Do you think you could score a hit off of a Cy Young-winning pitcher? How about if you knew, with some degree of certainty, what kind of pitch he was going to throw, where he was going to throw it, and about how fast it was coming in? Yeah, me neither.
But let's say you're Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera, the ultimate professional hitter. Would you be even greater if you knew what to expect? And what about the "average" joes in baseball, like Brent Lillibridge or Skip Schumaker? Would they hit like Paul Konerko or Matt Holliday if they knew exactly what to expect?
Well, I don't know. It's devilishly hard to judge how much better a hitter could be if they knew what pitch was coming. And we simply can't easily get inside the heads of hitters to figure if they "guessed right" or "guessed wrong" on a given pitch, and how it affected the outcome of the at-bat. But maybe, in certain circumstances, we can start to identify what particular pitch is going to be thrown in what particular situation, at least in the cases of specific pitchers. What hitters (or managers, or even the pitchers themselves) can do with this information, well, that's beyond my pay grade to determine. But we can start our line of inquiry somewhere.
In honor of so many first pitches being thrown today, I'd like to pose a very, very specific inquiry. In the case of specific pitchers, can we make an educated guess about what pitch they will throw to begin a baseball game?
For the purpose of the study, I wanted to explore two pitchers with reasonably similar demographics in terms of age, handedness, and having a large number of starts in 2011. So I chose two elite young pitchers, reigning NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, and Rays ace (co-ace?) David Price. And since pitcher repertoires can change from season to season, and the pitches themselves change, I limited myself to the small sample of the 2011 season. For those two pitchers, what can we learn?
We'll start with Kershaw, who actually turned out to be a terrific example. We'll ask the easiest question first: what type of pitch did Clayton Kershaw throw most often to begin a baseball game? Even without looking at the data, you can probably guess -- fastballs are the standard pitch in any pitcher's bag of tricks. Kershaw's specific repertoire consists of his four-seamer and dangerous slider, and he only occasionally complements these with his changeup and curveball. But despite throwing a fastball almost exactly two-thirds of the time over the course of the 2011 season, he threw his fastball as the first pitch of the game 34 out of 34 times last year. That's right, no matter if the hitter was righty or lefty, Drew Stubbs or Willie Bloomquist, Kershaw went with the heater. Interesting.
Knowing that he's throwing a fastball is useful, but not everything. What about the velocity of the pitch? According to FanGraphs, Kershaw had an average velocity on his heater of about 93.2 miles per hour. But when throwing his game-opening pitch, the average velo was about a mile per hour lower. I've got it at 92.2 mph. The average speed went up a bit as the season went on, but for the most part, you could expect a fastball at the high end of 91 mph to start the season, and to the mid-to-high end of 92 mph to end it. And he only broke the 93 mph mark in three opening pitches. Not bad.
Finally, let's talk about location. This might actually be the most important part of the study. First, only 12 out of Kershaw's 34 opening pitches were called for balls, putting his fastball in the strike zone about 65% of the time. Furthermore, ball or strike, about 76% of his fastballs were to the left side of the strike zone (from the ump's perspective), and that didn't change based on the handedness of the hitter. When it comes to the horizontal plane, Kershaw's fastballs didn't miss very often, only leaving the prototypical strike zone four times our of 34. He missed seven times because his pitch ran high. And though Kershaw worked higher in the strike zone rather than lower on this pitch, he varied the vertical location of his pitch quite a bit.
So with all of this in mind, we can actually predict what Clayton Kershaw's opening pitch for 2012 is going to be with some degree of certainty. It's pretty safe to say that it will be a four-seam fastball, and I'd expect it to kick in at about 92 mph, since the speed of his first pitch was a bit lower, on average, at the first part of the season. He's going to try and put it in the left-side of the strike zone, but over the plate, in on right-handed hitters and away from lefties. And, chances are, it's more likely to be high in the strike zone, rather than low.
Now let's look at David Price, another young lefty with killer stuff.
