The Search for a Good Approach

Last week I explored the strategic effect of seeing more pitchers per plate appearance. I love the ten-pitch walk as much as the next guy, but what I love even more is seeing a guy be able to change that approach to beat a scouting report. Let’s take a look at June 5, 2014, when the A’s went to see Masahiro Tanaka for the first time. The first batter is Coco Crisp:

M. Tanaka
C. Crisp
Speed Pitch Result
1 91 Sinker Ball
2 90 Sinker Ball
3 91 Fastball (Four-seam) Ball
4 90 Fastball (Four-seam) Called Strike
5 91 Fastball (Four-seam) Foul
6 92 Fastball (Four-seam) In play, out(s)

So Crisp doesn’t get the best of Tanaka, but he makes Tanaka labor a bit through six pitches. If you’re going to make an out to start the game, it might as well be a long one. For the next batter, John Jaso, Tanaka decides to go right after him:

M. Tanaka
J. Jaso
Speed Pitch Result
1 90 Sinker In play, run(s)

I may be looking too deeply into the narrative here, but I love to imagine Tanaka getting a bit frustrated here. Perhaps the scouting report said that both Coco is aggressive early, while Jaso’s running 15% walk rates in 2012 and 2013 suggest that he’s more patient.  Tanaka has to throw six pitches in order to get Crisp out, but after deciding to go right after Jaso, he gets taken deep.

So I wondered if there are players who are able to fulfill both ends of this spectrum. Are there any players that are capable of prolonging their time at the plate until they see the pitch they want, but are also aggressive and willing enough to hit the gas on the first pitch? I used FanGraphs for the pitches/plate appearance data, but used baseball-reference’s play index to look up all instances of first-pitch hits this season. Originally I was going to use first-pitch swings, but I decided to just stick to times when the pitcher gets punished for trying to get ahead early. After all, if your decision is to get ahead early in the count, and the guy swings but all he does is foul it off or hit into an out, then that doesn’t change your approach as a pitcher. I wanted to see guys whom the book isn’t written on yet.  Advance Warning: These stats will be about a week old by the time you see them, as I am a slow, slow man.

Best P/PA Rank + FPH Rank (I have no idea how to pitch to them) FPH% P/PA FPHR PPAR FPHR + PPAR wOBA
Scott Van Slyke 5.940594059 4.143564356 26 45 71 0.385
Eric Campbell 4.2424242424 4.248520710 117 18 99 0.326
Jesus Guzman 4.294478528 4.17791411 111 33 144 0.247
Daniel Murphy 4.577464789 4.111842105 87 58 145 0.305
Joey Votto 4.044117647 4.334558824 135 12 147 0.359
Mark Reynolds 5.037783375 4.0375 59 91 150 0.307

(For Reference: FPH% = First Pitch Hit Percentage, or how often a batter gets a hit on the first pitch they see.  P/PA = Pitches per Plate Appearance. FPHR = First Pitch Hit Ranking, or how they rank in this category compared to the rest of the league.  PPAR = Pitches per Plate Appearance Ranking.  FPHR + PPAR = The addition of these two numbers.)

I like this table!  I have wondered at times what has caused Scott Van Slyke‘s resurgence this year. Perhaps this table gives us a bit of a clue.  Van Slyke is the only person in the MLB to rank in the top 50 in both FPHR and PPAR.  That’s pretty neat.  Daniel Murphy is also quite balanced, but he’s been much more consistent over the last few years.  He’s particularly interesting in that he doesn’t have a particularly high walk rate or strikeout rate.  I guess he’s just selective at times.  Jesus Guzman‘s presence on this list goes to show that a good approach doesn’t necessarily mean success; it just means that he may not head back to the bench in any predictable fashion.  I stretched out the table one spot to include Mark Reynolds, because his name on this table makes me feel better about drafting him in Fantasy Baseball for past five years.

I also wanted to look at the flip-side.  Who are the guys who don’t tend to take a lot of pitches, but also don’t tend to make any decent contact on first pitches?

