Mar
10

Do hitters benefit by being aggressive on the first pitch?

By

A few weeks ago, an article by broadcaster John Sciambi made its rounds. In it he talked about broadcasters and statistics, but one anecdote stuck out. It involved a conversation with Chipper Jones, in which Sciambi wondered whether Jones wold be better off taking the first pitch more often. Jones, as Sciambi found out via FanGraphs, saw the second lowest percentage of first pitch strikes in the league. Could it hurt to start taking more on 0-0 counts, then?

The ensuing saga provided not only entertainment, but plenty of knowledge. Kevin Kaduk of Big League Stew asked Jones about the first pitch situation, and Jones came back with an excellent reply.

“There are certain pitchers, quite frankly, that you can’t get behind,” Jones said. “You want to be aggressive and the first hittable fastball that you get is the pitch you want to put in play. Because they’ll bury you if they get ahead of you. You can’t let them do that.”

This led Dave Allen to do a quick study, in which he graphed Chipper’s first-pitch swinging tendencies. Just as Chipper tells it, he swings more often at the first pitch when a good pitcher is on the mound, while he takes more against lesser pitchers. It didn’t stop there, though. Allen later found out that the average hitter does not share Chipper’s tendencies. This makes sense, of course, because Chipper is far better than an average hitter. But even when Allen further broke down the study, he found that even hitters comparable to Jones did not share his tendency.

Of course, my summary here won’t do the saga justice. If you’re going to geek out this afternoon, I’d suggest reading through the linked articles. None is too long, and each is well worth the time. I’m not sure if others will adopt Chipper’s strategy, but I’ve certainly implemented it in The Show.

Categories : Analysis
  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

    Here’s the problem with the Chipper quote/concept, though:

    Chipper’s claiming he’s more aggressive–i.e. more prone to swing at the first pitch–against a good pitcher because “if you let them get ahead of you they’ll bury you”.

    But if Chipper is passive on the first pitch, he may end up taking a strike, and then he’s behind the pitcher (not good). However, if he swings at the first pitch and doesn’t hit it (i.e. swings and misses or fouls it off), he’s also behind 0-1 and in the same spot he would have been if he took it.

    Here’s the possible outcomes:
    1. Swing and get a hit (PA over)
    2. Swing and make an out (PA over)
    3. Swing and miss (down 0-1)
    4. Swing and hit a foul ball (down 0-1)
    5. Don’t swing and take a strike (down 0-1)
    6. Don’t swing and take a ball (up 1-0)

    There’s two outcomes for not swinging: one good, one bad. There’s four outcomes for swinging: one good, three bad. The ratios of how often those various 6 outcomes happen will vary from pitcher to pitcher, but if Chipper’s rationale is “This is a good pitcher, I need to not fall behind on the count on him”, swinging at Pitch #1 will never allow him to get ahead on the count.

    To paraphrase Manny Ramirez, just try to swing at good pitches and try not to swing at bad ones, regardless of the pitcher or the situation.

    • radnom

      i’m not sure this presents a flaw in Chipper’s strategy as you claim.


      There’s two outcomes for not swinging: one good, one bad. There’s four outcomes for swinging: one good, three bad.

      Not only does this not take into account the ratio of how often each outcome occurs (which you admit varies by pitcher) but it masks the fact that the one good outcome for swinging (getting on base) is much much better than the other possible good outcome (getting ahead in the count).

      What Chipper is saying is that great pitchers give fewer opportunities for the one good outcome (getting on base) so it makes sense to jump at that opportunity when it comes – even if that happens to be on the first pitch. Against lesser pitchers, he can afford to be more patient and let a hittable pitch go by in order to let the pitcher work himself into trouble (in hopes of getting an even better pitch).


      To paraphrase Manny Ramirez, just try to swing at good pitches and try not to swing at bad ones, regardless of the pitcher or the situation.

      What works for some people doesn’t work for others. Some hitters try to guess what is coming every pitch, others would prefer just to react. Different styles.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

        Sure. All I’m saying is, Chipper’s concept of why he should swing at the first pitch may be like Jorge’s pissing on his hands: it may not work exactly like he thinks it does, or at all.

        Good pitchers are good pitchers because they can throw the ball where they want when they want. These good pitchers Chipper is facing probably know he likes to swing at the first pitch against them since he’s trying to avoid getting in the hole and thinks he’s only going to get one good pitch to hit, so they’re probably throwing him first pitch balls that get just close enough to the plate that he’s swinging at it (to avoid falling behind) and hitting it weakly/offcenter for a foul Strike 1.

        Meaning he’s swinging at the first pitch to avoid getting a called Strike 1, when what he’s actually getting is a foul Strike 1 that would have been a called Ball 1 had he not reflexively taken it. Perhaps being a little less aggressive and a little more selective would result in him getting ahead more often.

