Giles: Pirates Staying Aggressive on the First Pitch

Inspired last week by a Jeff Sullivan article at FanGraphs, I decided to take a look at how well the Pirates have been performing this year when deciding to swing at the first pitch.

As you already know if you stopped to read Sullivan’s piece, batters across MLB are not only swinging more in 0-0 counts over the last few years, but they’re also finding better results.

In addition to their 4.5% increase in swing rate on the first pitch, the Pirates as a team are no exception to the overall increase in production recently among hitters:

PiratesOffensiveProduction

Starling Marte in particular likes to feast on the first pitch. Fortunately, Friday night’s game provided a memorable example. To wit:

Marte’s walk-off home run was not the only example from Friday night of the Pirates being aggressive in 0-0 counts and finding success. Both Andrew McCutchen’s home run in the fourth and Jordy Mercer’s game-tying single in the sixth came on the first pitch of their respective plate appearances.

Saturday and Sunday’s games, however, shows the other side of that coin. Each of the regulars — Marte and Polanco in particular — offered at the opening pitch at least once, but none of their attempts produced a hit, and only a few of those attempts produced a ball in play.

But whether it leads to success or failure, Pirates hitters have continued attacking 0-0 pitches with authority this season. Consider their final 2015 statistics:

FirstPitchSwinging1

The numbers effectively demonstrate that Marte is indeed the most aggressive on the first pitch among Pirates regulars. The next five (Harrison, Walker, McCutchen, Alvarez, and Cervelli) are clustered somewhat closely together, with the most abstinent hitters (Polanco, Kang, and Mercer) at the bottom.

Unsurprisingly, those who swing less often generally also end up missing less often, and are putting the ball in play less often. Fortunately, that greater selectivity hasn’t resulted in a sacrifice of production.

Generally speaking, hitters have better numbers on the first pitch than they do overall. Intuitively, this makes sense: since the first pitch is more often a strike than not, hitters often find themselves behind in the count, or an even count with at least one strike, which can easily lead to more negative outcomes like striking out or swinging at a less than optimal pitch. So we could expect Pirates hitters to have strong numbers in 0-0 counts.

But even when compared to other NL hitters, their numbers still look strong. Looking at the sOPS+ column, you’ll see that each of the regular hitters is performing above the National League average on the first pitch, and all but Cervelli and Mercer — generally bottom of the order hitters — are at least 25% better.

It’s also worth mentioning that the group above has hit a total of 31 home runs on 0-0 pitches, including the two on Friday night. Alvarez in particular has found power early; he’s hit nearly a third of his home runs (8 of 27) on the first pitch.

Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy

Frustrating as it may be to see a player put a ball in play on the first pitch and make an out, any perspective on the numbers shows the Pirates are doing well when they put the ball in play in 0-0 counts.

There is an obvious strategic incentive to offering at the first pitch: if you always take it, pitchers will be happy to hand you an 0-1 count as often as possible. So, regularly swinging at quality 0-0 pitches forces pitchers to execute well in order to get that first strike.

The first pitch is also often likely to be a fastball, which can take different forms, but is still the most familiar of pitches to a hitter. Over the last three years, Pirates position players have been by far the best in the NL against the fastball, so it’s important that they capitalize on opportunities to hit one.

Of course, there are downsides to this approach. Swinging at the first pitch can yield a strike via a foul ball or a whiff. It can also lead to an out on a ball in play, taking away the possibility of reaching base by other means like a walk or hit by pitch.

Balancing the need for patience and driving up the starter’s pitch count against the need to capitalize on quality pitches to hit is perhaps an eternal struggle for hitters.

On the pitching side, the Pirates preach getting action within three pitches, so it’s probably counterintuitive that playing into that strategy by offering at the first pitch can be advantageous while the Pirates are at the plate.

With an ever-increasing number of strikeouts driving down offense and balls in play, however, hitters would seem to have an incentive to be more aggressive. If there is a happy medium to be struck, though, it seems that the Pirates might be finding it, at least over the last three years.

The Pirates have said at various times that a player’s approach at the plate should be to look for the pitches he hits well, and put a good swing on them. For Marte in particular, but for others as well, they have found a good number of those opportunities at the outset of a plate appearance.

The results for the Pirates when attacking the first pitch speak for themselves. We’ll have to monitor next season whether opposing pitchers begin to adjust their approach in response to this aggressiveness.

  • I appreciate everyone’s thoughtful discussion in the comments. I will confess that I’m disappointed that my Cobra Kai reference went unacknowledged.

  • The one thing that everyone is forgetting is that all bullpens now a days have guys that throw 100 in them. Would you rather see 100 once of 96 third time? I would take my chances seeing a guy for the third time, at least would have an idea how he will pitch you, than seeing someone for that first time that throws 100. Hitters still have to hit mistakes or guess correct.

    • This is a great point nine times out of ten, but this occasion happens to be the exception. Arrieta’s .529 OPS against the third time through the order is better than any of the Cubs relievers. Crazy, but true.

  • The chant should be “Jake wears khakis ” .

