games. If Pelfrey could of gotten out of that 8th inning jam on his own, then it would have been a boost to his confidence that he can be that go to guy starting pitcher, a tough #2 behind Johan Santana–at least until Santana asks out of New York.

Even if Pelfrey gave up another couple of hits and ended up losing 3-2 own his own accord, it would be better for him to get a decision (even if it was a loss) than being taken out with the game on the line.  Pelfrey was pulled after back to back doubles, leaving with the negativity that surrounds giving up the lead.

Pelfrey never got the opportunity to leave on a high note by getting out of that jam, and even if he would have received the L, but it would have been HIS decision, not the managers decision.  

Starting pitchers are getting fewer and fewer decisions each year, and it is a problem when they begin to think that 6 or 7 innings is a quality start, but don’t have a factor in the decision.

Manuel needs to realize that this season doesn’t count anymore, and that it is better to build for the future and to make the New York Mets team as good as it can be for future years, even if MANUEL IS NOT HERE TO DO THE MANAGING.

Lets hope that Pelfrey is allowed to clean up after himself the rest of the season, and can build upon his experiences, both good and bad.

But it likely will not ever happen.

Roy Halladay to the New York Yankees?

July 14, 2009

Now that Roy Halladay confirmed last night at the All-Star festivities that he is, indeed, available and willing to be traded to a contender, the New York Yankees surely is a possible destination.

Widely considered the best pitcher in baseball (Derek Jeter said as much last night), Halladay has been seeking a trade to a contender to finally perform in meaningful games in August and September. Since Halladay is signed through 2010, a trade will give him two chances at the playoffs and a possible World Series.

According to many, including Jonathan Papelbon, a contender who secures Halladay’s services will certainly be viewed as the favorite to win a World Series.

What if the contender is the Yankees? Because they are in the same division, reports have the Blue Jays needing more from either the Yankees or Boston Red Sox in a trade. The Jays want major league read players, not Single-A level prospects with hype.

Some Yankee fans want to give up the kitchen sink for Halladay. Names speculated concerning the Yankees needing to trade include Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes (maybe both), AAA centerfielder Austin Jackson, AA catcher Jesus Montero and current major league relief pitcher Mark Melancon.

If I were the Jays I would take that haul right now, but the Yankees would be stupid to make that type of deal as there is a crack in the trading armor of Jays GM JP Ricciardi.

Ricciardi has speculated that the winner of the Halladay sweepstakes might need to take the contract of Jays CF Vernon Wells. In December 2006, Ricciardi signed Wells to a seven-year $140 million contract. Since Wells immediately declined in production after signing the deal, the contract is an anchor both in terms of dollars and distance.

If Ricciardi insists that a team (such as the Yankees) take on Wells’ exhorbitant contract, then it is very possible the team taking that contract will not have to pay another ransom in terms of young talent.

With Yankees GM balking at paying up for Johan Santana a year and a half ago, I don’t see him giving up big prospects for Halladay. Not that “Doc” isn’t worth the dollar or prospect price. Overall he is much better than Santana, both in terms of pitching and temperament.

And I do not see the age being much of an issue either with Halladay. He is 32 now and unless he signs and extension, will be 34 when he comes up for free agency. His mechanics are perfect and he has not had a history of arm issues. He was on the DL in 2004 with shoulder soreness, but no problems since then. In terms of durability and style I rank him along with Derek Lowe, who is still going well at 36.

If Ricciardi insists on including Wells in the Halladay deal, the Yankees could be able to pull it off, as the excess money taken on will help save the oh-so-close to the major league prospects in Jackson and Montero. No way a team can take on TWO big salaries (Halladay and Wells) and give up a boatload of prospects, especially with no guarantee that Halladay will be around after 2010. I originally thought that Halladay would be traded, but that feeling is receding quite rapidly.

And all the rivalry teams mentioned as possible suitors such as Red Sox and Yankees, Phillies and Mets, Cardinals and Brewers, Dodgers and Giants, or Angels and Rangers would love to have Halladay, but don’t necessarily NEED Halladay.  All teams would probably be happy if he wasn’t traded at all, especially to their closest rival.

With the Blue Jays owner dying over the winter, the Jays likely need to cut salary and Wells is the biggest salary to dump. That is why Halladay needs to be dealt. The Jays can not afford Roy’s new expected salary and Wells’ monstrosity. You can throw in Alex Rios’ underperforming contract, too, but Halladay is the biggest marketable commodity.

The Yankees (or any team) should remove players from the table if Wells is included. The Blue Jays have no leverage in that type of situation, a situation the other teams can exploit by pulling back some of their prospects.