        Or perhaps unpredictability is just the best strategy, as game theory often suggests. The best tendency is to not have tendencies.

        • radnom

          See but he didn’t say he swings at the first pitch just for the sake of getting ahead – what he said was that against better pitchers he looks to put the “first hittable fastball” into play, which explains the increase in first pitch swings which is merely a symptom of this strategy.

          Could this strategy be exploited if the pitcher knows about it? Yes, but then again so can any strategy (as you alluded to). But at its core, making more of an effort to put the first ‘hittable pitch’ into play against pitchers who throw less hittable pitches is a solid premise. I think you are getting caught up on the first pitch thing, which is merely a side effect of this strategy.

          • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

            I think you are getting caught up on the first pitch thing, which is merely a side effect of this strategy.

            Well, that’s what we’re talking about here, though.

            Perhaps the problem is, as you alluded to, Chipper was asked about “Should you swing at the first pitch less?” and his answer was “Try not to fall behind and hit the first good fastball you see, even if it’s the first pitch”… which is true, but not really an answer to the question asked.

            Chipper’s speaking in generalities about all situations, while the interviewer (and us) are speaking about specifics in one situation. Fallacy of the Four Terms.

            • radnom

              Agreed, we are on the same page here, but I don’t think you can talk about one without the other.

              This is how I would sum up what happened:

              Reporter: “Hey, I noticed you swing at first pitches a lot, what is up with that?”

              Chipper: “Well actually, that is simply something that results from a strategy I employ against certain types of pitchers” (and then he explains that strategy which does answer this question asked. Any other answer would be incomplete, because swinging at the first pitch is inconsequential to the strategy he talked about)

              You: “Well, the strategy of swinging more often at the first pitch has some holes” (which I agree with)

              Me: “The whole ‘swinging at the first pitch thing’ was simply what led to the strategy being noticed by a reporter, it is not the goal or driving force behind what Chipper claims to be doing. His overall premise is sound.

              • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

                Works for me. Now that that’s settled, let’s eat, I’m hungry.

                http://www.hooters.com

                Mondesi, you in? We’re gettin’ wings!
                Pat, you in? We’re gettin’ skanks!

                • king of fruitless hypotheticals

                  I don’t think you allude to there tommie boy…i think you can allude or you can ‘to which you were alluding’ but there is no allude to.

                  -kofh

                  ps-coincidentally, i’m heading out for wings and skanks this very moment!

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

        Not only does this not take into account the ratio of how often each outcome occurs (which you admit varies by pitcher) but it masks the fact that the one good outcome for swinging (getting on base) is much much better than the other possible good outcome (getting ahead in the count).

        It also masks the fact that one of the bad outcomes (hitting the ball weakly and making an out) is much, much worse than all the other bad or good outcomes. So, it’s a little more balanced, perhaps.

        • radnom

          Perhaps, but that good outcome (getting on base) is much ‘more good’ than even that bad outcome because of how much more rare getting on base is than making out (especially against great pitchers).

          All of the other outcomes (besides getting on base or making out) are merely increasing/decreasing the chances of landing on one of those two, final outcomes anyway.

        • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

          Agreed. If you’re facing a pitcher who gives up an opponent’s obp of .292 (CC last year), you’re going to make an out 70% of the time. It’s better to make that out after seeing 3 or 4 pitches than after seeing 1.

          • radnom

            But its much much better to get on base after one pitch than to see two extra pitches and make out. Without running the numbers to quantify these ratios/benefits its hard to make an argument either way on this.

          • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

            It’s better to make that out after seeing 3 or 4 pitches than after seeing 1.

            That’s the other part of this: Good pitchers are going to make you make an out far more often than you get a hit/reach base. (Hell, bad pitchers also make you make an out more often than you reach base, just at a smaller ratio. But I digest.) And the general range of successful outcomes on balls hit in play (plus foulouts and homers) is still well below 50% even for good hitters; even successfully getting the bat on the ball often results in an out made.

            There is a benefit of making those outs that even good hitters are bound to make with the greatest amount of pitches used, so that the pitcher tires/fatigues and either loses effectiveness or is removed from the game, almost invariably for a less-talented pitcher.

            • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

              But I digest

              It wasn’t the burrito was it?

              • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

                Nope… it’s still not done.

                Regrettably.

          • ROBTEN

            If I’m reading the last article correctly, it would seem to verify this point. The key passage in the last article is (with the even more central part highlighted):

            This would suggest that swinging at first pitches more often against good pitchers is a good idea. But only if you have a good idea whether the ball will be in the zone or not, because the disadvantage of swinging at a first pitch out of the zone is just so great.

            In other words, given that against exceptional to very good pitchers the likelihood of getting on base on the first pitch is so low, regardless of whether or not you swing, that it is still in the hitter’s benefit to try to see more pitches and thus avoid swinging on the first pitch. Unless you are almost certain that you know what’s coming, it seems you’d still be better off taking the first pitch.

