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Pitchers beware: Hitters are doing damage on your first pitch

So far in 2015, in plate appearances in which hitters have swung at the first pitch, they have performed better than in general to an extent that has not previously been seen. The patient, rack-up-the-pitch-count days that allowed pitchers to get easy first pitch strikes may be behind us, as hitters are attacking early and with success.

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To swing at the first pitch or not to swing at the pitch is a critical question for many in the batter's box. For some, letting the first pitch go by, even a meatball in the middle, is a necessary approach for getting into the plate appearance. For others, the prospect of doing so is needless and only allows the pitcher a free upper-hand in the contest. Taking a hack at anything that can be driven is more their mantra for success.

For the better part of the last decade a core tenet of successful teams has been to see a lot of pitches, drive up pitch counts, and get into the mushy, meatball-throwing bullpen. But pitchers have taken notice of this practice and responded to the increased hitter patience by getting more first pitch strikes. Being down 0-1, and looking toward seven- and eight-man bullpens that are flush with flame-throwing matchup problems makes the patient approach seem less viable than it once was.

It needs to be noted that the increase we have seen in first pitch strikes over the last ten years is not entirely the result of batters just standing in the box watching pitches go by. Rather, the ebb and flow of batter-pitcher matchup strategy has continued, with batters electing to be more aggressive early in the count; likely trying to jump on the greedy, easy first-pitch-strike hunting pitchers. After decreasing consistently for 25 years, since 2012 batters have increased the rate at which they swing at the first pitch:

Season First Pitch Swing Percentage
2012 26.5
2013 27.0
2014 27.4
2015 28.7

As you can see, so far this season batters have been much more aggressive on the first pitch, increasing their rate of attack by more than one percent on 2014. Considering the huge number of pitches we are dealing with (80,500+ in 2015), a one percent increase is not insignificant. Of course this is based on only ~45 percent of the season, so things could change course in the second half, but thus far it looks to be consistent with the emergent trend.

With this noted, the next question to ask is: is this early-aggressive strategy working?

Using the baseball-reference.com play index, we can find player/team/league splits for a given situation and then compare the relative performance in that split, using a statistic like OPS, to the total performance. The relative performance is measured with tOPS+. A tOPS+ of 100 is the baseline. On offense, higher numbers mean the team is better in the given situation than in general and lower numbers mean they have been worse than in general. Here, I am interested in the league split for when players swung at the first pitch. Below is a table with the tOPS+ results for the 2006 - 2015 seasons, provided with the context of OPS given a first pitch swing, and overall (total) OPS:

Season OPS given first pitch swing Total OPS tOPS+
2015 0.719 0.712 101
2014 0.697 0.700 98
2013 0.709 0.714 97
2012 0.722 0.724 98
2011 0.707 0.720 95
2010 0.721 0.728 96
2009 0.738 0.751 95
2008 0.742 0.749 96
2007 0.745 0.758 95
2006 0.758 0.768 95

For the first time in the last ten years, hitters are performing better when swinging at the first pitch than they are generally. This statement actually holds all the way back to 1988, the first year for which pitch-based performance measures are available. 2015 is actually the only season in which the tOPS+ for this split exceeds or is 100. Given the nature of it being roughly half the sample of the other seasons I do not want to make too much of the absolute number (i.e., 101), nevertheless it is evidence in support of the 'attack the first-pitch' approach.

It should be noted that the data in the previous section include all plate appearances in which the batter swung at the first-pitch; they are not performance on contact on the first pitch. However, the contact on first pitch data are available and provide corroboration for what has been happening this season. Below is a table with tOPS+ results for contact on first pitch for the 2006 - 2015 seasons, provided with the context of OPS on first pitch, and overall (total) OPS:

Season OPS on first pitch contact Total OPS tOPS+
2015 0.884 0.712 145
2014 0.867 0.700 145
2013 0.882 0.714 144
2012 0.885 0.724 141
2011 0.859 0.720 136
2010 0.874 0.728 137
2009 0.903 0.751 137
2008 0.888 0.749 134
2007 0.901 0.758 134
2006 0.899 0.768 131

Again we see that 2015 is a high-water mark for batter performance when making contact on the first pitch. Batters have performed significantly better when making contact on the first pitch than they have generally, which is always true. But, the performance so far in 2015 is tied with 2014 for the best relative performance (i.e., tOPS+) since 1988. This result helps explain the higher performance for all plate appearances in which the first pitch is swung at that was discussed above. Batters appear to be taking advantage of a group of pitchers who were under the impression that they could groove in a first pitch strike.

Cautiously wading into even smaller samples reveals that of those who have accumulated at least 250 plate appearances this season, players like Ryan Braun (316 tOPS+ in 42 first pitch contact PAs), Buster Posey (291 in 35), Brett Lawrie (289 in 35), Dustin Pedroia (283 in 18), and Xander Bogaerts (274 in 19) have done well when they jump on the first pitch. While on the other end of the spectrum, players like Giancarlo Stanton (18 in 26), David Ortiz (14 in 27), Curtis Granderson (12 in 12), Josh Reddick (-1 in 20), and (gasp!) Mike Trout (-13 in 12) have not fared so well.

All told, it is only half a season's worth of data, but to date in 2015, batters have evidently continued adjusting to the adjustment pitchers made to their patience over the previous decade. Batters are attacking first pitches more often - as evidenced by the increased swing rate - and it is leading to more productive plate appearances, especially when they make contact on their swing. It is still too early to be certain if this trend continues what we have seen over the last few years, but I felt it was worth checking out now and worth tracking over the next few months. The current marks may just be noise, but they could also be evidence of the way batters are choosing to approach hitting in the current environment.

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Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He is also a contributor at BP Boston. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.