  • Be aggressive, but look to go the other way…..

  • If Arrieta has the same ump calling as the last time, everyone should swing at every pitch.

  • Well done, but this sort of sends you down the rabbit hole without any other information to go on when trying to make conclusions. Many of these guys are hitting worse than last year; some – I assume – are better (h/t Trump). How have these first pitch tendencies changed year-to-year?

    Singling out Marte is interesting in particular since somewhat quietly, he’s decided to stop walking and striking out, and his contact quality has plummeted. Just 3% BB, 14% K in the second half, but with only a .327 BABIP and .135 ISO.

    Starling Marte has been the biggest offensive disappointment on the club, barring any delusions of what Josh Harrison’s true talent level was following last year. Maybe this first pitch aggressiveness kept him from being even worse, but it’s far from clear that’s the case.

    • The airwaves are full of speculation on who starts at third and second on Wednesday night, some even posing the question on first base and right field(Harrison for Polanco). I think Hurdle goes with Walker at second, Ramirez at third, Alvarez at first, Polanco in right. He was very noncommittal about first in an interview last night, and I think it will be tough for him not to start Harrison. I could see Harrison getting a start at any of three positions….third, second, right field. Speed, defense, and he is swinging the hot bat. Anybody have Harrison and Walker stats handy vs. Arrieta?

      • 1 for 10 against Arrieta. Which might not really be a huge factor, since A Ram is 2 for 19 and Pedro is 2 for 17.

        Pretty much shows none of them saw Arrieta while Arrieta was in the AL, and since then he’s been great.

        If its me, Pedro sits with A Ram at 1B. You lose Pedro’s potential to hit a HR, but also lose his potential for one of those games where he makes 2 easily avoidable defensive mistakes. Play a hot hitting Harrison and going slightly better defense at 1B.

        I think Harrison has to play, and the choice is between A Ram and Pedro.

        • I role the dice with Pedro for the chance to hit a home run.

          • Its a fair side to take, i just dont see that as a great risk/reward proposition. As you get into SSS areas like one game must wins or playoff series, defense gets magnified. Doesnt really make Pedro’s only plus skill a great bet against ace level pitching.

        • If there was an actual improvement in defense I would agree, but that is far, far from the case.

          Ramirez is 0-2 in completing basic flips to a pitcher covering the base, and is an absolute statue on that side of the field. Now you can successfully argue anything is better than Alvarez, but that doesn’t take offense into account. Your point is that the increase in defense makes up for the decrease in offense, and I’m just not sure that is true.

        • And from a practical standpoint, it would be borderline insane for Hurdle to make this decision now.

          All three of these players are known commodities. It’ll be exactly three weeks Wednesday since the last time Ramirez played 1B. If Hurdle was going to sit Alvarez for the reason you give, it would make absolutely zero sense not to play Ramirez at 1B for at least the last week of the season.

          • I just dont see Pedro as any type of plus on offense in this matchup.

            Arrieta doesnt give up many HRs, is tougher on LHH, and has plus offspeed stuff after getting a strike. Its a nightmare for Pedro and likely suppresses the one positive trait he has.

            • Pedro does have one other redeeming quality: he can take a walk. There are only 9 guys Arrieta has walked twice this season, and Pedro is one of them (as is Cutch). This sort of goes against the point of the article, but if there’s one guy on Bucs who should look for a pitch in a specific zone and take everything else, it’s Pedro. It’s a small thing, but if Pedro has reached base 3x and ARam 0 vs Jake, then that’s all I need.

              • Pedro may very well start, but the idea that he’s a good bet to walk against Arrieta doesnt seem very sound.

                Pedro Ks a ton, Arrieta walks very few. Unlikely Pedro walks much in the game unless he is taking pitches (bad for HRs) and Arrieta just happens to be off his game against Pedro with 2 strikes.

                • You seem to be having trouble with comparisons. Of course Alvarez isn’t a good bet to walk or home run against Arrieta. But he’s a better bet to do either of those things than any other player putting the uniform on Wednesday night, which is the point.

                  • Which ignores the point that no one is a good option period. So its hoping Pedro’s SSS stats are indicative of anything and them being about half a hair better than A Ram means anything.

                    Im betting that the matchup is worse for Pedro because Pedro cant hit quality offspeed stuff and wont walk much at all against guys who have Arrieta level BB/9. Pedro’s not likely to walk at all in this game.

    • I think Hurdle messes with Marte’s head when he moves him back and forth between the 2hole and the 5hole(or 4hole). Marte is a better hitter when hitting out of the 4th or 5th spot than when he is hitting 1st or 2nd. He seems to be an instinctive hitter as in “see the ball, hit the ball” as opposed to craftily taking pitches to work the count the way you want a top of the order guy to bat.

      Marte is still a streaky hitter, but you are being too hard on him. He had two really bad months (April/August). Next year if he has five good months and one bad month everyone will be singing his praises.

      • Too hard on him? There was no opinion in my post, sir.

