We’ve all heard an announcer harp on the importance of throwing first pitch strikes. They ramble about the tone of the at bat, the aggressiveness of the hitter, and most importantly – the data. We’ve studied the importance of first pitch strikes for a long time. Nearly 10 years ago, Craig Burley found only eight percent of first pitch strikes were converted into hits during the 2003 season. Meanwhile, the difference between a 1-0 and 0-1 count is about 20 points of average, 90 points of on base percentage, and 40 points of slugging. Based on linear weights, Burley finds the value of a first pitch strike to be 0.07 runs. So, we accept the importance of first pitch strikes. Let’s put a pin in that for now.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have received adequate pitching from their starters. Over 30 games, Angels starters have a 3.87 ERA, 4.04 FIP and 4.01 xFIP. They’re not world beaters by any means – they’re 17th in starter WAR and 11th in RA9-WAR. Adequacy can take you far in the majors, especially when your offense features Mike Trout. The Angels have managed a 15-15 record, and they trail the Oakland Athletics by just 3.5 games.
Now you have two paragraphs – one about the importance of first pitch strikes and one about Angels starters. Can you guess where I’m going with this?
The Angels currently trail all of baseball with a 51.4 first pitch strike rate. The second lowest first pitch strike rate belongs to the Colorado Rockies at 56.1 percent. Not only have Rockies starters thrown nearly five percent more first pitch strikes, they may have a strategic reason to nibble early in the count (it’s starts with a watery beer and ends with “Field”). For the curious, the Yankees lead baseball with a 64.6 first pitch strike rate. Their entire staff is very serious about starting with an 0-1 count, led by CC Sabathia‘s 70 percent rate.
Not only are the Angels bad at generating first pitch strikes, they’re historically bad. We have first pitch strike data going back to 2002. The 2004 Tampa Bay Devil Rays hold the distinction for the worst full season first pitch strike rate. It’s 54.4 percent. If the Angels don’t improve, they’ll have the worst first pitch strike rate in recent history.
Let’s apply Burley’s run value of .07 to see how many theoretical runs could have been saved if the Angels had the league’s median first pitch strike rate (currently the Chicago Cubs at 60 percent). The Angels starters faced 759 batters and threw 390 first pitch strikes. A 60 percent rate would yield 455 first pitch strikes. Multiply .07 times 65 and you get 4.55 runs. So the Angels starters have “lost” four or five runs by failing to reach a typical first pitch strike rate. If we project linearly for a full season, we’re talking about 2.5 wins.
Of course, linear projections don’t often work in reality. Let’s take a look at the individuals involved by comparing their current first pitch strike rate to their career rate. We should get an idea if my favorite hashtag #RegressionIsComing is in play.
Angels First Pitch Strike Rates
|Name||2014 F-Strike%||Career F-Strike%||2014 minus career|
Skaggs doesn’t have enough data to really say much, but he’s also the only Angels pitcher near the league average rate. Wilson has made a career of being slightly wild on first pitches, although his last three seasons have been between 57.3 and 59.8 percent.
And now we’re left with the weird ones. Weaver, Richards, and Santiago have shown huge decreases in first pitch strike rate. We could spend some time guessing why, but I don’t have enough scouting knowledge to be confident in my guesswork.
Richards has been the team’s best starter despite a pitiful first pitch strike rate. He’s used his 96 mph fastball and heavy sinker to work out of unfavorable counts. He’ll either improve his early count rate or else he’s likely to see less favorable outcomes. Weaver has been in decline for years – perhaps early count nibbling is a response to lesser stuff.
Santiago is fringy as a major league starter, but his performance to date is the easiest to rationalize. He’s managed to outperform his FIP the previous two seasons with timely strikeouts. Currently, his swinging strike rate is way down – as are the strikeouts – perhaps because he’s rarely ahead in the count. According to Brooksbaseball, he’s throwing 66 percent fastballs compared to 58 percent last season. The predictability of his repertoire may be hurting his whiff rate, and it may stem from his terrible first pitch strike rate.
Ultimately, the Angels’ rotation probably won’t be historically bad at generating first pitch strikes. We’ve only seen 30 out of 162 games. Between regression with the incumbents and the inevitable sixth, seventh, and eighth starters, better strike rates should be on the horizon. However, much like the Twins seemingly conscious decision to stop swinging, we’ve found another “weird” data point to watch.