Price isn't the same pitcher as Kershaw, given that he works with a slightly larger repertoire, according to the data at hand. Price throws both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball, and uses his heater about 70% of the time. Price also features a slider, but he throws his far less than Kershaw did last season (8.4%), and throws his curve and changeup the rest of the time. Price mixed up his opening pitches, throwing 19 four-seamers, 14 two-seamers, and even mixing in two sliders. As we can see, the opening fastball is still king, but Price varied his heater between a four-seamer and two-seamer. Left-handed hitters, with one exception, always got the four-seamer. But Price was much more willing to mix things up, especially given the presence of those two opening-pitch sliders, than Kershaw was, despite Kershaw throwing many more sliders in general than Price.
Looking at velocity, that varied quite a bit more as well. Price ranged from 90.9 mph on a two-seamer all the way to 94.9 mph strike on a four-seamer. But again, Price's opening pitches had velo well below his season averages. The Rays lefty averaged 94.7 mph on his four-seamer and 94.8 on his two-seamer throughout the season, compared to 92.7 mph and 92.9 mph, respectively, in opening pitches. That's about 2 mph less than his average. The one oddity I found is that his opening sliders were much faster than his typical slider, each moving at 91.8 or 91.9 mph, despite his typical slider speed being closer to 89 mph.
And lastly, Price's location on his pitches varied as well. His two sliders were obvious balls, one high and outside, the other high and inside, both missing badly along the horizontal plane, and both hitters were right-handed. 22 of the 33 other pitches hit the strike zone, with three being fouled off and the rest being called for strikes. Price worked up in the zone more often and with better control than Kershaw, if he missed the strike zone, it was usually by a very small amount. Price didn't have the same horizontal mastery as Kershaw, though. With most left-handed hitters he worked away from them on the left side of the plate, and with righties (whom he faced more often to open games), he worked more to the right side. In about two-thirds of his pitches, he put them on the right side of the plate.
So while David Price is more unpredictable than Kershaw to open the game, a few trends appear. He's almost equally as likely to throw a two-seamer as a four-seamer, but you're likely to see one of those two pitches. His velocity will be lower than usual on his fastballs, but still could be as much as 94 mph. And he'll likely try to work a pitch away from the hitter, most likely in the upper part of the strike zone, given his 2011 performance.
Between Kershaw and Price both, here's an interesting tidbit: no one swung and missed at their opening pitches. While most batters were content to let the ball go past (and for the most part, open their PA in a 0-1 hole), the six hitters who swung at the first pitch either put the ball in play (and made an out) or fouled it off. Again, in such a small sample, I'm not sure if this is worth anything, but there you have it.
The real question here is this: how much value does this impart to the opposing batter? My initial assumption is that the value of this data is small, but not entirely insignificant. The key might be leveraging this data at the right time. In Kershaw's case, his predictabiity could, theoretically, inspire a leadoff hitter to be more aggressive on Kershaw's opening fastball, and look to drive a pitch instead of watching it pass by. If the time when the hitter / manager chooses to do this is, say, in the opening at-bat of MLB's new one-game wild card playoff, we're talking about real leverage and real value.
So, with the Dodgers about to open their season tonight, maybe this trivia is nothing more than a bar trick you can use to impress your friends or win a fiver. You can predict that Clayton Kershaw is going to throw a fastball to the left side of the plate, between 91.5 and 92.5 mph, and it'll probably be a strike. Or in a couple of days, you can say that you really don't know what David Price is going to throw to Derek Jeter to open up the second game of the Yankees - Rays series (but my educated guess would be a two-seam fastball to the interior portion of the plate). Maybe someday knowing this will be useful for a hitter, or even for a pitcher.
I know that the first pitch of a game is a small sample. And even if this data is of some use, and batters start hitting the first pitch of a game, pitchers are bound to make some adjustments. We're probably not talking an extra 2% advantage here, we're talking an extra 0.2%, maybe. But pitch sequencing, game calling, and the decision theory that goes into pitch selection and location is a broad, fast river. If we're going to dip our toes in, it might as well be at the beginning.