Pitch One to Ball Four: Part One

One of my more peculiar fascinations is with the first pitch of at bats. Specifically, I seem to pay an inordinate amount of attention to players and teams that swing at the first pitch more or less often than you would expect. With the pitch-by-pitch database that I happen to have, it is actually a trivial exercise to extract that information, so for tonight I decided to take a look at the first pitch on a team level for 2008.

Namely, I wanted to investigate the percentage of first pitches that a given team swung at. For additional context, I included that team’s walk rate under the theory that you would expect some negative correlation between how often a team swung at the first pitch and how often they drew a walk. The difference between the two is included as the final column with a positive difference expressing that the team drew more walks than expected.

Despite the promising sign of the top and bottom teams matching up perfectly, the dataset (limited as it is to just 30 data points) shows little correlation.

However, visual inspection reveals a possible pattern. It looks like a majority of the teams do follow a roughly a linear pattern between not offering at the first pitch and drawing walks, there might be two clumps perpendicular to the hypothetical trend line. There are two teams (Seattle and Pittsburgh) that took first pitches often but didn’t translate those into walks and a clump of six teams (Atlanta, Texas, Tampa, Chicago(N), St.Louis and Cincinnati) that drew walks at an above average pace despite offering at the first pitch more often than average.

Is there something (like a higher or lower percentage of free-swinging, high-slugging hitters) about the make up of the teams in those two groups that helped distinguish them from the other 22 teams, who show a correlation of 0.78 between the two axes? In part two, we’ll add in some data from past years to get a bigger sample size and if the pattern holds, see if we cannot tease out a possible explanation.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

8 Responses to “Pitch One to Ball Four: Part One”

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  1. coreyjro says:

    Another consideration in this could be each particular managers’ usage of the “take” signal. Maybe knowing that the Mariners have sloppy swingers caused their manager to have them take a pitch in hopes of not letting the opposing pitcher get out of the inning on 3 pitches.

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  2. drew says:

    When you have a team of free swingers in makes sense for hitters to take the first pitch from both the batter and pitchers perspective. As a batter. you are going to swing at the other pitches so why swing at the pitchers first pitch? The pitcher know when Y-Bet comes to the plate that he’s not going to walk. So why not throw some stuff off the plate and see if the batter will swing at your pitch? Y-Bet understands this and so does the pitcher. Plate disipline doesn’t come into play until late in the count. Guys like Cust or Burrell are going to look for the walk (if the don’t see a pitch they can drive) and they are not afraid to strike out. Y-bet goes to the plate looking to make contact. Patient hitters aren’t looking to make contact. They are looking to drive the ball..

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  3. Jack says:

    I remember that The Book mentions that wOBA changes are bigger for 1-2 counts and 2-1 counts – that is, the first 3 pitches are what matter more.

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  4. acerimusdux says:

    I think the main reason there is little correlation is that it is far more important how good a hitter is at actually hitting, than how patient he is. I think the idea that hitters can become better by drawing more walks is sometimes over done a bit. It certainly is helpful for a hitter to learn the strike zone, but it’s still more important to actually learn to hit than it is to try to draw walks. The guys who draw the most walks tend to be dangerous hitters first. If a guy can’t drive the ball, there is less reason to pitch around him. And if the pitcher is throwing strikes, the batter should be swinging.

    So my first observation here, is that the teams at the bottom half who did draw the expected walks, tended to be good lineups; Red Sox, Phillies, Mets, Diamondbacks, A’s. And the teams who drew walks despite the higher first pitch swing percentages, also were mostly strong lineups (Reds?), Braves, Rangers, Cardinals, Rays, Cubs.

    For teams lacking in dangerous bats, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether they swung (Royals, Astros) or didn’t (Pirates, Mariners).

    Actually, after a quick check of the stats, the Pirates weren’t as bad a lineup as I thought. It was their pitching that was really bad. But, while they weren’t bad at scoring runs, they were 12th in the NL in HR. The Reds, by contrast, in the other group, weren’t that good at scoring runs, but were 4th in the NL in HR. So maybe the HR threat is what is most critical in how cautious pitchers are.

    And, there are likely significant park effects there as well. Pitchers are likely pitching less aggressively in Great American than in Pac Bell or Safeco.

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  5. Mike Ketchen says:

    great piece,

    I cant help but laugh though as I watched “experts” on the MLB network say that Cito Gastein’s approach of “swing away” and forget all this “on base stuff”. Maybe they should look at this chart.

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  6. Pizza Cutter says:

    There is a correlation technique for ordinal data (Spearman’s method, rather than the usual Pearson method).

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  7. Greg says:

    Does the graph look any cleaner if you just plot the %s themselves on the axes, rather than the MLB ranks? Since you used the ranks, I’m guessing no.

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  8. Inside each square, there is a smaller square, with a total of 5 squares. The size of the bullseye depends on the age and playing ability of the team you are working with, but it should be challenging.

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