First Pitch Hacking?

Grab a snack and a refreshing beverage for this one. If you are like me, you love plate patience and in most cases absolutely abhor first pitch swinging. Perhaps because they frustrate me so, I tend to key in on them and notice them more, especially when they're done by one of my whipping boys, Yuniesky Betancourt or Kenji Johjima. Over the course of this amazingly frustrating season I had acquired the impression that the Mariners must be one of the most swing happy teams, and markedly first pitch swing happy, in all of baseball.

It's been said that the true mark of intelligence lies in knowing that you really don't know anything. I try to take that to heart often and is part of my motivation for seeking out data behind my initial impressions and you can rest assured that I wasn't going to let this hunch go untested.

HYPOTHESIS: The Mariners swing at more first pitches than most teams.

MEANS OF TESTING HYPOTHESIS: The hours upon hours of time that I put in building a database of all pitches pays off as this hypothesis can be tested rather easily with just a single well-constructed database query. I will simply look at all pitches that start a plate appearance, keep that number as a denominator and for the numerator filter out pitches that were taken for either a ball or strike. That provides me with the percentage of first pitches that are offered at by the batter and then I simply group by the batting team and voila.

INITIAL RESULTS: Surprising; and not in the sarcastic sort of way. I mean actually surprising. Take a look (through play 3 June 2008):

Team Swing% Team Swing% Team Swing%
CLE 0.2093 WAS 0.2635 COL 0.2923
SEA 0.2186 NYA 0.2658 HOU 0.2945
TOR 0.2241 BAL 0.2671 ANA 0.2953
PIT 0.2268 DET 0.2677 SLN 0.2966
BOS 0.2321 CHN 0.2732 CIN 0.2968
MIL 0.2520 ARI 0.2763 SDN 0.3014
LAN 0.2562 FLO 0.2769 TEX 0.3019
PHI 0.2578 CHA 0.2852 ATL 0.3123
OAK 0.2581 SFN 0.2895 TBA 0.3134
NYN 0.2623 MIN 0.2916 KCA 0.3209

The Mariners swing at the first pitch less often than any team in baseball except for the Indians. It is literally the exact opposite of what I expected and sent me scurrying back to try to see if I did something wrong in querying the database. I tore it down, rebuilt it, tried it on paper, every time I arrived at the same end result.

This isn't a meaningless range either. The Major League average is over 27% so the Mariners are just under 6% below that mark or roughly one in every 17 plate appearances which is more than twice per game. And that's just from average, it's roughly double those figures to the spot of where I thought the Mariners would be residing. So who is driving this? Here's a breakdown of just the Mariners:

Player Swing% PA
Greg Norton 0.1111 18
Jose Lopez 0.1270 252
Brad Wilkerson 0.1618 68
Jamie Burke 0.1667 42
Ichiro Suzuki 0.1716 268
Jose Vidro 0.1722 180
Miguel Cairo 0.1803 61
Raul Ibanez 0.1928 249
Richie Sexson 0.2389 180
Willie Bloomquist 0.2609 46
Adrian Beltre 0.2664 244
Yuniesky Betancourt 0.2714 210
LEAGUE AVERAGE 0.2721 68174
Mike Morse 0.2727 11
Kenji Johjima 0.2793 179
Wladimir Balentien 0.2871 101
Jeff Clement 0.3750 56
Jeremy Reed 0.4000 30
Charlton Jimerson 1.0000 1

Now you're are just screwing with me right? Yuni is actually below average at swinging at the first pitch? It's baffling, it's totally unexpected and that is why you do the analysis instead of relying on gut feelings.

Not all of this is surprising; we've been noting Jose Lopez's (forced) patience on first pitches all season. Richie Sexson often doesn't offer at the first pitch because he seems to realize that he can't catch up to a Tim Wakefield fastball and thus usually tries to work the count, ditto Wilkerson. And Ichiro, for his swing happy reputation later in the count, does generally look at a pitch or two before he commences hacking.

Knowing that the Mariners are actually stingy on those first pitches is all well and good, but it raises further questions. Namely, are the Mariners actually exercising good plate discipline and laying off balls out of the zone or are they just a team full of Loafies; blindly staring at the first pitch go by no matter what? To answer that question, let's consider that a batter swinging at a pitch can end in one of three results: the hitter misses, the hitter fouls the pitch off or the hitter puts the ball in fair play. Ideally, hitters would only swing at a first pitch if there was a good reason to, i.e. a meatball so let's take a look at how often the pitch is a strike when a team swings.