          • Bo

            Thats assuming with a pitcher like CC you will see 3 good pitches. The best may be #1.

            • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

              If the 1st pitch is a good pitch to hit, swing away. But don’t swing at the first pitch just because it’s the 1st pitch.

              As a Yankee fan, I would rejoice if every batter swung at CC’s first pitch every at-bat.

            • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

              Let’s recap:

              Steve H. said:
              If you’re facing a pitcher who gives up an opponent’s obp of .292 (CC last year), you’re going to make an out 70% of the time. It’s better to make that out after seeing 3 or 4 pitches than after seeing 1.

              Your response:
              Thats assuming with a pitcher like CC you will see 3 good pitches.

              No, Bo, it’s not assuming that. It’s not assuming that at all. What Steve is saying is, regardless of whether CC gives you 1 good pitch or 4 or none at all, you’re going to make an out way more often than not, and making that out after using more pitches is better than making that out after using just one pitch.

              What Steve said and what you said have literally nothing to do with each other. As always, you’re replying to shit that nobody is talking about, poorly.

    • ethan

      well yes, your final sentence is correct but doesn’t tell the whole story. Are there certain situations where you should be more likely to swing at borderline pitches? Obviously, there is. Once you have two strikes, for example, not swinging can result in an out as well as swinging, and we should expect increased aggressiveness. I would think the key is what’s the Run Expectancy when Batter X faces Pitcher Y on an 0-0 count vs. 0-1, 1-0, etc. Problem is I’d think your sample size would be too small to generate any reliable conclusions as to whether it’s a good idea or not.

    • pete

      true, but remember, getting a hit against a good pitcher >>>>>>> getting ahead 1-0 against a good pitcher. Good pitchers also tend to be “good” partially by route of constantly getting ahead – mostly by throwing first pitch strikes. Thus the chances of seeing a firm strike (i.e. a pitch your body will jump on automatically if it is in swing mode, rather than a pitch that your mind has to tell your body to swing at) are much higher at the beginning of the AB than towards the end, when the pitcher uses the pitches he has already thrown as well as the count to throw off your body’s natural inclinations.

      Hitters who are truly gifted in terms of their ability to hit the ball squarely (the jeters, ramirez’s, canos, chippers, etc.) are likely to benefit from Chipper’s strategy because A) they are more likely than most hitters to get a hit when swinging at a pitch they like, and B) they have attained that level of hitting prowess because they simply don’t have to think about whether a pitch is a ball or a strike – if it looks good to them, their hands will swing “automatically”.

      I think Chipper’s “strategy” is essentially to go up to the plate without any strategy whatsoever – while against weaker pitchers it might work better to try to work the count and set yourself up, better pitchers aren’t going to allow that to happen, especially against a dangerous hitter like Chipper. They will do everything in their power to get ahead quickly, and, in Chipper’s words, “bury you” quickly. So Chipper goes up against good pitchers as if he is hitting batting practice, planning on doing nothing but swinging, and trusting that his hands will react to balls out of the zone and not swing, rather than risk having to play catch-up by taking the first pitch.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

        I think Chipper’s “strategy” is essentially to go up to the plate without any strategy whatsoever – while against weaker pitchers it might work better to try to work the count and set yourself up, better pitchers aren’t going to allow that to happen, especially against a dangerous hitter like Chipper. They will do everything in their power to get ahead quickly, and, in Chipper’s words, “bury you” quickly. So Chipper goes up against good pitchers as if he is hitting batting practice, planning on doing nothing but swinging, and trusting that his hands will react to balls out of the zone and not swing, rather than risk having to play catch-up by taking the first pitch.

        That.

        • ROBTEN

          This might be late, but isn’t that the definition of a strategy — approach weaker pitchers with the assumption that you are not pressured to swing, while approaching better pitchers with the idea that you have to swing.

          It might be semantics, but it seems to me that while most hitters have some kind of strategy for how to approach each at bat he has further refined that strategy to focus on how to approach particular at-bats in relation to specific types of pitchers.

          A “non-strategy” would actually, I think, be more of a “guessing” approach (i.e., speculating what a particular pitch will be within a given at-bat) regardless of who is on the mound. In other words, Chipper is essentially defining his strategy by general trends than an at-bat by at-bat basis.

  • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

    In a way, Chipper is also shooting himself in the foot by swinging at the first pitch is he’s saving that pitchers bullets. The less pitches you see from a great pitcher, the less chance of getting to the bullpen. It’s a catch-22. Pedro circo-1999-200, do you swing early at the first pitch, or do you almost always fall behind 0-1 because he had such great command and allow him to further abuse you with any pitch in his repertoire? When a pitcher is truly great, and he’s on, there’s no good answer.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

      Yup.

