The importance of getting ahead of hitters is stressed to pitchers from the first time they play in a non-coach-pitch league. It’s not what happens on the pitch immediately following a first pitch strike, it’s because the numbers for the rest of the at bat sway dramatically in the pitcher’s favor.
|AB after 1st Pitch Strike||.223||.338||.115|
These are league averages, but for the most part they apply to individual hitters as well. Paul Goldschmidt is not a “league average” hitter, in fact, he is at least in the conversation when discussing the best hitter in baseball right now (2015) – and I only say at least because I’m too afraid of the backlash I might receive if I declared him the best. But regardless if a pitcher is facing an average hitter or an elite hitter, the law of getting ahead applies – even if the numbers for Goldschmidt do look a bit different from the table of above.
|After 1st Pitch Strike||.288||.465||.177|
Paul Goldschimdt is just so strong, and so adept at making hard contact to all parts of the field that, even at his worst, he’s still so much better than other professional hitters. The results clearly show that he’s a lesser version of himself throughout the duration of an at-bat that starts with a first-pitch strike, but here’s the thing: getting a first-pitch strike on Goldschmidt isn’t easy. Not only is he discerning, but he is so devastatingly destructive when he sees something he likes. Pitchers have gotten a first pitch strike against Goldschmidt 56.7% this season (league average is 61.1%). In 471 PA, Paul Goldschmidt has only swung 126 times at first pitches, or 26.8%. It could be said that Paul Goldschmidt “goes to bat with a plan”. But it’s not like pitchers’ game plans will stand idle while Goldschmidt continues to pummel them; they will make adjustments, and one adjustment they have made, because the pay-off is so dramatic, lies in figuring out how to get ahead of him.
First, let’s consider two samples from Goldschmidt’s 2015 – through July 3rd of this year Paul Goldschmidt put up MVP numbers:
April 6 – July 3:
Since then, however, he has hit like someone who just might be mortal:
July 4 – August 4:
So what course of action have pitchers taken to get ahead of him in the count? The answer lies in the conveniently bolded numbers featured in the CB% column of the table below.
Numbers represent the usage of pitches in all first-pitch situations to Paul Goldschmidt.
Obviously there’s been an uptick of a larger percentage in split fingers for first pitches, but a hell of a lot more pitchers throw curveballs than splitters, so that value is not really important. What is important is that 119.5% increase in first-pitch curveballs, because Paul Goldschmidt SPITS at first pitch curveballs. He saw twenty-eight, 1st pitch curveballs in the sample size concluding July 3rd and swung at a grand total of 1 of them. Since then, in a month, he’s seen 20, first-pitch curveballs and has swung at exactly 0 of them.
Goldschmidt is looking for something hard-ish (fastball/slider/change-up; league average change up velo is 83.3 compared to 77.7 for curveballs and 84.2 for sliders) that he can drive on the first pitch, and knows he can lay off curveballs to sacrifice a first-pitch strike and still be an above-average hitter. For the record, it’s not like Goldschmidt is bad against curveballs; he owns a 3.31 wCB/C in 2015 (3.79 through July 3rd, and 2.16 after), it’s just that he’s committed to his plan. Pitchers – or analysts – have noticed his disregard for curveballs as first pitches, and the pitchers – not the analysts – have twirled curveballs in to Goldschmidt on the first pitch at a much higher rate over the last month – again, that number is 119.5% more often. While the strike percentage of these curveballs has only been 45%, that’s still up from the 28% of curveballs for first-pitch strikes through July 3rd.
Conjecture alert: Perhaps expecting more first-pitch curveballs, Paul Goldschmidt has readied himself to not swing at the first pitch, as he has swung at just 25.3% of non-curveball first pitches since July 4th, compared to 32.9% through July 3rd. Pitchers have been able to sneak their first pitch strike percentage up against Goldy from 55.9% to 59.5% in this past month – that’s a 6.4% increase. So it seems as though the best way to beat Paul Goldschmidt is to try to find some way to make him swing the bat less, because when he does, bad things happen to baseballs. For clarification, I’m talking about throwing him more first pitch curveballs, not walking him every time up.
Paul Goldschmidt is so good that he will probably adjust to this new approach fairly quickly. I said earlier, “he knows he can lay off curveballs to sacrifice a first-pitch strike and still be an above-average hitter” – Paul Goldschmidt’s aim is not to be a player who is an above-average hitter – he’s a force at the plate and he will adjust. Health permitting, Goldschmidt will likely finish the season with at least a .300 AVG, 100 R scored, 30 HR, 100 RBI, and 20 SB – a line we haven’t seen from a first baseman since Jeff Bagwell did it in 1999.
So as Goldschmidt adjusts to this new attack from pitchers, maybe the real number to take away from this research is that Goldschmidt is partying like it’s 1999.