Now, determining whether a pitch was a strike is easy in theory, more difficult in practice. Pitch F/X comes in handy here. Home plate is 17 inches wide so determining that part of the strike zone is easy, but the height of the strike zone is supposed to be variable, though as we've seen with Sexson, it doesn't actually seem to get adjusted well. For that, I took the average top and bottom of the strike zone across all MLB hitters and used that for the cutoff. Given those strike zone dimensions here's a table showing how often a pitch is a strike when the team swings:

Swinging Strike Fouled Off Batted Fair
Team Str% Rank Team Str% Rank Team Str% Rank
ANA 28.30% 30 ANA 56.10% 30 ANA 67.80% 20
ARI 42.40% 23 ARI 64.10% 17 ARI 71.30% 14
ATL 48.00% 9 ATL 64.70% 15 ATL 71.60% 13
BAL 44.70% 18 BAL 61.80% 25 BAL 70.20% 16
BOS 35.60% 29 BOS 62.40% 22 BOS 67.70% 21
CHA 52.60% 2 CHA 69.40% 5 CHA 73.60% 7
CHN 47.50% 13 CHN 70.40% 2 CHN 73.40% 8
CIN 42.90% 21 CIN 68.30% 9 CIN 70.10% 17
CLE 50.00% 7 CLE 69.40% 6 CLE 66.50% 25
COL 47.80% 10 COL 68.70% 7 COL 72.30% 12
DET 47.60% 12 DET 62.80% 21 DET 72.50% 11
FLO 37.40% 28 FLO 59.20% 29 FLO 65.80% 29
HOU 44.60% 19 HOU 62.10% 23 HOU 76.00% 3
KCA 46.00% 17 KCA 63.20% 20 KCA 76.70% 1
LAN 50.40% 6 LAN 68.50% 8 LAN 73.00% 9
MIL 47.30% 14 MIL 68.20% 10 MIL 75.90% 4
MIN 43.20% 20 MIN 64.40% 16 MIN 67.20% 23
NYA 50.00% 7 NYA 70.40% 3 NYA 72.90% 10
NYN 52.50% 3 NYN 63.30% 19 NYN 70.10% 18
OAK 51.50% 4 OAK 68.10% 11 OAK 74.20% 6
PHI 41.00% 25 PHI 61.20% 27 PHI 67.20% 24
PIT 62.10% 1 PIT 68.10% 12 PIT 74.40% 5
SDN 46.30% 15 SDN 70.00% 4 SDN 66.30% 26
SEA 42.50% 22 SEA 61.70% 26 SEA 70.70% 15
SFN 41.90% 24 SFN 66.50% 14 SFN 68.50% 19
SLN 50.80% 5 SLN 72.30% 1 SLN 76.20% 2
TBA 40.30% 27 TBA 61.90% 24 TBA 64.40% 30
TEX 47.60% 11 TEX 66.70% 13 TEX 67.40% 22
TOR 40.80% 26 TOR 64.00% 18 TOR 66.20% 27
WAS 46.00% 16 WAS 60.60% 28 WAS 65.80% 28
MLB 45.50% MLB 65.40% MLB 70.50%

If a hitter swings and misses, there's a greater than 50% chance that the pitch was out of the zone. Those odds decrease as a hitter is able to make a contact and lastly, keep it in play. That's pretty intuitive, but there's also some interesting patterns across these columns. Recall that St. Louis is one of the most swing happy teams in baseball but look at these ranks across type; fifth, first and second. For the most part, Cardinals hitters are at least swinging at first pitch strikes. The Mariners? Not so much. The Mariners are stingy at swinging on the first pitch, but when they do swing they are overall worse than league average at choosing pitches in the zone to do it on.

For swings and misses and foul balls the story ends there, but there's an additional piece of information to look at on balls put in fair play; the outcome of said play. Adding up all the hits and total bases of those at bats here is a table presenting each team's average and slugging percentage on those first pitch, separated by whether the pitch was a strike or ball.