        As judged by the difference between preseason projection and actual production, no Pirate hitter has disappointed more than Starling Marte. Marte was due for obvious BABIP regression, despite what all the arguments I got on here this past winter about how he was clearly a true talent +.350 guy (how’d that work out?), but the trade off *should* have been an increase in power. That obviously never came, despite clearly having the strength and ability to produce.

        • I’m not sure BABIP should be used to judge quality of contact.
          Marte’s xBABIP / actual BABIP based on batted ball profile.
          2012: .337 / .333
          2013: .359 / .363
          2014: .375 / .373
          2015: .378 / .333

          He had .096 BABIP on flies (league average around .130) and .623 on liners (league average around .680) He certainly had down year, not sure how to link that to swinging at a higher rate on pitches in the zone this season, and swing more overall.

          I’d disagree a bit on being the most disappointing Pirate offensively for me that was Mercer, not because much was expected, but he hit like Clint Barmes.

          • BABIP alone, certainly not, but wouldn’t an underperformance based strictly on batted ball profile be *exactly* what you’d expect to find if you believed a player’s contact quality was suffering? Couple that with a drop in isolated power and there at least looks to be something more than luck alone at play. I trust your knowledge more than my own, as always.

            I’m linking the plate discipline to a decrease in production on contact by the Reese McGuire correlation. He’s obviously at the far extreme of the spectrum, especially relative to Marte, but McGuire’s problem is pretty obviously selectivity. Just because you *can* put a ball in play doesn’t mean you should. Far more analysis would need done, and even then a half-season sample would probably be pretty chunky, but it seems like pitchers have found a way to induce weaker contact earlier on in the at bat.

            Good call on Mercer, by the way. I frankly hadn’t taken the time to check just how poor he hit this year. My goodness.

            • Just because you *can* put a ball in play doesn’t mean you should

              This is where I would go looking, not sure how to show anything, because it is hard to discern whether Marte was being pitched differently before or after he started being less selective. He was likely to regress form his first half power numbers, though it is funny that overall his offensive production was the same despite the nature in which it came.

  • This is kind of my biggest fear for Wed night. A few one pitch at bats and next thing you know Jake is into the 7th with like 80 pitches thrown. I like this strategy against most pitchers…but against elite guys it scares the bejesus outta me.

    • Except that Arrieta doesn’t walk anyone and has held opponents to a .283 OPS against when ahead in the count. Guy’s pretty good at the baseball.

    • That, for me, is backwards thinking. The article points out how PGH has a skill that, in a SSS of just this year, is leading to them doing better on the first pitch.

      That led you to think “but man, if we do that thing that we are good at and fail at a normal rate even for us (the team doing good at it) maybe we give the SP another inning or two”. OR, we score 2 runs off him and its a huge benefit where as taking pitches helps him be at 100 pitches through 7 innings, but with 10 Ks and 0 runs because we hit from behind in the count all night.

      For me, balance is key but goal #1 is avoiding letting Arrieta throw easy 1st pitch strikes and being down 0-1, 1-2, 3-2 a bunch. Almost no player hits as well with 2 strikes as they do in “hitters counts” in baseball.

      • I will Agree with Mike, though, as far as *feelings* go. Being aggressive against elite pitchers and failing definitely gives you the *feeling* of cheating yourself. If you’re going to get beat, it *feels* better when you at least make the pitcher work.

        • Fair point, from a fans point of view and the emotion that is an in game situation the feels is different.

      • To be more specific my thinking is this…Arrieta is good enough that even when he’s throwing strikes it’s not some meatball a lesser pitcher might throw out on the first pitch that we could have done the majority of the cited damage against. So his first pitch strike isn’t necessarily comparable to other pitchers first strikes which may render all these stats kind of useless.

        Now I also want to be clear that I’m not saying I have a better idea or that there is anything wrong with this approach. It’s just a worry that I have.

        • Thats valid, but its a statistical fact that the vast majority of hitters are worse once down a strike (and more so with 2 strikes). So regardless of “what type of strike” it is, taking a strike represents a large drop in batting average.

          So a guy with TOR stuff getting ahead makes a hitters job go from “this aint easy” to “i just took the easiest pitch i might see”. Anything Arrieta throws is likely to be very good, but after a strike its more likely to be A) offspeed and possibly B) stuff falling out of the zone to induce a swing and miss or weak contact. In some ways, Arrieta might throw something more in the zone (yet still not middle middle) early in the count to get ahead and allow himself to throw everything else on the fringes completely.

          • Agree. I guess you could simplify it by saying its a boom or bust strategy which just goes against my personality but again that doesn’t mean its not the right move. Certainly paid off when Polanco ended kershaws scoreless streak one pitch into the game.

  • Good stuff as usual. Also timely for the discussion of how “best” to attack Arrieta. If anything, it doesnt seem likely PGH tells its guys to be particularly patient to the tune of taking early strikes just to be taking.

    • My lineup:
      RF Polanco
      C Cervelli
      CF Cutch
      LF Marte
      2B Walker
      1B Pedro
      3B JHay
      SS Mercer
      P Cole

      Swing hard at the first strike that you see.

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