In 2012, Ian Desmond had a first-pitch strike thrown on him 70.8% of the time. For an idea of how big that is, since 2002, the first year the stat was kept, that has been done roughly zero times.
The strange thing about this, is that Ian Desmond had a breakout season, posting a 5.4 fWAR season. He posted a wRC+ of 128 and a wOBA of .362. For reference, below are charts showing the relationship between F-Strike% and the two stats. The R-squared between F-Strike% and wRC+ was .186, and the R-squared between F-Strike% and wOBA was .193. Both obviously show inverse relationships. The charts include qualified hitters from 2002-12, with split-seasons.
Looking at some of the outlying points, Ian Desmond sticks out as the highest F-Strike%, but there are a couple of other stray seasons.
See those three points near the top? Those all belong to Barry Bonds, notorious slugger and intentional-walker. Those points are to be expected because when someone is being intentionally walked and pitched around as much as he is, they probably will not have to deal with too many first-pitch strikes.
Back to Desmond, he saw a ridiculous F-Strike% in 2012 because of a couple of reasons. Looking at his pitch f/x data for 2012 (via Texas Leaguers), he had a four-seam fastball thrown to him first-pitch 30.1% of the time, choosing to swing at 38.2% of those. He fouled of 19.2% of the first-pitch fastballs he saw, a little more than half of the fastballs he swung at. He put only 13.3% of the fastballs in play that he saw on the first pitch, and that is troublesome when one considers the league batted .226/.265/.346 after 0-1 counts in 2012.
Looking below, we can see that Desmond had a propensity to swing at some pitches that he probably should not have. That is one excellent way to fall behind in the count.
Desmond would expand the zone both high and low, and that is not the ideal way to start off an at-bat. I count 6 cutters out of the zone low, 1 outside, 3 high, and 2 inside. He also had a tendency to swing at sliders that were out of the zone.
The second most-frequent pitch he saw 0-0 was the slider, which he got 18.8% of the time. He swung at 65.7% of them, and shockingly he either whiffed or fouled off a combined 38% of them (19% exactly for each).
The league posted on OPS after 0-1 counts of .612, while Desmond was able to post an OPS after 0-1 counts of .713. The strange thing regarding all of this, as I mentioned before, was that Desmond had a career year for Washington. So how did he do it?
In 0-1 counts, Desmond swung at the pitches in the chart below (small-sample size and all).
In 0-1 counts Desmond again saw majority fastballs, with the pitch being thrown to him 30.8% of the time (86 total). He whiffed at only 7% of them, but fouled off a lot of them again, posted a foul rate on fastballs of 32.6%. He only put 16.3% of these fastballs in play, a slight improvement over the 13.3% of 0-0 fastballs he put in play. Against sliders, which he saw 23.7% of the time, he put 22.7% of them in play and whiffed at 19.7% of the sliders he saw 0-1.
In 0-1 counts, Desmond batted .545 with a slugging percentage of .696, as opposed to the league's numbers in 0-1 counts which were a .321 batting average and a .483 slugging percentage.
Looking at his spray-chart, it would appear as though Desmond made some quality contact on low and inside pitches in 0-1 counts, which he did not do for some reason in 0-0 counts.
The spray chart below shows that when he pulled the ball in 0-1 counts, he had a lot of success in 2012.
So getting back to the question: What does this mean?
My first thought is that this is randomness, and that I am trying to find signal where there may not be any. The samples involved here are minuscule, and even just one season of a high F-Strike% is probably just a normal outlying season. If this persists with Desmond it could be something to watch, but as of now it looks like it was just a combination of a free-swinger and some randomness.
One thought is that he goes into counts trying to hit the first pitch, a strategy that I can say is still lingering in the culture of baseball. The fact that he fouled off a lot of first pitches is one reason why this came to mind, as pre-determining that he is going to swing can lead to some weak contact. He really struggled against sliders in 0-0 counts, chasing them frequently and seeing them more frequent than any non-fastball pitch. He swung a lot more often in 2012, with his swing rate being 54.6% compared to a career swing rate of 49.1%.
So what do you guys think? Random? Or is there something larger here?
Credit Texas Leaguers, Baseball Heat Maps, Fangraphs, and Baseball-Reference for the stats and charts.