There is a great deal of variance in the way a hitter approaches each pitch of an at-bat. Their ability to make adjustments and anticipate how the pitcher they’re facing is going to attack them pitch-to-pitch is a crucial skill for developing into a productive player. On the fringes of the ball-strike possibilities (0-2, 3-0, 3-2, etc.), however, is where we can really learn something about a hitter’s plan at the plate, as well as how pitchers think they can take advantage of that plan.
Few, if any, tools are better for examining those approaches better than MLB.com’s Statcast. So today, as we’ve done for both 0-2 and 3-2 counts in previous weeks, I’m going to take a look at first pitches and single out some of the most noticeable approaches in the game on 0-0. My expectation is that this is the count that can tell us the most about a hitter’s plan at the plate overall, though I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that’s truly the case.
Anyway, here they are — your 2016 first-pitch superlatives:
Highest average exit velocity (Min: 1500 pitches, 10 balls in play)
Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami Marlins
Surprise, surprise. Though he finished second to Nelson Cruz in overall average exit velocity, Stanton is probably the first person you think of when you think of crazy exit velocity. He more than lived up to that reputation on the first pitch, averaging a league-leading 98.3 MPH — an average that includes this 504-foot, 115.8-mph laser beam from August:
Lowest average exit velocity (Min: 1500 pitches, 10 balls in play)
Michael Bourn, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks & Baltimore Orioles
Hey look, it’s our old friend Michael Bourn! After earning this same dubious honor in 0-2 counts, Bourn is back for more on the first pitch. No qualifying player hit the ball softer on 0-0 than Bourn’s 84.1-mph average, but because I feel like I was a little mean to him in that first superlatives article, here is a video of Bourn continuing to hit the ball like he was throwing it with his offhand, but at least doing so productively:
An interlude to talk about J.J. Hardy, SS, Baltimore Orioles
Hardy’s first-pitch approach was enough of an outlier that he earns his own section. In 2016, he led the majors in the following categories:
- Highest take rate (aka the Wade Boggs Memorial Trophy)
- Highest percentage of first pitch called strikes
- Highest percentage of first pitch fastballs
- Highest percentage of pitches in the zone
Rather than separate those into their own paragraphs, let’s look at them all together, because these all intersect with one another.
Boggs was famous for taking the first pitch regardless of its location, and Hardy was 2016’s best embodiment of that approach, swinging at just 16 of 438 first pitches. That 96.1 percent take rate was nearly five percentage points higher than the second-most passive first pitch batter (Joe Mauer).
Pitchers, of course, were well-aware of Hardy’s proclivity to take the first pitch, and that’s why he saw so many first pitch fastballs in the zone, pitches he mostly took for strike one.
This approach is nothing new for Hardy, who’s taken 92.1 percent of all first pitches since PITCHf/x data became available in 2008, but he really took it to the extreme last season. Because pitchers know Hardy is going to leave the bat on his shoulder, they can relax and throw whatever pitch is easiest to get over the plate for strike one — usually a fastball — and get themselves ahead early.
For a player who’s generally not a strong hitter, getting himself in an 0-1 hole just makes matters worse for Hardy, who had a 72 wRC+ after a first-pitch strike in 2016.
Most likely to get an offspeed pitch (Min: 1500 pitches)
Danny Valencia, 3B, Oakland Athletics
Valencia mashes fastballs and struggles against breaking balls and changeups. That’s an excellent recipe to see a lot of first-pitch offspeed pitches, so pitchers did exactly that when Valencia came to the plate in 2016, throwing him a fastball just 54.5 percent of the time.
All of those offspeed pitches did not necessarily mean pitchers were trying to get Valencia to chase out of the zone on the first pitch, as he saw a slightly above average percentage of pitches in the zone on 0-0.
Most likely to swing (Min: 1500 pitches)
Yasmany Tomas, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Tomas was the anti-Hardy, the only player that met our 1500 total pitch minimum to swing at more than half of the first pitches he saw. That’s not much of a surprise, of course, as Tomas’ uber-aggressive approach has been one of the primary reasons he’s struggled to be anything more than league-average at the plate despite tremendous raw power.
For as obvious as Tomas’ aggressiveness is, however, pitchers could probably do a better job of getting him to fish, especially when you combine his willingness to swing with his inability to make contact when he does so. Despite the fact that he was more likely than not to swing on the first pitch in 2016, pitchers found the zone on the first pitch 41.6 percent of the time against Tomas — right about the league average.
