Patience is for Suckers: The Case for Swinging First-ball, Fastball | The Golden Sombrero Baseball Blog | MLB, Fantasy, College & High School Baseball News

Patience is for Suckers: The Case for Swinging First-ball, Fastball

April 1, 2010

Many coaches teach that the best way to approach hitting is to work the count against a pitcher.  After all, the more pitches a pitcher must throw, the better chance a hitter has to time his delivery, get a sense for his stronger and weaker pitches and learn what he might throw in certain situations.  This not only helps the hitter, these coaches argue, but also the team.  If a pitcher consistently has to throw four or more pitches to every hitter, he will be out of the game relatively quickly, even if he is pitching effectively.

As a hitter, I always looked at it differently.  I felt that the first pitch I saw during an at-bat was often the best one.  I also believed that as I got deep into the count, the pitcher would be able to dictate the at-bat more and force me to swing at pitchers’ pitches.  Further, true in all levels of baseball but especially in high school, pitchers are taught above all to get ahead of the hitter. This usually means that on the first pitch, pitchers will try to throw a strike, typically a fastball.  Very rarely will a pitcher start off by trying to get a hitter to chase an offspeed pitch out of the zone.  This only begins to happen when pitchers are already ahead of hitters—perhaps after the hitter has taken a quick strike or two.

Looking at the numbers, here are the batting averages by count in MLB:
0-0 = .344
1-0 = .341
2-0 = .351
3-0 = .394
0-1 = .324
1-1 = .327
2-1 = .338
3-1 = .368
0-2 = .166
1-2 = .178
2-2 = .195
3-2 = .233
Source: Baseball FactoryBlog: A Premier Scouting Partner for Baseball America

Looking at these numbers, one thing becomes clear—the only hitter’s counts better by a statistically significant amount than the first pitch are 3-0 and 3-1.  This makes sense—in these situations, pitchers are often forced to throw a fastball strike or risk a walk—a “free pass”.  Conversely, once a hitter gets two strikes on him, his batting average drops like a rock.  This also makes sense, because when a pitcher has worked an 0-2 or 1-2 count, he can afford to throw an offspeed pitch outside the strike zone in hopes that the hitter will chase.  The hitter also has to protect the plate, meaning that if the pitch is close, he has to swing.

Further, home runs occur most often in MLB on the first pitch—more often than in any other count.  0-0 counts also see the most doubles, triples and RBI.  While of course some of this can be explained by the fact that every hitter sees a 0-0 count in every at-bat, it also leads me to believe that hitters, when coming up to the plate looking to be aggressive, can jump on that first pitch well if the pitcher is just trying to get ahead in the count.

Finally, we can take a look at the OBP numbers for after the appropriate count.  This is calculated slightly differently because obviously, no one (not even Barry Bonds in 2001) can walk on anything other than a three-ball count, so the OBP for 1-0 represents the OBP for all hitters who begin their at-bat with ball one, regardless of how many more pitches they see:
1-0 .394
2-0 .516
3-0 .760
0-1 .281
1-1 .321
2-1 .404
3-1 .595
0-2 .211
1-2 .242
2-2 .306
3-2 .263
Here, we see a much sharper rise from 1-0 to 3-0.  However, more interesting is that we see a fall in OBP from 2-2 to 3-2.  We do see OBPs rise for non-two-strike counts.  Contrary to batting average, OBP is actually better on 2-1 than on 1-0.  Still, the biggest thing to notice is that the two-strike OBPs represent three of the lowest four on the chart.  Sure, great hitters like Luke Appling may have been able to foul pitches away (once even 24 in an at-bat!) until they found one they liked, but in reality, the advantage is to the pitcher in these situations.

In conclusion, I would draw the conclusion that if you have runners on in front of you and are trying to get a base hit to drive them in, taking pitches and getting deep in the count would be a horrible idea.  If you are trying to start an inning off, it’s still not a good idea to get too deep in the count because two-strike counts lead to the poorest OBPs, but taking pitches makes more sense in this situation.

I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree, not only because this is anathema to conventional wisdom on the game today, but because my baseball career was the shortest of all of this blog’s contributors.  But in one hitter’s opinion, the best way to hit with a two-strike count is to not get in one.

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