Are Hitters More Aggressive on First Pitches from Good Pitchers?

Last week I looked at Chipper Jones‘s first-pitch aggressiveness. This aggressiveness is a little surprising because Jones has extraordinary plate discipline, with more walks than strikeouts in his career. Jones explained it as a way to not get behind good pitchers. It turned out this was the correct, as Jones swung more often against first pitches in the zone from low-xFIP pitchers than high-xFIP pitchers. On subsequent pitches in the zone this relationship was lost and he swung at a relatively constant rate.

This result led to a number of natural questions the two most pressing: how does this compare to other hitters and how much of a role does it play in Jones’s success?

Here I address the first question. I repeated the graph from Thursday for all batters rather than just for Jones. That is, I looked at the Z-Swing rate (swings at pitches in the zone) for first pitches and subsequent pitches based on the pitcher’s xFIP. The curves are below with standard errors indicated. For comparison, I added Jones’s curves as dotted lines but omitted his standard errors to keep the graph from being too cluttered.

There is a striking difference. The average hitter swings much less often at first pitches than all others, but with no discernible trend based on the quality of the pitcher. This is very different from Jones’s first-pitch curve, which drops off rapidly as the pitcher xFIP increases. On subsequent pitches, the average hitter’s swing rate increases compared to his first-pitch rate, but again has little relationship with the xFIP of the pitcher. Here, Jones is not different than average.

So it looks like the average batter is not making the same effort as Jones to not get behind the best pitchers. This is surprising. I thought we would have seen this trend — just to a lesser extent — with all hitters, but that is not the case. Tomorrow I will look at the effect this has on at-bat results.



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


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Mike Green
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Mike Green
6 years 2 months ago

Great article. There is a typo in the second last sentence; it should be “to a lesser extent”.

The A Team
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The A Team
6 years 2 months ago

I’m interested in the next post. My gut reaction is that fantastic hitters like Jones benefit from his strategy as they’re generally more able hitters while poor hitters might ideally try to outlast the pitcher (at the very least they might wear him down for better hitters). A poor hitter is still unlikely to have a positive outcome on a Lincecum fastball, even if it’s right down the middle.

Joe R
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Joe R
6 years 2 months ago

The fact that the average hitter doesn’t vary their approach while Chipper does, may explain why Chipper Jones is so good, and why he walks so much despite being admittedly aggressive vs. good pitchers.

Bronnt
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Bronnt
6 years 2 months ago

This entire series is great-gives a lot of insight into one particular really good hitter vs the rest of the league. It’s nice to see the data actually supporting what Chipper says his approach is. You’ll often hear guys explain their plate approach and the data is either inconclusive or even contradictory to their statements.

Keep up the great work.

Steve C
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Steve C
6 years 2 months ago

I’d be interested in just the means for various wOBAs. One line for >350, another for 330-350, <330. You get the idea. Might want to substitute OBP or OBP-AVG for wOBA, but you get the general idea.

Adam D
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Adam D
6 years 2 months ago

The interesting question for me is, what comes first? Being a good-enough pitcher that makes these types of hitters want to swing at your first pitch, or being a really good pitcher because you are getting so many first-pitch outs.

James
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James
6 years 2 months ago

Well, this is very exciting! Can’t wait to read more.

Joe R
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Joe R
6 years 2 months ago

This would also be a good study: Instead of correlating just opposing pitcher xFIP to Z-swing, correlate xFIP AND wOBA.

Tangotiger
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Member
6 years 2 months ago

Right, what the others have been saying. Chipper is a career .400 (wOBA) hitter. I’d rather see five charts with the breakdown at those levels:

.380+ hitters
.350-.380
.320-.350
.290-.320
under .290

Sal Paradise
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Sal Paradise
6 years 2 months ago

Also, to avoid clutter, is there any chance you could split the charts up into two? The first would show first-pitch, the second would show all others. Then you could show multiple-lines (like tango suggests) on the same graph.

I would also suggest breaking up the wOBA scores so that you have an equal sample size in each (there are 35 qualified batters over .380, and only 3 under .290), preferably by plate appearances.

And your work, as always, is awesome.

Matt
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Matt
6 years 2 months ago

There’s a typo in the second sentence.

It reads: “with more walk than strikeouts in his career”

While it should be walks than strikeouts

Mike Green
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Mike Green
6 years 2 months ago

I wonder how Chipper’s first pitch Z-swing rate breaks down among the low xFIP pitchers, depending on the pitcher’s control record. You would think that he might be less inclined to swing at a first pitch strike from an overpowering pitcher with less than stellar control than a Greinke/Halladay type.

MGL
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MGL
6 years 2 months ago

Yup, absolutely fascinating stuff. I was thinking the same thing as Tango. I want to see the breakdown by batter overall quality and perhaps also by batter “eye” however you want to quantify that.

Mike, I’m pretty sure that Chipper, as well as most batters, and certainly the ones with good eyes, are going to swing more often at pitches in the zone against pitchers who throw more in the zone, regardless of their FIP.

To take it to the extreme, if I know a pitcher throws the first pitch in the zone 90% of the time, I am ready to swing at just about anything, and I will swing a lot. I am rarely going to accidentally swing at a pitch out of the zone, since the pitcher hardly ever throws a pitch out of the zone.

OTOH, if a pitcher throws it in the zone only 25% of the time, I am probably just taking the first pitch, since I don’t want to make a mistake and swing at a bad pitch.

Tobias F.
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Tobias F.
6 years 2 months ago

If I was a batter and I was up against a great pitcher(particularly one who has great command) I would definitely swing at the first pitch. I don’t know how true it is but I often hear analysts say during games that often times the best pitch you are going to see is the first one because pitchers hate falling behind(obviously) and just try to get it over. I think they’re less likely to try to pump up their MPH on their fastball and paint the black or throw the perfect curveball on a 0-0 count. If you don’t swing and that pitch does get over the plate which percentages show it probably will be you are in a world of trouble.

Of course there are dangers in this because the last thing you want to do is give a great pitcher in easy out by getting out on the first pitch.

The A Team
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The A Team
6 years 2 months ago

You highlight an interesting dynamic. The batter wants to attack the best pitch he’s going to see. The dominant pitcher (Roy Halladay and Greg Maddux are great examples) wants to retire hitters as easily as possible. Since both pitchers know that batters want the best pitch, they can place their stuff in a location that entices the hitter but also produces a ton of outs. The result is that the optimal hitting strategy coincides with the optimal pitching strategy. Since balls in play are converted to outs more often than hits and dominant pitchers suppress wOBA, the pitcher ‘wins’.

Jeff
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Jeff
6 years 2 months ago

This is not what makes Chipper Jones a great hitter. The fact that Jones is a great hitter allows him to take a good first pitch strike and not be ‘behind in the count’. He knows that the pitcher still needs two strikes and if the pitcher is not a great pitcher, this is not a problem.

Also, both Jones and the average pitcher know this, so Chip can pretty much wait on a FB strike to drill on the first pitch without worrying about being behind. This means the pitcher has to throw good offspeed pitch for a strike, or he’ll be really behind to Jones 1-0. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen him do this. This also means that Chip has an even greater chance of getting to a 3-1 FB or a walk.

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