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.

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NY Times’ Tyler Kepner Joins the Bandwagon

September 9, 2009

Finally, an influential member of the media has come out and declared the 2008 deadline day deal the Yankees made with the Kansas City A’s, I mean the Pittsburgh Pirates, a win for the Bucs.

That deal brought Outfielder Xavier Nady and LHP Damaso Marte over from the Pirates in exchange for Yankee pitching prospects Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf and Danile McCutchen plus OF Jose Tabata.

Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, in his blog on Sunday , said that with the “breakout season” for Ross Ohlendorf, the Pirates have won that trade with the Yankees.

And Kepner is correct in that assumption, but it is much too late.

Most everyone last July thought the trade was a steal for the Yankees. They were getting Nady, a corner outfielder hitting .330/.383/.535/.919 at the time, and Marte, a lefty specialist primarily needed for the big, bad Boston Red Sox lefty slugger David Ortiz. At the time of the trade Marte was 4-0, with a 3.57 ERA with the Pirates but wasn’t that great against lefties.

Like I mentioned, pretty much everyone thought the trade was a steal for the Yankees, except one person.

Me, aka The Grand Poobah, a nickname I was given by Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio of the Shore Sports Report, a radio duo who I am on the air with every Friday at 5:30 PM EST. A nickname for my penchant to be decisive and correct on many baseball issues.

I thought the Yankees gave up way too much last year in the deal, and also thought that Nady and Marte weren’t as good as their numbers with the lowly Pirates suggested. Look at the comments in the Dugout Central article. All on the Yankee side. But I was proven correct. Nady has been hurt almost all of this season, and hit .268/.320/.474/.794 as a Yankee in 2008, a season the Yankees missed the playoffs by a wide margin.

With a .320 OBP, Nady won’t be getting too many Hall of Fame votes from Joe Posnanski.

And Marte was just brutal with the Yankees last season, and until recently (4 G, 4.2 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 5 K’s) he hasn’t been much better this season. 

The Yankees gave up too much last year in that trade, and I outline my reasons why in those pieces linked above. I have always felt Daniel McCutchen was gong to a bulldog type of major league starting pitcher. He has an aggressive makeup and has always improved during each level of play. 

With the starting pitcher issues last season, I advocated giving Cutch a good shot in the 2008 rotation instead of Sidney Ponson or Darrell Rasner. Ohlendorf is a surprise as a starting pitcher this season, but the Yankees typically give up on their young pitchers very easily. After last years trade, the Pirates immediately started the movement of Ohlendorf to a starting pitcher.

While it is important to point out that the Yankees still had a bunch of starting pitching prospects at the trade deadline last season, at this point of the 2009 season the Yankees internal rotation options are slim and/or young.

Injuries and surgery to George Kontos, Ian Kennedy, Christian Garcia and Chien-Ming Wang plus the trading of McCutchen, Ohlendorf, Karstens (not really a prime starter) and Eric Hacker (in another trade), has dwindled the Yankee options. That is why the Yankees needed to sign Sergio Mitre this off season and trade for Chad Gaudin a month ago.

Most other top guys are too young (Ivan Nova, Zach McAllister) or never will be involved in the Yankee plans (Kei Igawa, plus any other 30+ year old relic in AAA). But if Madison Bumgarner can make the jump from AA to the Majors, why not the Zach Attack?

The Yankees got fleeced last season in that trade, and because of injuries and youth, are short on internal options.

The only way this trade even decently works out for the Yankees is if Marte gets a couple of real big outs this 2009 post season and the Yankees win a World Series because of those outs. But then the Pirates will still have won the trade, and the Yankees still lost a couple of real good, young arms.

It’s that the sting will not be as severe.