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Don’t fret over the first-pitch meatball

Firing pitches down the middle is only a side effect of throwing strikes.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

While making the good and humble suggestion that the Orioles throw first-pitch strikes more often, my colleague Mark Davidson presented a chart that revealed a strange outlier. The Seattle Mariners didn’t just throw a lot of first-pitch strikes in 2016 — they threw a lot of plate-appearance-starting pitches down the middle (as defined by the middle-middle zone on Baseball Savant).

To be more specific, they threw a league-leading 452 right down the pipe to start plate appearances. Hisashi Iwakuma led the way individually, finishing with the fifth-most in the majors behind the three pitchers who now front the Red Sox rotation and Johnny Cueto.

This next number is going to seem damning: The M’s gave up a .948 SLG on the 96 pitches fitting our search that were put in play, the worst of any team for the noted criteria by quite a bit. Perhaps you’re ready to grab the pitchforks and the gasoline (or whatever it is the hypothetical villagers use to light their pitchforks on fire — do they wear fire-resistant gloves?). Or perhaps you’re simply going to write a letter suggesting the club tweak its approach. To each their own.

Whatever your preferred method of protest, maybe hold off.

Assuming you think first-pitch meatballs seem extraordinarily dumb, first-pitch meatballs are not exactly what they seem.

It can sometimes feel that your team is taking a load of hittable strikes to begin every plate appearance (though nine out of 10 fans report this feeling to be more common when their team is trailing). In reality, each club’s hurlers began between 315 and 452 plate appearances with a middle-middle pitch, while facing between 5,933 and 6,436 batters each. Suffice it to say, it’s a small portion of the picture.

Still, the results, can be understandably discouraging — even more so in visual form.

2016 middle-middle first pitches vs. Mariners pitching
via Baseball Savant

Or video form.

But it’s not clear that they should be.

For one, it’s not clear that the supposed predictability implied in this information is actually adding up to anything. The Rays, who threw the second-most down-the-middle first pitches in baseball last year, saw hitters slug just .625 on them. There was huge variation in this department. It’s a veritable sighting of small sample size in the wild, interestingly cropping up in a place where sample size would logically seem like it could influence the outcome: More down-the-pipe openers, more reason for opposing hitters to be ready to swing at down-the-pipe openers.

The Mariners did record the second-smallest proportion of called strikes from their welcome-to-the-plate cookies, but teams weren’t exactly learning. They swung more often in the first half of the season than the second.

And the Mariners weren’t the most predictable in a broader sense, either, as they mixed in offspeed pitches enough that they didn’t even rank in the top five in terms of first-pitch fastballs down the middle. The previously mentioned Iwakuma was notably good at mixing up which of his pitches went down the middle, at least.

(Also, while we’re on predictability, the average exit velocity on any middle-middle pitch is high, but 3-0 offerings down the middle are the clearest form of meatball, being smoked at 98.3 mph — a full 2 mph harder than any other count.)

If we must come up with a hypothesis, the best one might be that they simply threw these pitches to the wrong hitters. Khris Davis and Kole Calhoun homered twice apiece in this situation in 2016, and noted free-swinger Rougned Odor hit the plate-bound first pitch of an 11th inning 430 feet.

So, nuance. It’ll cool off your hot takes (and pitchforks) real fast.

There’s something more important, though, which makes all of this look like a mere side effect of a great drug.

Those approximately 6,000 plate appearances each team’s staff stares down? Even when some portion of them begin with plate-bisecting dinger bait, a far greater number of them begin with an umpire flinging his arm in one way or another to indicate a strike, or taking a half step back to call a ball. The result of those corresponding moments — while less visceral — carries an almost unfathomable amount of weight when collected over a season.

This is perhaps the philosophy driving the climb of the league-wide first-pitch strike rate, which rose every season from 2009 until this past year, when it dipped very slightly.

After an 0-1 count, Seattle’s pitchers allowed a .265 wOBA; after a 1-0 count, a .363 wOBA. Baseball as a whole allowed a .270 wOBA after 0-1 counts, and a .361 wOBA after 1-0 counts. Everyone is better at pitching from ahead in the count, and Seattle faced the 7th-most batters in baseball from an 0-1 count. Theirs was a hit-or-miss strategy, and it ended up hitting pretty often.

The outcomes of those initial offerings flying down the gutter — even taken to their logical extreme — can’t outweigh the benefits of an overall strategy than emphasizes reaching 0-1. Until we see hitters truly adjust, and start hacking at a disproportionate number of those easy strikes, pitchers will keep trying to steal more and more of them.

Ideally, your team would throw strikes without putting them on a tee — especially when facing, say, Rougned Odor. But over the long haul, the effort to get ahead is the commendable one.

. . .

Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.