Chipper’s First-Pitch Aggressiveness by Pitcher xFIP

Yesterday, I looked at an exchange between Jon Sciambi and Chipper Jones concerning how often the latter swings at first pitches. Some commenters bristled at the idea of a broadcaster giving hitting advice to Chipper Jones. I don’t disagree with that take That was never Sciambi’s intention, and, anyway, what I found interesting about the interaction was more the idea that, when a player is confronted with these new metrics – especially a player as good as Jones – there is the possibility that his response can give us deeper insights into the game. Again quoting Jones’s response to ‘Duk:

“There are certain pitchers, quite frankly, that you can’t get behind,” Jones said. “You want to be aggressive and the first hittable fastball that you get is the pitch you want to put in play. Because they’ll bury you if they get ahead of you. You can’t let them do that.

So instead of saying, “He is swinging too often at the first pitch,” we can say, “Huh, maybe this is part of the reason for his success.” This take was well articulated by Tangotiger over at The Book Blog.

Taking that tack we can look at how Jones approaches at-bats against different pitchers. Here I looked at the rate Jones swings at pitches in the zone separated out as first pitches and all others based on the opposing pitcher’s xFIP. Standard errors of the fit curves are indicated.

The results are just as Jones said; against pitchers with a low xFIP, presumably the certain pitcher he was referring to, he is just as likely to swing at a first pitch in the zone as he is to swing at subsequent pitches in the zone. But against average-or-poor pitchers he swings much less often at first pitches in the zone than subsequent pitches in the zone. So Jones’s aggressiveness on first pitches is seen just against better pitchers.

The obvious question is the extent to which other hitters show this same trend, and, if they don’t, how much it factors into Jones’s success. More generally, it raises questions about how hitters respond differently when facing good pitchers. The converse, how pitchers pitch differently to the good hitters, has been examined, but I am not aware of studies on this.




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Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.


32 Responses to “Chipper’s First-Pitch Aggressiveness by Pitcher xFIP”

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  1. Hizouse says:

    Great work, Dave. Simple and elegant.

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  2. Dan says:

    Best post of the year, IMHO.

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  3. B says:

    Great insights. I really like being able to get visual evidence that matches up with what a player claims he’s trying to do. Really highlights Chipper’s approach at the plate.

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  4. tangotiger says:

    It is a fantastic post and that image itself makes it the picture of the year.

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  5. filihok says:

    Good to see that I am smart enough to agree with Tango

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  6. Matt says:

    I agree, this and the preceding post are outstanding analysis. As someone who is a current (amateur) player and coach, this kind of insight is really valuable.

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  7. Jon Sciambi says:

    Good God…fellas, can I post something on this? This idea that I was “advising” Chipper is so absurd. I traveled with the team for three years and know him very well. Love the data but talk about sucking the fun out of a funny story.

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    • Dave Allen says:

      Jon,

      I am sorry if I misrepresented you in this post, I have edited the first paragraph.

      Either way I really enjoyed your original piece and said as much in my post on it yesterday. It was a very funny story, but I do not think examining the data does anything to suck the fun out of it.

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    • Devon says:

      Boog, don’t let that get to you. I think, at least round these parts, people are more interested in the intersection of stats and player behavior. It’s rare to hear from someone like Chipper why he does what he does and to have the stats too. For myself, I’m just excited to see what more we can learn when the intersection of pure numbers and of experience and “feel” really start to jell.

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  8. Temo says:

    Heh, I think people here are past that part of the story, Boog. More concerned about Chipper’s further remarks on how/when he chooses to swing, which offer some insight into an elite player’s mind that we don’t often get.

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  9. Sam says:

    Dave, this is fabulous.

    Can you do the same analysis for another high-frequency (with great success, obviously!) first-pitch hitter: Derek Jeter? I think he subscribes to the same philosophy, and he, like Chipper, is also good at taking a walk.

    Frankly, looking at Chipper’s overall numbers (his BB/K ratio is almost always more than 1), it seems curious that Sciambi even looked at his first pitch hacking trends.

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    • Temo says:

      Jeter has an above-average walk rate, but is nowhere near Jones. His OBP is much more average-based than walk-based.

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      • Sam says:

        Definitely, Chipper is probably a more selective hitter. Jeter is interesting because he is very aggressive on the first pitch usually, and that has served him very well. But he also does know how to take a walk. Which makes him a good test case for this theory as well.

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      • Sam says:

        The other thing is: this is not exactly breaking news. I have heard many different color guys on TV say that with better pitchers, your best bet is to get a hit earlier in the count, and I do believe this is common wisdom among many hitters.

