The Myth of the First-Pitch Strike

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People often say that strike one is the best pitch in a pitcher’s arsenal. Increasingly, box scores tally first-pitch strikes, and broadcasters tout their efficacy. The concept has seeped so far into our collective consciousness that it even has its own Wikipedia page.

The problem is that it’s more mythical than material.

“I think it’s very overrated,” Reds first baseman Joey Votto says, adding, “I don’t particularly concern myself with it. I always want to be in a good hitter’s count, but I’ve found that I get into a lot of two-strike counts and still have success overall.”

While it’s fair to argue that a former MVP like Votto might have more success in pitcher counts than the average hitter, the overall numbers support his comments. Analysis of count-specific outcomes coupled with the strategic benefits of seeing more of a pitcher’s arsenal support the notion that the importance of an at-bat’s first pitch is overstated. The best pitch for a pitcher is strike two, and the most important pitch is thrown on 1-1 counts.

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“The biggest discrepancy on any one pitch, in terms of future outcome, is actually the 1-1 pitch, going either to 2-1 or 1-2,” says Mets vice-president of player development and scouting Paul DePodesta. “It’s largely because, at that point, you’re at two strikes. As a hitter, you’re in peril. You’re a little at the pitcher’s mercy.”

If those words sound familiar, it’s because DePodesta endorsed the same idea in similar language a decade ago as assistant GM for the A’s, in a forgotten nugget in that book everyone read, Moneyball. His language was more colorful at the time, as he labeled hitters in 2-1 counts “all-stars” and those in 1-2 counts “anemic nine-hole hitters.”

That’s still true. This year’s big league average on 2-1 counts is .327 with a .521 slugging percentage; batters have been about half as productive on 1-2 counts, hitting .164 with a .233 slugging percentage. Averages on all two-strike counts, meanwhile, range from .148 on 0-2 to .210 on full counts, while every average on balls put in play for all other counts is at least .319. (While modern-day baseball fans know that batting average fails to adequately reflect a player’s overall offensive value, the metric still indicates a hitter’s approach and quality of swing on a particular pitch, as well as the quality of the pitch he is facing.)

When I showed the comparable numbers to former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee two years ago, he incredulously replied, “There’s no way that’s the averages.” But those numbers are right, and they rarely deviate by more than a few points each year. Here are the current 2014 count-based outcomes:

Count Average on that pitch
0-0 .342
0-1 .321
1-0 .337
1-1 .319
1-2 .164
2-1 .327

Looking at this chart sparks memories of SAT questions in which one choice is not like the others. DePodesta remembers no less of a pitching authority than Hall of Famer Greg Maddux declaring the 1-1 pitch the most important. Similarly, 2013 AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer recently extolled in Sports Illustrated the importance of getting two strikes in the first three pitches and that concept’s influence on his pitching approach.

First-pitch strikes have value, of course, but more as a means to two-strike counts and potentially going deeper in games than as an inherent end. And remember that hitters are exceedingly selective on the first pitch, often swinging only if it’s very hittable; thus, when they make contact, their average on that pitch is very high.

“While first-pitch strike percentage and things like that for pitchers may be a little overstated, it does still set you on the right path,” DePodesta says.

Cardinals pitching coordinator Tim Leveque, who oversees all of the organization’s minor league pitchers, says of strike one: “When we flip a card in blackjack, we’ve got a face card there. We’re trying to induce quick outs. I’m not going to teach my pitchers to go 1-and-0, you know?”

Understanding the count-specific flowchart’s divergent outcomes is of growing importance as hitters continue to see a record-breaking number of pitches. Batters in 2014 are seeing more pitches per plate appearance (3.842) than in any previous season, on track to break the record set last year. The seven most recent seasons rank one through seven on the all-time P/PA list.

The rate at which hitters have offered at the first pitch had declined steadily until 2010, before ticking up slightly. According to data from STATS LLC, batters swung at 32.8 percent of first pitches in 1988, a number that is now just 27.3 percent. Though overall strike percentage has risen just one percentage point since 2002 — from 62.4 percent to 63.5 percent, according to FanGraphs — first-pitch strike percentage has jumped from 56.0 percent in 1991 to 60.3 percent in 2014, inverse to the decline in first-pitch swings.

Overall selectivity has followed a similar, albeit less dramatic, arc: Batters took 52.9 percent of all pitches in 1988, which rose to 55.0 percent in 2010 and has slipped back down to 54.0 percent this season.

“The one thing that any player — pitcher or hitter — has to be careful of is just becoming too predictable,” DePodesta says.