Strike Ball
Team N AVG SLG Team N AVG SLG
ANA 200 0.345 0.525 ANA 95 0.253 0.347
ARI 189 0.381 0.683 ARI 76 0.289 0.434
ATL 234 0.363 0.598 ATL 93 0.301 0.366
BAL 184 0.239 0.418 BAL 78 0.269 0.385
BOS 182 0.319 0.533 BOS 87 0.322 0.437
CHA 206 0.311 0.544 CHA 74 0.297 0.486
CHN 201 0.373 0.537 CHN 73 0.342 0.534
CIN 204 0.279 0.475 CIN 87 0.287 0.379
CLE 131 0.351 0.580 CLE 66 0.288 0.394
COL 180 0.350 0.550 COL 69 0.290 0.391
DET 179 0.397 0.615 DET 68 0.368 0.471
FLO 154 0.364 0.727 FLO 80 0.300 0.463
HOU 199 0.347 0.548 HOU 63 0.317 0.524
KCA 240 0.338 0.500 KCA 73 0.301 0.370
LAN 176 0.318 0.466 LAN 65 0.154 0.246
MIL 183 0.377 0.585 MIL 58 0.155 0.224
MIN 197 0.299 0.508 MIN 96 0.313 0.396
NYA 194 0.320 0.577 NYA 72 0.278 0.375
NYN 185 0.319 0.524 NYN 79 0.291 0.418
OAK 178 0.292 0.489 OAK 62 0.306 0.468
PHI 182 0.357 0.610 PHI 89 0.303 0.517
PIT 189 0.312 0.540 PIT 65 0.277 0.415
SDN 197 0.305 0.503 SDN 100 0.300 0.420
SEA 162 0.327 0.481 SEA 67 0.224 0.388
SFN 187 0.332 0.668 SFN 86 0.279 0.337
SLN 227 0.357 0.678 SLN 71 0.197 0.254
TBA 179 0.302 0.453 TBA 99 0.364 0.465
TEX 207 0.420 0.671 TEX 100 0.340 0.550
TOR 153 0.346 0.503 TOR 78 0.231 0.256
WAS 183 0.251 0.333 WAS 95 0.221 0.284
MLB 5662 0.333 0.548 MLB 2364 0.285 0.402

The Rangers punish those first pitches when they put them into play regardless of if it's in the zone or not as do the Diamondbacks. The Mariners really struggle here compared to the rest of the league, but it is worth noting just how well the league as a whole does on those first pitch strikes and illustrates an important point.

We all know by heart the pitching mantra of getting ahead in the count and the oft-repeated number of first pitch strikes thrown to hitters. You might even have an awareness of how beneficial it actually is for a pitcher to throw strike one as opposed to ball one. In case you didn't; the average hitter has a .737 OPS. If the count goes to 1-0, the average hitter now posts a .838 OPS. If the count goes to 0-1, the average hitter now posts just a .616 OPS. (Source: Baseball-Reference).

Just knowing that would give you the impression that it's important beyond belief for a pitcher to throw a first pitch strike, and while it is important, it's leaving out a side effect of throwing first pitch strikes; they get swung at. And if they get hit, they do so at an .881 OPS clip. Unless you play for the Mariners.

APPENDIX 1

When a team looks at the first pitch, how often is it a strike?

Team Strike% Rank Team Strike% Rank Team Strike% Rank
ANA 42.15% 21 DET 41.69% 23 PHI 41.56% 24
ARI 42.37% 19 FLO 44.24% 6 PIT 45.68% 2
ATL 38.17% 30 HOU 42.38% 18 SDN 41.75% 22
BAL 43.09% 15 KCA 40.83% 25 SEA 43.32% 10
BOS 44.92% 4 LAN 43.27% 11 SFN 43.05% 16
CHA 42.24% 20 MIL 45.78% 1 SLN 39.46% 29
CHN 40.20% 28 MIN 42.45% 17 TBA 43.23% 12
CIN 40.54% 27 NYA 43.72% 8 TEX 43.14% 14
CLE 44.58% 5 NYN 40.62% 26 TOR 45.06% 3
COL 43.64% 9 OAK 43.21% 13 WAS 43.88% 7

If you peruse this table you'll see there appears to be a pattern that teams that do not swing often at the first pitch (consult the first table in this article) seem to see a higher percentage of called strikes on those first pitches that they do take. Running a simple correlation between the two ordinal rankings shows a correlation of -0.61 which is pretty strong.

Finally, one more table, this time, ignoring everything, what's the likelihood that the first pitch thrown is in the strike zone. Again, I'm using the definition of the strike zone that I outlined in the main post.

Team Strike% Rank Team Strike% Rank Team Strike% Rank
ANA 41.1% 30 DET 45.2% 7 PHI 41.8% 26
ARI 44.6% 12 FLO 41.5% 28 PIT 46.0% 2
ATL 41.8% 26 HOU 44.6% 11 SDN 42.8% 24
BAL 43.2% 23 KCA 44.7% 10 SEA 44.0% 17
BOS 44.7% 9 LAN 43.6% 20 SFN 44.4% 14
CHA 45.6% 6 MIL 45.8% 3 SLN 45.7% 5
CHN 44.4% 13 MIN 42.6% 25 TBA 44.0% 15
CIN 43.7% 19 NYA 43.5% 21 TEX 44.8% 8
CLE 43.4% 22 NYN 41.3% 29 TOR 47.1% 1
COL 45.7% 4 OAK 44.0% 16 WAS 43.9% 18

So while the Mariners do see a higher percentage of called strikes, they actually see less pitches in the zone overall on those first pitches. That again supports that more often than average, the Mariners, when they do swing at the first pitch, do so on pitches out of the zone. That's bad for business.

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