Most likely to swing and miss (Min: 1500 pitches)
Steven Souza, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
Souza finished with the second-highest percentage of first-pitch swings, and nobody was more likely to swing and miss (17.3 percent of first pitches) than the Tampa Bay outfielder. The pitch locations of those whiffs was — as you would expect — ugly:
This first pitch approach goes a long way toward explaining why Souza’s walk rate cratered to 6.6 percent in 2016 after being in double digits for his career before the season. Whether he was trying to hit for more power or had another reason for swinging early and often, the approach was far too aggressive and was more harmful than it was helpful.
Most likely to watch ball one (Min: 1500 pitches)
Yasmani Grandal, C, Los Angeles Dodgers
Grandal is incredibly patient, with an excellent eye for the strike zone. That’s been true his entire career (14 percent walk rate), but after a 2016 power spike, pitchers were more afraid than ever to give him something to hit in the zone. That nibbling approach started on the first pitch, and Grandal was able to exploit it, earning a 1-0 balls and strikes advantage 49.7 percent of the time.
Of course, getting ahead in the count early is advantageous for any hitter, but the more of those counts a hitter gets in, the more damage he can do over the course of the season. For Grandal, that took him from a 122 wRC+ hitter overall to a 150 wRC+ hitter after getting up 1-0. That’s obviously a huge net positive, and no hitter did a better job of getting himself in those situations than Grandal.
Least likely to get a pitch in the zone (Min: 1500 pitches)
Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
The players who finish highest (lowest?) in this area generally fall into two different categories. They’re either extremely aggressive, and therefore exploitable (Danny Espinosa) or they’re feared, and pitchers don’t want to give them anything they could plausibly drive (David Ortiz). Harper obviously fits into the latter category, and despite his down 2016, pitchers threw him something in the strike zone only 30 percent of the time on the first pitch.
All of those pitches out of the zone certainly worked to Harper’s advantage, as you would expect for a player with his patience. Were it not for Grandal, this would be the second consecutive category Harper led the league in, as he took 49.1 percent of first pitches for a ball. And like Grandal, Harper was much improved with that 1-0 advantage, transforming from a 112 wRC+ overall to 145 wRC+ after ball one, though a .273 BABIP kept that number from being even better.
Most likely to put the ball in play (Min: 1500 pitches)
Andrelton Simmons, SS, Los Angeles Angels
Simmons never walks and never strikes out, so it’s no surprise to see him put a league-leading 18.6 percent of first pitches in play.
Simmons does not look to work deep counts, and as you can see from the above chart, he’s willing to swing at just about anything close from the very first pitch. That approach was extremely effective for him in 2016, as he had a .901 OPS on 0-0, which for a below-average hitter overall is a very respectable figure on the first pitch.
Most likely to immediately make an out (Min: 1500 pitches)
Yonder Alonso, 1B, Oakland Athletics
There are few things more frustrating to watch as a fan than a first pitch out. No player inspired as much of that frustration as Alonso in 2016, as he hit into a first-pitch out 67 times in 532 plate appearances. That means in 12.6 percent of his trips to the dish, Alonso was heading straight back to the bench after seeing just one pitch, usually after rolling over one to the right side:
Most likely to get a hit (Min: 1500 pitches)
Paulo Orlando, OF, Kansas City Royals
Orlando has a laughably low walk rate (2.7 percent in 2016), so you know he’s going to be swinging early and often. With 37 first-pitch hits in 484 plate appearances, nobody was more likely to begin an at-bat with a base hit than the Royals outfielder.
As those figures would suggest, Orlando was outstanding on the first pitch, with a 231 OPS+. If you gave him an even remotely hittable pitch to start the at-bat, Orlando was likely to do some damage:
However, as with Tomas, pitchers didn’t do a great job of exploiting Orlando’s aggressiveness — he saw an above-average percentage of pitches in the strike zone despite having a below-average take rate. Assuming opponents are aware of how good Orlando was on the first pitch last season, that seems like a natural adjustment for teams to make against him in 2017.
Most likely to homer (Min: 1500 pitches)
Jedd Gyorko, Util., St. Louis Cardinals
Though there was a four-way tie for the league lead in total first-pitch home runs with 11, no player that met our minimum hit a higher percentage of first pitches out of the yard than Gyorko, who had nine such homers in 438 plate appearances.
That was more first-pitch dingers than Gyorko had in his entire career combined before 2016, and certainly not something we’d expect to repeat next season. Still, first-pitch homers are always fun, and no one provided that excitement more efficiently than Gyorko.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.