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Scott Hatteberg’s patience became famous in Moneyball, so the following tale from Dave Hudgens, the former Mets hitting coach who previously held that position with the A’s, hardly seems surprising. For years, Hudgens says, he tried to get Hatteberg to swing at an occasional first pitch, but the hitter kept insisting, “It’s not that I don’t want to swing at a first pitch, I just can’t.”

Finally, Hatteberg got over the mental block and swung at the first pitch … “and he popped it up,” Hudgens says. “He was so pissed.” Hatteberg vowed never to swing at a first pitch again. (Hatteberg’s career numbers indicate that the anecdote is apocryphal: Even an über-selective hitter like Hatteberg swung at 11 percent of the first pitches — 257 swings — he saw in his four seasons in Oakland.)

There’s a reason why leadoff hitters have long been urged to take the first pitch they see, however. Even though a hitter can see the movement of pitches on video, nothing quite replicates the experience of seeing it in person from the batter’s box.

“For me personally, my first at-bat, I like to see what he has,” Mets first baseman Lucas Duda says, “so chances are I won’t swing first pitch of my first at-bat. Just get timing down, maybe the movement of the ball, just go from there.”

While it’s impossible to quantify the information gleaned from seeing a pitch up close, Votto — who last year became the sixth player in history to lead his league in on-base percentage four seasons in a row, joining Barry Bonds and Hall of Famers Wade Boggs, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby — swears the calculus works in his favor.

“I think that as often as you can get information from the pitcher, I think you’re going to be better in the long run,” Votto says. “But I also think you have to make an exchange to get that information. Sometimes giving up a strike or gaining a ball is part of that exchange.

“I think information for a hitter is the most important asset. I think that it trumps being in good hitter’s counts. I just think your brain and your body — the connection between the two — needs the feedback from the pitcher.”

It seems like a simple barter system — trade a strike for information — except that sometimes a hitter can get a rebate. “There was no cost to [that information] when it was a ball,” DePodesta says. “In fact, you almost get paid for it, which was terrific.”

It’s important to note the pitchers’ corollary to the hitters’ intangible benefit: A first-pitch strike can be a confidence-boosting, approach-altering event.

“I think it’s more, psychologically, an advantage to the pitcher,” says David Cone, the retired pitcher who won 194 games and who now broadcasts Yankees games on the YES Network. “It affects your strategy on the next pitch. If you get a quick strike early in the count, then you can go to off-speed pitches more.”

He added: “Sequencewise, in the pitchers’ mind, I think it makes a difference. Outcomewise, [it’s] maybe a little more debatable depending on what qualifiers you put on it.”

Interestingly, there appears to be a small but statistically significant impact on performance depending on the order in which the first ball and first strike are incurred. In a 2006 article for The Hardball Times, Sal Baxamusa hypothesized that the most recent pitch might carry some psychological impact. If a pitcher were to throw strikes with two of his first three pitches, Baxamusa said, the numbers indicate that pitcher will have more success if those strikes are the second and third pitches and not the first pitch.

If most pitchers had their druthers, of course, just about every early pitch would be a strike.

“I completely agree with you,” says Red Sox reliever Burke Badenhop of the 1-1 count’s heightened importance. “But the problem is, if you throw ball one and then ball two, you can’t get to 1-1. What I’ve been taught is to get the at-bat over in three pitches or less. If you can get an at-bat over in three pitches or less, you’ve probably thrown two strikes.”

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There are some caveats and exceptions to this patient hitting approach, given that baseball is played by men on a field and not by numbers in a matrix. The first such note, echoed by everyone interviewed for this story who coaches hitting, is to not automatically take the first pitch.

“It depends on what first pitch you’re talking about,” says Hudgens. “Is it the first pitch of the game? Is it the first at-bat where he hasn’t faced a guy before? Is it a first pitch where he’s seen the guy a million times and there are runners in scoring position? If a guy’s comfortable swinging at the first pitch and he knows the guy, yeah, that could be one of the best pitches you might see.”

The most prominent mitigating factors are the game’s context — inning, score, runner position(s), etc. — and whether the hitter has a platoon advantage over the pitcher. Batters also learn from their teammates. If one hitter makes an out while swinging at the first pitch, the next batter is much less likely to even consider swinging at the first offering.

“That’s what you have to put into play — a team philosophy on how aggressive you are or how much you take pitches depending on what the guy in front of you has done,” Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long says.

The hand and ballpark also matter.

