Like a lot of people, Wednesday evening I was watching Justin Verlander try his damnedest to no-hit the Angels. I was tuning in because of the pitcher, but in the seventh inning, I found myself thinking about the hitter. It was in the top of the seventh that Verlander faced Mike Trout for what would be the last time, and I was reminded of something Sam Miller pointed out a couple years ago. All it took was one pitch.
The first pitch of the at-bat:
It’s nothing special at all. All that is is a first-pitch curveball, for a strike. Verlander did the same thing to the next guy. It’s important to mix things up. In isolation, this is just one of several good pitches. But it’s interesting, if you’re familiar with a little Trout background. How badly did Mike Trout want to not swing at that first-pitch curve? Check out the body language:
He saw it, he read it, and he stood up straight. Trout identified the curveball and he gave up on it. Not in any kind of cowardly way — he just decided he wanted to see another pitch. Again, in isolation, no biggie. Maybe Trout just wanted to make Verlander work. But I feel like now I should get into the history.
Allow me to remind you of a very simple point. However good a hitter is, he’s going to be worse when he’s behind 0-and-1. The first pitch might not be the most important pitch, but it’s an important pitch, because there’s a big difference between 1-and-0 and 0-and-1. Everybody knows this, but everybody also sort of forgets about it when watching a game live. The odds swing pretty quick, based on a first pitch’s outcome. Get ahead and you can put a hitter on the defensive. Even an amazing one. The hitter won’t be able to sit on something, and he might have to expand his own zone.
Say you’re about to face Mike Trout. Would you rather face Trout at 0-and-0, or 0-and-1? A first-pitch strike still leaves Trout as one hell of a hitter, but any edge is an edge. What if I told you I knew how to get ahead of Trout? What if it almost couldn’t be simpler?
There’s a reason I showed you the Verlander curveball. On Tuesday, against the Tigers, Trout saw two other first-pitch curveballs. According to Brooks Baseball, over the course of Trout’s career, he’s seen 267 first-pitch curves. According to Baseball Savant, he’s seen 276. One should always expect a little disagreement, since pitch identification is as much art as it is science. Anyhow, whether it’s 267 or 276, there’s this — out of all those curves, Trout has swung at exactly one of them.
Since Sam Miller brought this to my attention, Trout has swung at zero first-pitch curveballs. He’s not super aggressive against any pitches, but most of his first-pitch swing rates are around 10%. One swing at a first-pitch curve, ever. It happened against Derek Holland and the Rangers in September 2013.
It didn’t work. Later in that game, Trout got another first-pitch curve, and he took it, just as he’s taken all first-pitch curveballs since. His actual first-pitch-curveball swing rate rounds down to 0%. Matt Carpenter, this year, has also swung at zero first-pitch curveballs, but in his career he’s offered at seven. That beats Trout’s number by a relative landslide.
In case this isn’t sinking in, let’s try a visual approach. From Baseball Savant, all those first-pitch curveballs:
And here are the swings:
Just the one. Just the one, despite all those pitches in the zone. All those first-pitch called strikes. This is pretty clearly deliberate — when he’s starting off an at-bat, Trout is looking for something else. If he sees a curve, he’s prepared to just take it, because he’s geared up for higher velocity. He can afford to take that first pitch, because a taken first pitch guarantees more pitches. Even though a strike seems like a disadvantage, Trout can afford it. But from a pitcher’s perspective, hey, free potential advantage.
Not that it’s always easy to locate a curve. In fact, over Trout’s career, a little over half of those first-pitch curveballs have missed. They’ve led to 1-and-0 counts, which make Trout only more terrifying. But say you’re a pitcher with a pretty good curve. Say you just want to throw it for a strike, without aiming for anywhere in particular. Throw a strike and Trout’s almost certainly going to take it. Free strike. If everyone started doing this, Trout would probably swing more, but that isn’t going to happen, meaning, free strikes. If you want an edge against Mike Trout, you might consider first-pitch curveballs, because you’ve got a pretty good shot of an 0-and-1 count, and that makes Trout a little closer to going away.
All that’s left is to run a few more numbers, just to sate my own curiosity. Trout owns a career .405 wOBA. Just absurdly, obscenely good. However, in plate appearances beginning with a curveball, he’s generated a wOBA of — .500. Huh. All right, well, as I said before, more than half of those curves have gone for balls. What about just the plate appearances beginning with a first-pitch curveball for a called strike? Then Trout’s wOBA drops to — .471. Which is higher than his overall regular wOBA. By a lot!
So based on that, then, nevermind. First-pitch curves have conferred no advantage. First-pitch curves taken for strikes have also conferred no advantage. If anything, they’ve just made everything worse, and while I didn’t control for pitcher ability above, that’s not going to make too much of a difference, with numbers this crazy. Maybe it works against a pitcher to show his curveball that early. Or maybe this is just randomness, but not only do we not see an advantage — we see quite the opposite. So it’s hard to move forward.
You want an edge against Mike Trout? Good for you. So does everyone. You might consider throwing a first-pitch curveball. It doesn’t seem to actually make anything any better, but at least that one pitch will probably keep Trout from swinging. The swings are where he gets you.
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