Aggression psychology: First pitches can be a big hit
Hitters who go after it if they like what they see can make hay with initial offerings
Josh Hamilton was locked in, looking like that guy who terrorized pitching staffs for five years for the Rangers. Now he could be lost to the Angels for up to two months with an injured left thumb, the result of a headfirst dive into first base.
Hamilton is many things to many people. His sliding technique is debatable, but for those who love to watch hitters in attack mode, he stands at the head of the class alongside Miguel Cabrera.
Mention of Joey Votto and the occasional heat the Reds first baseman takes for walking so often brought a smile from Hamilton recently.
"You can't win," he said. "You're criticized for being too aggressive, or you're criticized for not being aggressive enough."
Votto, it turns out, is a master at ambushing pitchers. He's a .443 career hitter with a .736 slugging percentage and 30 homers on 443 first pitches put in play.
"The way I look at it," Hamilton said, "pitchers like to get ahead. If they know you're a first-pitch hitter, they're going to go at the corners. When you're going good, those are pitches you can do damage with; if you're going bad, you won't do much with them.
"I've had people tell me I should be less aggressive up there. But they don't say that when I'm going good."
Hamilton's career numbers suggest he'd be immune to such charges. He's a .397 hitter with a .739 slugging percentage, 50 homers and 151 RBIs, on 587 first pitches put in play.
Hitting .444 through eight games and leading the American League in on-base plus slugging (OPS) with a 1.286 mark, Hamilton was in vintage attack mode before the injury, going 3-for-4 with a homer and two RBIs on first pitches.
Nobody is more destructive with initial offerings than Cabrera, king of sluggers. He's batting .414 with a .772 slugging percentage in his career on 960 first pitches put in play. He has homered 86 times and driven in 299 runs in what amounts to a season and a half of at-bats.
Given the wave of flame-throwing pitchers crashing the game's shores, it seems more prudent than ever to avoid getting behind in counts. So a first-pitch fastball might be the best delivery a hitter will see in a given at-bat.
Pitchers seem to be getting wise to Miggy's ways. He has put only two first pitches into play this season, one of them a two-run shot against the Orioles' Ryan Webb in Detroit.
Like Hamilton, Miggy has a simple mindset. The Tigers' big bopper hunts for something he can hit hard. It's icing if he creates a souvenir for a fan.
"I'm looking to be aggressive," Cabrera said. "I'm up there to hit, and I'm going after the first good pitch I see."
That approach has paid off with a 2012 Triple Crown, AL Most Valuable Player Awards in 2012 and '13 and three consecutive AL batting titles.
Torii Hunter, an old-school hitter like Cabrera, marvels at his teammate's ability to crush pitches that normal hitters would be lucky to foul off weakly.
"Miggy's such a great athlete," Hunter said. "He can go up around his shoulders or down at the knees, away, and drive balls out of sight. He's in a class of his own."
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, among the game's elite hitters in the 1980s, believes there's a place for early-count aggression. But he doesn't entirely sign off on the idea.
"I'm good with being aggressive against strike-throwers," Mattingly said. "But I don't think it's the way to go against guys who are all over the place.
"I rarely swung at first pitches my first few at-bats. I liked to get an idea what a guy had. That way I'd have an idea if a big situation came up later. If I got something I was looking for, I'd go after it."
Mattingly put only 444 first pitches into play in his career, batting .363 with a .489 slugging percentage and 10 homers.
Matt Kemp, Mattingly's center fielder, has destroyed first pitches. Kemp is a .414 hitter, slugging .742 with 26 homers on 365 first pitches put in play.
Kemp's mindset: "Always be ready to hit. Don't take pitches you're looking for."
Kemp doesn't have to sell his philosophy to teammate Hanley Ramirez, a .400 career hitter with a .730 slugging percentage and 50 homers on 637 first pitches put in play.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia takes a contrarian view of the first-pitch statistics.
"[Isolating] all those numbers on first pitches can be misleading," Scioscia said. "There are so many variables. They don't tell you how many first pitches he missed or fouled back, how it impacted the rest of his at-bat when he didn't put the first pitch in play."
Kemp is just as dangerous down 0-1 in the count, batting .460 and slugging .707 with 16 homers in 311 contacts. Cabrera is a .399 hitter, slugging .677, with 46 homers in 691 at-bats, in 0-1 counts.
With two strikes, the pendulum swings dramatically. Kemp drops to .193 with two strikes, Cabrera to .229.
Cabrera and Hamilton were 1-2 in the AL in 2013 in highest percentage of first-pitch swings. The National League leader, Carlos Gomez, hit .402 and slugged .738 on 107 first pitches. No wonder Brewers manager Ron Roenicke encourages Gomez to stay in attack mode.
Gomez is 3-for-5 with a homer this season when making contact on first deliveries.
Adopting Mattingly's approach, Angels superstar Mike Trout is a .358 hitter, slugging .642, on just 67 first pitches put in play.
"I want it to be in a good location," Trout said. "I'd rather fly out after seeing a bunch of punches than fly out on a first pitch."
Giants catcher Buster Posey, the 2012 NL MVP, is a selective hitter who has batted .386 and slugged .608, going deep eight times on 166 first pitches put in play.
Yankees icon Derek Jeter has feasted on first pitches for two decades, hitting .379 and slugging .561 with 54 homers in 1,632 at-bats.
Reflecting the changing times, patience is at its highest level ever. Hitters see an average of 3.8 pitches per at-bat.
There's nothing wrong with working counts. It's just not what particularly interests bashers like Cabrera, Hamilton, Kemp and Ramirez.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.