Highest P/PA Rank + FPH Rank (Pick your poison) FPH% P/PA FPHR PPAR FPHR+PPAR wOBA
Joaquin Arias 0.6451612903 3.55483871 370 400 770 0.221
Ben Revere 1.629327902 3.563636364 365 368 733 0.307
Endy Chavez 0.9345794393 3.674311927 321 393 714 0.301
Conor Gillaspie 2.168674699 3.587112172 359 329 688 0.353
Jean Segura 2.564102564 3.42462845 396 289 685 0.262

Here we have a much less impressive list.  Joaquin Arias has been one of the worst hitter in the majors this year, and his dominance atop this leaderboard makes a bit of sense.  However, Conor Gillaspie is having an excellent season for the Pale Hose, despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to excel in either of the areas this article is interested in.  One pecuilar note is that this group is pretty poor at hitting for power in general; these 5 guys have 13 home runs between them on the year, and six of those are Gillaspie’s.

So now let’s look at the weird ones.  I would think that it stands that if there are certain players who tend to take a lot of pitches and who also never seem to square up the first pitch, then we know our game plan.  Get ahead early on these batters.  We can try to view that by simply looking at each players FPH Ranking minus their PPA ranking.  This is the same at looking at the absolute value of their PPAR minus their FPAR.  Here are the top five in that respect:

Worst in FPHR, Best in PPAR (Groove it Early) FPH% P/PA FPHR PPAR FPHR-PPAR wOBA
Jason Kubel 1.136363636 4.471590909 387 4 383 0.278
Aaron Hicks 0.641025641 4.224358974 401 21 380 0.286
Mike Trout 1.217391304 4.418965517 385 6 379 0.401
Matt Carpenter 1.376936317 4.357264957 380 8 372 0.343
A.J. Ellis 1.181102362 4.255813953 386 17 369 0.264

Golly; I’ve figured out Mike Trout!  Mike Trout ranks very highly on our list of PPAR but is unfortunately relatively average when it comes to the first-pitch punish.  All of these guys actually fit this mold.  We have three relatively poor hitters accompanied by the best player in baseball and an above average infielder on a winning team.  So we can tell that being patient isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing; it’s just that hitter’s style.  Now let’s take a look at the reverse:

Best in FPHR, Worst in PPAR (Don’t throw it in the zone early) FPH% P/PA FPHR  PPAR PPAR-FPHR wOBA
Jose Altuve 8.159722222 3.175862069 5 407 402 0.355
Wilson Ramos 7.169811321 3.293680297 6 405 399 0.327
Erick Aybar 6.628787879 3.347091932 12 401 389 0.312
Ender Inciarte 8.360128617 3.471518987 3 391 388 0.284
A.J. Pierzynski 6.413994169 3.391930836 16 399 383 0.283

It’s always satisfying when the data shows what you expect it to.  I imagined Jose Altuve as being among the more aggressive hitters, and this shows that at least.  Altuve ranks 5th in the league in FPH% and is rather mediocre in the PPA category.  Interesting to see that this top five is also sorted by wOBA; Altuve is the best hitter on the list, and Pierzynski is the worst.  So there’s nothing necessarily wrong with an aggressive approach, but it does give us a clue as to a possible plan of attack.

So all this is to say, like my last article, that no particular approach is best.  One can look to swing at the first pitch, or one can be patient and wait for their pitch to come.  That said, everybody does have an approach, and that means they’ve got something they’re not looking for.  Stats like FPH and PPAR may just give us more clues as fans as to what teams put together with scouting reports.

So to conclude by going back to our first example, perhaps Tanaka should have read this data before his start against the A’s.  Coco ranks 266th in the league in FPHR, but a respectable 76th in PPAR.  Conversely, Jaso ranks 80th in the league in FPHR, but just 225th in PPAR.  Tanaka might have been better served by going after the aging Crisp and saving his energy for the somewhat aggressive Jaso.

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A's fan and QA guy. I write here and there at about the intersection between Baseball and Christianity.

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