With first-pitch strikes, pitchers gain key edge
Rate of strike one rising; batters maintaining patient approach, to their detriment
It seems so easy, especially for a Major League pitcher -- someone who has theoretically been an ace throughout Little League, high school, college and the Minors.
Start a batter off with the best pitch of all: Strike one.
Well, it isn't so easy. Nothing about the big leagues is easy, as it turns out, and careers seem to hinge on pitchers' ball-to-strike ratios, walk rates and command of the ins and outs of that invisible square over home plate.
Matt Harvey was a serious pitching prospect. Everyone in the Mets organization and most of the rest of the baseball community knew it, and how could they not have known it?
In 2011, his first professional season at the age of 22, Harvey, New York's first-round selection in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, had used his high-90s fastball and above-average complement of secondary stuff to garner 156 strikeouts in 135 2/3 combined innings between Class A and Double-A.
Last year, he made 20 starts for Triple-A Buffalo and struck out 112 batters in 110 innings and had a 3.68 ERA. He looked even better in his first taste of the Majors.
Harvey made his big league debut on July 26, and by the time his season was over, he had pitched to a Major League ERA of 2.73 in 10 starts, striking out 70 batters in 59 1/3 innings.
All those numbers looked good, but there was a problem with command. Harvey averaged 3.1 walks per nine innings in 2011 and 3.9 in the Minors in 2012. In his 10-game spin in The Show, Harvey's walks per nine innings stayed at 3.9. That's too high a number for ace-level pitching. It leads to bloated pitch counts, lots of baserunners and potential big innings.
But Harvey has discovered something this year that has made him an early-season frontrunner for the National League Cy Young Award. That would be the sometimes elusive strike one.
Harvey's walk rate is down to 2.2 per nine, and he entered Wednesday ranking 18th in the Majors with 66.9-percent first-pitch strikes, according to FanGraphs. That's a big reason why he's 4-0 with a 1.28 ERA and almost pitched a perfect game against the White Sox on Tuesday night.
"He has an idea what he wants to throw and obviously has confidence in all his pitches," Mets catcher John Buck said, "It makes it very tough, gives you a lot of options. He has the ability to miss out over the plate with his stuff and still get swings and misses with very good hitters."
That last quality might be the key for someone like Harvey. By getting more strikes on the first pitch -- and this includes foul balls and batted outs -- he is maximizing his already-way-above-average ability to get hitters to miss, even on pitches that land out of the strike zone. Harvey, through Tuesday's games, was third in the Majors in swinging strikes, behind only Yu Darvish and Ryan Dempster and ahead of Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez, according to FanGraphs.
So there's the stuff, and then there's the ability to use it.
Statistical analyst Eno Sarris has been studying first-strike percentage for years. Now with FanGraphs, he says first-strike percentage is important enough to explain "almost half the variance in walk rate."
"So half the battle is getting strike one," Sarris says, "and half the battle is having good control. Hitters are just not changing, as a whole, their approach when it comes to swinging at the first pitch. In fact, they're swinging less and less while first-strike percentage from pitchers is going up."
Sarris' numbers show that hitters swung at the first pitch more than 30 percent of the time in the early and mid-1990s, and that number went down in the late 1990s and is sitting at around 27 percent now. Meanwhile, first-pitch strike percentage went up to 59 percent by pitchers last year and is at 60 so far this year, the first time in history it's cracked that barrier.
But not everyone goes with the percentages.
One of the great recent anecdotes regarding this conundrum came about in 2009 when former Braves and current ESPN commentator Jon Sciambi read that Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones, he of the probable Hall of Fame career, saw the second-fewest number of first-pitch strikes in the Majors. The only player who saw fewer was Albert Pujols.
Sciambi, who has been known to delve into the sabermetric side of things in his broadcasts, approached Jones with the information and was surprised to find that, well, Jones was surprised that he wasn't more patient with first pitches.
"I went on to ask why he'd swing at so many first pitches when the numbers suggest it's not a great play," Sciambi wrote in an article for Baseball Prospectus. "Chipper explained that the first pitch is often the only time he'll get a 'heater' the entire at-bat.
"'OK,' I say, 'but clearly, mathematically, factually, you're not getting a ton of strikes.' We go round and round for a bit without concession on either side and eventually I go upstairs to broadcast the game.
"Fast-forward to the top of the first. San Diego's Tim Stauffer is on the mound. Chipper digs in and takes a 91-mph fastball right down the middle. He steps out of the box, finds our broadcast booth with those great eyes and, well, here's what follows: Chipper Jones 1, Stats 0. But, Chipper, sample size!"
This year, Anthony Rizzo is in a similar scenario. The Cubs' second-year first baseman had nine home runs through Wednesday, and four of them were hit on first pitches. He also had 34 strikeouts in 130 at-bats.
"The objective of the pitchers is to throw first-pitch strikes," Rizzo said. "If it's there, I'm going to hit it. If I don't recognize it, I'll lay off it. That's just how it goes, if that first pitch is a home run. It doesn't matter if it's the first pitch or pitch [No.] 10, I'm just trying to put the ball in play and hit it hard."
The difference between 1-0 counts and 0-1 counts is so staggering that you'd figure even the most old-school of baseball evaluators would have these numbers at their disposal during every Spring Training workout and in-season batting-practice session.
Through Tuesday, according to Baseball-Reference.com, after almost 15,000 total plate appearances in 2013, hitters who take a first-pitch ball have a slash line of .269/.383/.442. Hitters who fall behind at 0-1 are flailing away to the tune of .221/.261/.341.
Furthermore, a 2004 study by Craig Burley of Hardball Times that's oft-cited in the analysis community showed that in 2003, the percentage of first-pitch strikes that turned into hits was 7.3. Those numbers, Sarris says, have not changed much in the ensuing 10 years.
It could explain why Atlanta's Kris Medlen, who leads the Majors this year with 72 percent first-pitch strikes, has a 3.25 ERA through Wednesday and was 10-1 last year. It could explain why his teammate, Tim Hudson, who's second in first-pitch strikes, is 4-1 at the age of 37.
It could also explain why Miami's Kevin Slowey, who ranks fifth in the Majors in that category, has a 1.81 ERA and 36 strikeouts over 44 2/3 innings through Wednesday, even though he made only eight starts in 2012 and they were all in the Minors.
"It's weird that hitters haven't caught on to the fact that pitchers are throwing first-pitch strikes more and more," Sarris says. "Then again, one of the easiest things to tell a hitter is to take until you see something good. That's what they've always been taught.
"Maybe it's time for them to reconsider."