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The Seattle Mariners and swinging at the first pitch

The Mariners offense has been pretty miserable this year. Are they any better when they swing away at the first pitch of an at bat?

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is fun and beautiful and frustrating and disappointing and why do we do this you guys? Oftentimes, this sport is simultaneously so easy to enjoy and so hard to watch. Especially for Mariners fans. These types of dichotomies are actually pretty prevalent around baseball. One of my favorites is when you're out at a Safeco and a Mariners batter takes a first pitch as a called strike right down the middle, causing the monster wearing a Chone Figgins jersey who is sitting behind you to screech, "WHY DIDN'T YOU SWING AT THAT?!? GET THE BAT OFF YOUR SHOULDER, CANO!" And then, of course, the next batter swings at the first pitch, hitting a sharp grounder to the second baseman, which instigates the same monster to jeer, "WHY ARE YOU SWINGING AT THE FIRST PITCH?!? STOP GIVING UP EASY OUTS, CRUZ!"

Some people are just the worst.

That being said, we all feel this way sometimes. It can definitely be frustrating when Cano doesn't make the barest effort to offer at a first-pitch strike or when Cruz comes up swinging at a first pitch ball that is well below his knees. However, as baseball fans, it's usually a lot easier to care about the outcome of a decision as opposed to the approach behind it. You can preach all you want about taking the first pitch and working long at bats, but you're not going to be grumpy when Seager mashes the first delivery for a home run. So with all of this in mind, which Mariners players should we be a bit more lenient/trusting with when it comes to swinging at the first pitch? Who has found success this season and who has regularly flirted with failure? To find out, I've compiled the table below, which shows the first-pitch swinging habits of the Mariners ~everyday players in 2015.

Player PA Whiffs Fouls Hits In play, out
First pitch in the zone Swings at first pitch Contact with first pitch
Robinson Cano 336 16 37 12 28 40.5% 27.7% 82.8%
Nelson Cruz 332 31 31 9 14 42.5% 25.6% 63.5%
Logan Morrison 324 20 34 8 36 36.4% 30.2% 79.6%
Kyle Seager 324 12 24 13 21 46.0% 21.6% 82.9%
Brad Miller 273 25 35 12 29 46.5% 37.0% 75.2%
Mike Zunino 251 39 39 6 14 49.8% 39.0% 60.2%
Seth Smith 248 12 12 6 12 41.1% 16.9% 71.4%
Austin Jackson 248 9 16 7 12 50.8% 17.7% 79.5%
Dustin Ackley 174 5 7 3 8 37.9% 13.2% 78.3%
2015 Seattle Mariners
3013 222 278 92 214 43.3% 26.8% 72.5%

Here, we see quite a range of numbers. For example, Zunino is almost three times as likely to swing at the first pitch of an at bat compared to Ackley. That's a huge difference! Additionally, we can see that, while he's fairly selective about swinging, when Seager does decide to swing at a first pitch he's making excellent contact with the ball. Of course, these numbers don't tell us how successful these players have been. To figure that out, we can look at the table below.

Nelson Cruz 23 0.391 0.913 1.304
Kyle Seager 34
0.382 0.765 1.147
Seth Smith 18
0.333 0.611 0.980
Mike Zunino 20
0.316 0.474 0.855
Austin Jackson 19
0.389 0.444 0.833
2015 Seattle Mariners 306 0.302 0.497 0.808
Brad Miller 41
0.293 0.488 0.797
Robinson Cano 40
0.316 0.421 0.721
Dustin Ackley 11
0.333 0.333 0.667
Logan Morrison 44 0.182 0.341 0.541

A few things to consider when looking at these numbers: 1) These only reflect first pitches that were swung at and put in play and 2) the league-average OPS when swinging at the first pitch is just a touch below 0.900. That number is clearly much higher than the overall league-average OPS (~0.710); this is due in large part to the fact that strike outs and walks don't influence a player's numbers when swinging at the first pitch.

Unsurprisingly (this team is bad at hitting), only a few Mariners have been better than average when swinging at the first pitch. Cruz, Seager, and Smith have combined to smash seven dingers (15 extra base hits in total) and have driven in 20 runs when swinging away. This isn't too shabby when you consider that they've only put the opening pitch of an at bat into play 75 times. Conversely, Logan Morrison has been awful when swinging at the first pitch. He's the only Mariners player whose swinging-at-the-first-pitch split is worse than his overall split. This seems largely due to his inability to get the ball out of the infield when swinging at the first pitch. Maybe consider being more patient, LoMo?

Swinging-at-the-first-pitch spray charts: Seager is good. LoMo is... not so good.

It should be noted that all of these numbers rely on fairly small sample sizes and probably aren't very predictive. That being said, when the Mariners have been able to put the opening pitch of an at bat into play, they've generally been able to do a fair amount of damage. Of course, if you swing at the first pitch and don't put it in play, you've quickly dug yourself into an 0-1 hole. That is not an ideal position to be in. As a result, this team has actually seen their overall offensive performance decrease when offering at the first delivery of an at bat.

2015 Mariners
Swung at 1st Pitch 813 2.5% 21.3% 0.232 0.251 0.377 0.628 0.267
Took 1st Pitch 2238 9.2% 22.2% 0.229 0.304 0.374 0.678 0.272

B-ref doesn't have this split for individual players, which is weird.

When the Mariners swing at the first pitch, just 2.5% of those at bats end in a walk; this is laughably low rate and serves to suppress their OBP in that scenario by more than 50 points. Their batting average and slugging do increase slightly, but, in general, it almost certainly hasn't been worth it to swing at the first pitch.

So I guess the lesson (assuming there is a lesson) is maybe don't get too frustrated when a player on the Mariners seems reluctant to swing at the first pitch? If you're Nelson Cruz or Kyle Seager and you can occasionally ambush a first-pitch fastball, maybe feel free to swing away. Otherwise...

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*All of the data in this post were collected from either Baseball Savant or Baseball-Reference.

**The numbers reflected in the tables above are only through 7/5 and do include events from last night's game.