      Good pitching always beats good hitting, and vice versa.

      • Tom Zig

        half of the game is 90% mental?

        • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

          I voted for it before I voted against it?

          • Tom Zig

            I never said most of the things I said?

            • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

              Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.

              • ROBTEN

                There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.

                • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

                  Heh. The sad part of that quote is that Rummy left out the most important one: The unknown knowns.

                  The things the didn’t know that they knew.

                  Had that administration simply known what they actually knew, the world of today may have turned out much better.

                • king of fruitless hypotheticals

                  as a rwnj, i protest:

                  there’s no way to know what could be better, because it hasnt happened yet!

                • ROBTEN

                  Heh. The sad part of that quote is that Rummy left out the most important one: The unknown knowns.

                  The things the didn’t know that they knew.

                  Heh. I was going to add that, but decided to stick to the specific quote. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Slavoj Zizek, but he’s a philosopher who does a reading of Rumsfeld’s leaving that part of the equation out.

    • pete

      i think it’s senseless to try to wear out pitchers with great command and stuff like that. Not to say that it’s senseless to wear them out, just that no strategy has a good chance of working, and since hitters have a much higher chance of getting a hit against a great pitcher (or most great pitchers, anyway) than they do of getting a walk, you might as well try to improve your chances of getting a hit the most by allowing yourself to swing from the highest selection, rather than narrowing it down to fewer pitches, many of which will now be coming on 0-1 counts rather than 1-0 counts.

  • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

    Chipper has always been very aggressive, even at Hooters.

    • Tom Zig

      Is he a cheap tipper?

      • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

        Very light tipper the first time around, but 9 months later he pays out in the millions.

  • http://twitter.com/tafkasic the artist formerly known as (sic)

    JoePawl, do you have The Show 2010? do you like it?

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

      On-topic follow up question:

      JoePow, if theoretically you did have The Show 2010 and played with the 2010 Atlanta Braves in that game, would you have the video game version of Chipper Jones in that video game aggressively swing at the first pitch against good pitchers, or would you be more selective and work the count against those The Show 2010 video game pitchers? I’d love to know, as I think this tangential video-game related insight may shed some useful perspective on this real-world conversation about swinging at the first pitch, Chipper Jones, elite pitchers, and game theory.

      Thanks in advance for your input.

      Sincerely,
      the artist formerly known as (sic)

      • http://twitter.com/tafkasic the artist formerly known as (sic)

        Whoa, I didn’t notice that RAB made you one of the official authors! Congratulations! When are they going to put your name on the sidebar?

        Looking forward to your first post…

        • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

          You missed it: it was my Heyman takedown.

          Oh, and I’m not an official RAB author… I’m just awesome. I see how you got confused, don’t be too hard on yourself.

          • http://twitter.com/tafkasic the artist formerly known as (sic)

            You’re confusing awesome with verbose and condescending. And I’m a TSJC fan.

            • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

              Heh.

              You’re confusing awesome with verbose and condescending.

              Veronica Corningstone: My God. What is that smell?
              Brian Fantana: That’s the smell of desire, m’lady.
              Veronica: God, no, it smells like… like a used diaper filled with Indian food! Oh! Excuse me.
              Brian: Desire smells like that to some people.

              • http://twitter.com/tafkasic the artist formerly known as (sic)

                Hey lets keep it on topic! I wouldn’t want anyone to be distracted from the awesome real-world conversation about swinging at the first pitch, Chipper Jones, elite pitchers, and game theory John Kerry, Donald Rumsfeld and Hooters.

                • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

                  Me replying to someone else’s on-topic comment with a humorous aside is quite different than you starting a new unprompted off-topic conversation about videogames in the middle of a post not about videogames.

                  And for the record, I’m a the artist formerly known as (sic) fan.

                • pete

                  i can’t handle all of this passive aggressive politeness. i need to go to lohud to get my personal attack on

                • Templeton “Brendog” Peck

                  pete, you brought the sizzle to this fight.

                • http://twitter.com/tafkasic the artist formerly known as (sic)

                  In re: TSJC

                  I disagree, but its all good. I think when this blows over, we should move in together.

                  /champ’d
                  //TSJC’d
                  ///truce’d

                • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

                  Alright, buddy… you can come to Hooters with us too.

      • radnom


        I’m not sure if others will adopt Chipper’s strategy, but I’ve certainly implemented it in The Show.

        I’m sure he is working on a detailed report on his findings.

  • JC

    Anyone know when yankee single game tickets go on sale?

    • radnom

      Last week. Already sold out, but I managed to snag a few.

      • JC

        Hilarious

    • http://mystiqueandaura.com Steve H

      This is like deja vu all over again.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a The Large Sample Size

        I feel like Vince Lombardi:

        WHAT THE HELL’S GOIN’ ON AROUND HERE?