Saturday, January 26, 2013

The first pitch means a lot

There is one statement I can make that I absolutely cannot get wrong. The first pitch of every plate appearance will be either a strike or a ball. A batter might put the ball in play on that first pitch, or it might hit him. But it does not matter. It is either a ball or a strike. And whichever that first pitch is has a lot to do with how successful a pitcher (or batter) is going to be. This is such a no-brain thing that you know pitching coaches have been stressing it since time began. Or perhaps I am giving them too much credit because the percentage of first pitch strikes has not always remained static.

How much difference does it make? In 2012, if the pitcher started the plate appearance with a first pitch strike, the subsequent plate appearance averaged a .612 OPS. If that first pitch was a ball, the plate appearance led to an .822 OPS. That is a 210 point swing in OPS. Is that significant? It sure seems like it to me. 

And those results seem to be rather static. For example, in 2011, when a first pitch was a strike, the plate appearance led to a .606 OPS and a first pitch ball led to an .821 OPS. In 2010, it was .615/.824. In 2009, it was .629/.852. The spread is pretty similar from year to year. The conclusion we can make here is that throwing a first pitch strike leads to a lower OPS and is thus important.

And for some reason, pitchers are getting the message. Whether it is an improvement in talent, some help from the umpires, or whatever, the bottom line is that the last three years--notably considered pitchers' years--first pitch strikes have risen somewhat dramatically and league OPS has tumbled. Smoking gun? I'm sure there are other factors, but yeah. It has to have some impact. 

Look at the charts I have put together. The first is my data. The first column is the total number of plate appearances that started with a strike. The second is the total number of plate appearances that started with a ball and that gives us a first-pitch strike percentage. The rest of the chart shows whether the pitcher was ahead in the count when the ball was put in play or whether he was behind. I thought those two items were interesting too and did show a slow change over time from 2001 to 2012. The last column is the league OPS for each season.

You should notice that things stayed pretty close in range from 2001 to 2009. There was just a slight increase in first pitch strike percentage. But the last three years have shown a dramatic rise in first pitch strikes. The chart should illustrate it better:

I am not smart enough to say that Point A is caused by Point B, but look at a similar chart that tracks OPS over the same time period:

I am sure that I am not breaking new ground here. It was simply something that caught my interest and I thought I would share it with you. Let's look at some individual pitchers for a minute.

In 2012, the three starting pitchers with the lowest first pitch strike percentage were Ubaldo Jimenez, Edinson Volquez and Ricky Romero. Jimenez and Romero had really disappointing seasons. Volquez had a slightly better season in 2012 than he did in 2011, but some of that had to do with pitching his home games in San Diego instead of Cincinnati. When Jimenez threw a first pitch strike, he had a 4.60 strikeout to walk percentage. When he threw a first pitch ball, his strikeout to walk percentage sank to 0.68. So yes, it mattered a great deal what he did on the first pitch.

The highest first pitch strike percentage belonged to Cliff Lee, which is no surprise at all. And that made a dramatic difference for Lee. When he threw a first pitch ball, his OPS against was .821 in the subsequent plate appearances with a 3.00 strikeout to walk ratio. When he threw a first pitch strike, his strikeout to walk ratio ballooned to 13.25 and his OPS against was .564.

For relief pitchers, the two leaders in first pitch strikes were Jason Motte and Craig Kimbrel. Yeah, those two guys had pretty good seasons. The two with the lowest first pitch strike percentage were Carlos Marmol and Ramon Ramirez, certainly not two relief pitchers that instill confidence when they take the mound.

Baseball has changed from 2001 to 2012. You can point to PEDs if you want to. But from what these stats tell me, the biggest difference has been a rise in first pitch strikes. There is a cause and effect in a plate appearance on whether the first pitch is a strike or a ball. And the stats show that first pitch strikes have been on the rise and are much higher than they were in 2001. Strikeouts have risen to record levels. Throwing first pitch strikes will not guarantee you will be a successful pitcher. But it sure does help.

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