Chipper, First Pitches and Saber-minded Reporting

A little over a week ago broadcaster Jon Sciambi wrote a great piece at Baseball Prospectus about a conversation he had with Chipper Jones. Scaimbi noted that Chipper saw the second fewest fraction of first-pitch strikes in the majors, but in spite of this Chipper has reputation as a first-pitch hitter and thus, maybe, he would be better off laying of some of those first-pitch offerings. Sciambi then recounts how Chipper took a fat 91-mph first-pitch fastball and then turned to the broadcast booth and scowled Scaimbi. Click over to the link and check out a great picture of the scowl and generally a very good article.

Sciambi, who notes that he got the numbers from FanGraphs, was quoting F-Strike%, which is the fraction of at-bats for a batter (or pitcher) that start 0-1 or have the ball put in play on the first pitch (i.e., at-bats in which the batter swung at the first pitch or it was called a strike).

A closely related number, which I think also addresses this question but that we do not have on the site is the fraction of first pitches that are in the strike zone (regardless of whether they are swung at or called a strike). Chipper sees the second fewest number of first pitches in the zone. Using the pitchf/x zone the average is 42%, and Chipper’s 32% is second only to Prince Fielder.

So what is Chipper doing to those first pitches compared to the rest of the league and compared to all pitches he sees. These numbers are from the pitchf/x data so they might differ slightly from the Plate Discipline numbers here, which are from BIS. The ranks are out of the just over 300 players who saw more than 1000 pitches last year.

                          Swing Rate
When           Where   Average     Chipper     Rank
All Pitches     Zone      0.65       0.73      43th from top
First Pitches   Zone      0.41       0.67       8th from top

All Pitches     Out       0.32       0.23      16th from bottom 
First Pitches   Out       0.16       0.14     108th from bottom 

First off, looking at all pitches, Chipper is in the great position of swinging at an above average of pitches in the zone while a below average number out of the zone. That shows his amazing plate discipline: the ability to tell the difference between a pitch in and out of the zone, and swing at the former and take the later.

On first pitches all batters swing less often, at both in-zone and out-of-zone pitches. Chipper does as well, but to a much smaller extent. So much so that Chipper enters the top ten swing rate on first pitches in the zone, and on first pitches out of the zone he swings at almost a league average rate, a big jump compared to his tiny out of zone swing rate on all pitches.

So yes, Chipper does swing at a lot of first pitches compared to all batters, and especially compared to his normal pitch rate. He explained why this is to ‘Duk at Big League Stew saying:

“[Sciambi] was just talking about me being overly aggressive, but yet I still drew 100 walks last year. They get mad at me because I don’t take enough pitches. But if I’m drawing 100 walks and hitting .300 … ”

Jones finished the sentence with a shoulder shrug and I asked him to explain why it wasn’t possible for him to take the first pitch on a more frequent basis.

His response echoed the same argument he used with Sciambi.

“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.

I really liked this exchange. A broadcaster who has the knowledge and curiosity to dig into stats that other might consider arcane and also access to players asks a very germane about those stats to a player. From there a well-connected blogger can ask the player further and get him to explain those numbers. I think it shows the future of sabermetric-based reporting.

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

10 Responses to “Chipper, First Pitches and Saber-minded Reporting”

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  1. Drakos says:

    I wonder if ESPN will ever put Joe Morgan and Sciambi in the booth together. That would be interesting.

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  2. Dan says:

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Sciambi said “I went on to ask why he’d swing at so many first pitches when the numbers suggest it’s not a great play.”

    Only if he had dug a little more, as you have shown here, he would have known why Chipper receives fewer 1st pitch strikes than almost every other ML-er. In other words, the numbers do not suggest his approach is a bad play. His numbers suggest his approach is a good play. Given Chipper’s track record, Sciambi should have given him the benefit of the doubt and continued to search until he found what you did.

    Alas, guy like him give guys like you a bad name, if you ask me.