“If I’m facing a right-handed batter and I throw ball one, I still feel like I can throw more sliders to him because I have the [arm] angle and the platoon advantage,” says Cone, a right-hander. “Against a lefty, if I fall behind, it’s a little bit [of a] different story. If I try to throw a fastball now, in this ballpark” — he gestures toward Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch—“it’s more of a danger for a home run and more damage potential.”

But, when all else is equal, the hitter’s goal is work his way to 2-0, 2-1, and 3-1 counts. “Those are the counts you make your living on,” Hudgens says.

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The godfather of this patient hitting approach, like so many other quantitatively inspired innovations, is Sandy Alderson. He’s now the Mets’ general manager, but he left his mark as a pioneer in baseball theory while holding the same position for the A’s from 1983 until 1997. The idea originated back in the mid ’80s, Alderson says, from a series of simple correlations: A team’s record improves by scoring more runs, and run totals grow with a higher on-base percentage, which improves with more selectivity at the plate. It all sounds so simple now, but implementing the idea then was another matter, especially when batting average was the definitive offensive statistic. Strikeouts were a natural byproduct of working deeper counts.

Says Alderson: “I can remember saying to some players, ‘If the guy’s got a .400 on-base percentage, I don’t care what he does the other 60 percent of the time.’ It’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much.”

Trying to constrain a hitter’s natural tendency to swing was difficult enough, but presenting the information on chalkboards and whiteboards in a classroom setting wasn’t what young minor leaguers who’d just left school really wanted.

“It was somewhere between nap time and milk and cookies,” says Keith Lieppman, who’s been Oakland’s farm director since 1992. “They hated it,” he says of incorporating the approach. “It was big-picture thinking … At the time, they couldn’t handle it.”

At one year’s instructional league, hitters weren’t allowed to swing until they had taken two strikes. Minor leaguers weren’t eligible to be named hitter of the month without having a certain number of walks or meeting a certain threshold of walk rate. Each player was required to keep a notebook in which he had to grade himself in several categories for every at-bat, including the quality of swing and how well he saw the ball.

The A’s got results, winning three consecutive AL pennants from 1988 through ’90, including a World Series title in ’89. Mark McGwire and Rickey Henderson were exemplary practitioners. Alderson says one interesting player the A’s “acquired with this whole approach in mind was Dave Henderson” as a complementary player “who added to the critical mass of players who were selective.”

The minor leaguers got the hang of it, too. In one series in Class-A ball about 15 years ago, Oakland’s patient hitters faced a club whose organization stressed swinging at first pitches because of the high success rate hitters historically have when putting them in play. The problem, of course, is that those first-pitch numbers are high only because hitters tend to swing at just the especially hittable ones. When hitters have a mandate to swing at first pitches, pitchers can adjust their approach accordingly.

On average, the A’s minor leaguers were seeing about 170 pitches per game that series, while their opponents were seeing just 90. Lieppman says the A’s pitchers were “able to carve them up because they were so aggressive.”

The Mets are the latest case study of this patient approach, with Alderson and DePodesta in the front office and, until his dismissal last Monday, Hudgens in the dugout. Alderson believes so strongly in his organizational hitting philosophy that he insisted it wouldn’t change at the very same press conference during which he announced he was replacing Hudgens because of the major league club’s poor performance. Alderson noted that the minor league affiliates all rank favorably in most offensive categories. The count-based outcomes grid is presented to the club in spring training to inform their batting approaches.

Personnel matters, however. The 2011 Mets were successful — they had little power (13th in HRs) but a great approach (second in OBP) and thus scored the NL’s sixth-most runs — but New York’s lineups have struggled to replicate that since. No small coincidence: The ’11 season was the last one in which the Mets employed Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes. There’s also the reality that this approach isn’t as novel as it used to be, and the amount of great pitching in the majors is on the rise.

“It’s one thing to understand an idea, but it’s another thing to apply it,” Duda says. “That guy out on the mound does a pretty good job at getting us out, so that’s a lot easier on paper than it is [in reality].”

Indeed, not just anyone can successfully adopt this program, but it’s a powerful tool in the hands of a capable hitter. It takes a discerning eye, a disciplined approach, and a deep understanding that each at-bat is akin to a choose-your-own-adventure story, with better endings for those willing to wait.

Joe Lemire (@LemireJoe) is a freelance baseball writer living in New York City. He is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer whose work also appears in TheWall Street Journal, the New York Times, and on Sports on Earth. 

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Stats, First-Pitch Strikes, Count-Based Outcomes, Baseball, Baseball Lore, Moneyball, Joey Votto, Paul DePodesta, Dave Hudgens, Max Scherzer, Joe Lemire

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