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):
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:
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|
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.
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.
When a team looks at the first pitch, how often is it a strike?
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.
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.