I’ve always been fascinated with how teams and players react to advance scouting reports. I love to read up on how players incorporate the reports into their game plan and how managers use the information to inform their decisions. But it’s an aspect of baseball that is difficult to access for an outsider. Generally speaking, we don’t know what scouts are saying about any player. We can look at the data and do a little amateur scouting in order to make a guess, but we don’t know.
What I wondered was if by looking at the data, we could find some examples where it appeared that a scouting report was dead wrong. Since sample size issues make it a necessity, I had to look for players that every team scouted incorrectly. One of the things contained in an advance scouting report is how aggressively an opposing hitter should be attacked, so the first place I went looking was plate discipline data to see if any hitters were pitched more or less aggressively than the data suggests was wise. To my surprise, I found somebody immediately – Carlos Gomez.
Last season, Gomez saw first pitch strikes nearly 69 percent of the time, which was the highest rate among qualified batters. League average was a 60 percent first pitch strike rate. This isn’t a new trend for Gomez – over his career he has seen first pitch strikes a full two-thirds of the time. Interestingly, the hitter with the second highest frequency of first pitch strikes last season was Starling Marte. Readers familiar with Gomez and Marte will know that they have a similar profile at the plate and share many physical tools.
There are two obvious reasons why all pitchers would attack a specific hitter more frequently than average. Hitters like Juan Pierre or Placido Polanco are notoriously difficult to strike out, yet they have very little power. It’s easiest for pitchers to attack those hitters and let the BABIP gods decide the outcome. The other scenario is with hitters who simply never swing at first pitches, like vintage Bobby Abreu. A slightly less obvious third reason is that pitchers may want to get ahead on leadoff hitters or with the bases empty in general.
Yet those three scenarios don’t explain why Gomez is seeing a lot of first pitch strikes. He has more than his share of strikeouts and has exhibited good power since 2011 – more than enough time for scouting reports to adjust to his power breakout. For his career, Gomez has swung at the first pitch over 40 percent of the time, which is rather aggressive. The aggression is more apparent if we limit ourselves to 2013, when he swung 54.1 percent of the time in empty counts. The league average rate for first pitch swings is just 27 percent (h/t Jeff Zimmerman). The Brewers didn’t use Gomez as a leadoff hitter either, he generally batted between third and sixth in the order last season.
With Marte, the story is slightly different since he actually was a leadoff hitter. Still, his power and strikeout rates were similar to Gomez’s. He swung at first pitches about 22 percent of the time, which was certainly more reserved than Gomez but also wasn’t unusually patient. For example, Abreu offered at just 8.8 percent of first pitches since 2007 (I used BrooksBaseball.net to gather this data and it only goes back to 2007).
Gomez also destroyed first pitches last season with a .402 batting average and .738 slugging percentage (.336 ISO). He was only very slightly worse than that in 2011 and 2012. Usually I would shrug away this sort of data due to sample size, confounding variables, and other statistical noise, but with Gomez I’m inclined to take the data at face value. He seems to really like first pitches. And given his recent increase in first pitch swings, I suspect he’s consciously aware that pitchers are attacking the zone early.
Which brings me to the obvious question – why is this being allowed to happen?
In trying to answer that question, I decided to do some research. I drafted a list of all outfielder seasons that qualified for the batting title since 2007. I included walk rate, strikeout rate, ISO, speed score, and first pitch strike rate. I then filtered for seasons with a walk rate less than eight percent, strikeout rate above 20 percent, and ISO above .160. I then manually removed players with a speed score below 5, which gave me this 14 player list sorted by first pitch strike rate:
What I had hoped to find was a systemic bias against speedy outfielders with surprising power. Since Gomez and Marte were similar players and saw a lot of empty count strikes, perhaps this happened with other comparable players. Unfortunately, B.J. Upton‘s 2012 season was the only other example on my list and he’s only seen a slightly above average rate of first pitch strikes over his career.
I then repeated the exercise with all hitters, which added Ian Desmond to the list. His 2012 and 2013 seasons featured well above average first pitch strike rates, and his overall profile at the plate is quite similar to Gomez and Marte. I also tried removing the walk rate filter, but that didn’t add any hitters.
So in the end, I found three batters with a similar body type and offensive profile who have seen strikes on 0-0 well above normal rates. Like Gomez, Marte and Desmond are both very good against first pitches (1.209 and .892 OPS respectively). And Desmond shared Gomez’s aggression, he swung at the first pitch over 50 percent of the time last season.
In the end, I could not find enough evidence to definitively state that there is a specific bias against this type of player. It’s an interesting coincidence that three of the players who see the most first pitch strikes are all a little over six feet tall, weigh about 200 pounds, play a challenging defensive position, and show a lot more power and whiff rate than other players of their body type. Other players on the list of those with the most first pitch strikes include Alexei Ramirez, Alcides Escobar, and Gerardo Parra. They have similar body types but lack power. Perhaps scouts are wrongly including Gomez, Marte, and Desmond into this bucket.
Short of a stunning revelation about scouting bias, I am comfortable in recommending that major league pitchers be just a little bit less aggressive against Gomez in empty counts. He’s taking pitchers to the cleaners with a very aggressive approach of his own, which might be something that can be exploited. Pitchers may want to extend that same caution to Marte and Desmond.