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    • B says:

      Now, I agree that Sciambi should give a guy with Chipper’s success a little more benefit of the doubt and I think the more appropriate way to approach it is to simply tell Chipper what he sees according to the stats and give Chipper a chance to weigh in, rather than questioning Chipper’s approach and suggesting an actual change….but let’s give Sciambi credit here for taking steps in the right direction few (if any) other broadcasters do. He’s the type of pioneer needed to take this kind of analysis/thinking more mainstream.

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      • Dan says:

        While he’s at it, why doesn’t Sciambi tell Andy Pettitte “I’ve noticed that statistically, pitchers who strike a lot of guy out do better than those that don’t. So, why don’t you try to strike more guys out since the numbers suggest that’s the best play?”

        Pettitte strikes out as many guys as he can while still being successful. For him, it’s about 6 or 7 per 9 innings. If he tried to strike out more, he would be less successful. For another pitcher (Jamie Moyer) that number may be 3 or 4. For yet another, the number may be 8 or 9.

        My point is that I don’t think Sciambi is so crass as to tell Pettitte he’s pitching wrong, instead he’d try to discover why Pettitte can be effective pitching the way that he is. I agree that he just approached Chipper all wrong here, and in doing so he gave those of us who take these things seriously a bad name. Ah, maybe I’m too sensitive. Sciambi seems to have a good humor about it, so I probably am in the wrong here.

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  3. Robert says:

    I think Chipper’s response about not wanting to get behind certain pitchers was very sound reasoning. I think Sciambi might have made the mistake of viewing the stats as a cause, instead of a result in this case. It reminds me of the passage in Moneyball in which one of Scott Hatteburg’s coaches told him how much better he hits when he swings at the first pitch, and that he should do it more often. Hatteburg’s response was something along the lines of, “I do so well when I swing at the first pitch because when I swing at the first pitch it’s a ball I CAN hit well.” Stats can be a very good way to evaluate a player’s performance, but it’s also very easy to mistake cause and effect.

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    • B says:

      Now, MLB players might not be the smartest/most educated bunch and most probably don’t have much of an understanding of statistics, but people need to give these guys credit. Aubrey Huff type idiots who “just go out and hit the ball” aren’t the norm – most of them do actually have reasons for approaching the game the way they do, and while they might not be playing it in exactly the optimal way, chances are they aren’t too far off, because if they were…..well, they probably wouldn’t be in MLB right now. So any analysis of a player and changes they should make should be a dialogue with them, giving them a chance to weigh in and explain their methods and why they do or don’t make sense, and think about what any stats they’re presented with say about their approach and if they may or may not be able to change for the better…..

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    • Dave says:

      Sciambi’s ancedote is exactly like the exchange in Moneyball between John Mabry and A’s video coordinator Dan Feinstein where Feiny convinces Mabry not to swing. When Mabry strikes out, he sends expletives Feiny’s way that are visible on TV.

      Mabry’s no Chipper, and is long out of baseball. For what it’s worth, Feiny’s been the Rays’ Director of Baseball Operations for about four seasons.

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  4. Kyle says:

    Really? Does this matter even? Chipper Jones will be in the Hall of Fame, and is going to hang up his hat if he had another bad season(for him.)

    How many hits has Sciambi gotten? Even in highschool or college(did he ever play sports?)… always consider the source. These stats are fun, and can be useful or even insightful. But honestly, would Ted Williams or Willie Mays give a flying F about this stuff?

    For those of us who have played, baseball is very mental. Chipper may seem like a jerk or something, but this is the kind of crap that can destroy a hitter. Joe Morgan may be retarded, but he also knows this. It’s probably the only thing he knows, because he played the game.

    I’d like to hear Babe Ruth’s opinion…

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    • JW says:

      Really? You don’t think Ted Williams would ‘give a flying f’ about this, eh?
      “He loved talking about hitting and was a great student of hitting and pitchers.” – said Stan Musial of Willaims.
      He stated that he wanted to be regarded as ‘the greatest hitter who ever lived'; Williams himself attributed 50% of hitting to being ‘above the shoulders’.
      Now, if you want to point to his unwillingness to alter his swing during the ’46 World Series – fine. But I doubt that a guy who strove to be the best hitter in the history of baseball and who authored “The Science of Hitting” wouldn’t utilize all possible available information.

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