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  10. OlSalty says:

    Incredible post. Very curious if other hitters employ this same strategy now.

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  11. Fresh Hops says:

    Okay. This is amazing, or at least could be. We really need to know the base rates at which hitters in general do this (that the obvious question that you allude to in the last paragraph.) Because if there’s a real difference, I’m 90% confident that we’ve isolated a skill that Chipper Jones possesses.

    This would also be amazing because it would be one of the first times that a comment from a baseball player about how he plays really informed the sabermetric community about how the game works.

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  12. Gary says:

    It must be a big sign of respect from Chipper if you’re a pitcher and he swings at the first pitch you throw.

    Which means that if I threw a fastball he wouldn’t even bother taking off the donut off his bat or spitting out his chaw…

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  13. Tim Kelly says:

    This is outstanding. I cannot wait to see how this applies to the average player, other superstars, poor hitters, etc. Perhaps there’s a real breakthrough here…

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  14. Guillermo says:

    Great post.

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  15. 198d says:

    These “Sciambi,” posts have been fantastic.

    One would hope that the last paragraph is indicitive of something in the works? Can’t wait!

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  16. Cooper S says:

    I’ve always taken players comments about their performance with a grain of salt (though not necessarily a big one). Like, maybe they think they know why they’re doing something or they think they know why they’re having success but maybe don’t really or don’t know the whole story. I think this is fascinating to see a player really know what’s going on in the batter’s box. It speaks to Chipper’s immense talent and a specific skill that he possesses.

    I’m also thoroughly enjoying the entire recent blogosphere dialogue concerning Boog’s piece. I think it’s pretty cool that an article about presenting advanced stats has led us to (potentially) an increased understanding in the game, or at least how to explain it.

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  17. Sal Paradise says:

    Imagine if you gave Dave full access to a team of players what he could do based on what they tell him…

    I assume teams probably already have people doing that sort of stuff, and it would be awesome to see what they’re working on.

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  18. Nicko says:

    Um, again, this is a great post. More please!

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  19. Dave S. says:

    Pile on the love for the analysis.

    What hasn’t yet been discussed is how Chipper’s approach – which clearly works for him – often runs at odds with the other approach that suggests hitters should work the count more with better pitchers in an effort to tire them and get the bullpen as quickly as possible.

    Like most great analyses, this one begs a follow up: run a cluster analysis on hitters based on their wOBA, their pitch selectiveness as described above, and on opposing pitcher xFIP.

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  20. Bradley says:

    I love that graphic! Where can you make something like that? (As in what program/website?)

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  21. Patrick says:

    That is so, so cool.

    Here’s another thing… I wonder what that graph would look like relative to FIP, or *gasp* ERA.

    I bet it’s not nearly as smooth and wouldn’t fit Chipper’s thoughts on his own hitting near as well.

    In case it’s not clear, I’m fascinated by the possible thought that Chipper has an excellent intuititive understanding of which pitchers are the best, and that this matches up well with xFIP.. As opposed to ERA, or even perhaps to FIP.

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  22. Kyle says:

    Boog I know you’ve moved on to better things, but you will be missed in the Braves booth.

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  23. Alireza says:

    Sciambi showed his a$$ here. Jones style of hitting is not only successful in real life, it is successful in a sabermetric sense. Many of the best pitchers are known for sticking around the strike zone and trying to get first pitch strikes. They rely on the fact that they have great stuff to bail them out if the hitter swings at it, as many hitters have grown up hearing that they should keep the bat on their shoulder for the first pitch. Larry apparently pays attention and makes these guys pay for such strategies by crushing first pitches.

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  24. jjschiller says:

    I get your point and it’s interesting…

    It begs the next question: If a trend does appear showing that hitters want to get at the first hittable pitch they can against good pitchers, what role does that play in those pitchers BEING so dominant?

    If good selective hitters aren’t working the count and instead are shortening their at-bats, might that be contributing to the pitcher’s cause, ala in-his-prime Maddux?

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  25. Brad says:

    I’m late to the party on this post but…

    All that graph says to me is that Chipper is indeed doing exactly what he says he does. He says he swings at first pitch strikes more often against good pitchers. And the data show he actually does do that. He gives a reason for why he does it; that he presumably thinks he’s more successful and/or it’s in general a more successful strategy against very good pitchers. But the graph says nothing about whether it actually is more successful.

    Does, for instance, Halladay suppress wOBA less versus first pitch swingers than an average or more patient hitter?

    This is an excellent post. Clear, concise with well presented data. I’m just wondering if the strategy is indeed successful as borne out by the data, not because a very good hitter says it is.

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