Last week was Retro Week here at RAB, and a trademark of that 1996 Yankees team was their relentless offense. That was the trademark of the entire late-90s dynasty, not just the ’96 team. They’d work the count, grind out at-bats, then get into the soft underbelly of the opposing team’s bullpen. It was an incredibly effective strategy. The offense was fun to watch and not fun to face.
Baseball has changed over the last 20 years, and while working counts and grinding out at-bats is never a bat strategy, middle relievers aren’t a bad as they once were. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before in general, plus teams are matching up more often, so they’re putting their middle relievers in the best position to succeed. Middle relievers now are more effective than they were two decades ago, generally speaking.
But still, we’re conditioned to think working the count is the great way to generate offense even though middle relievers are no longer pushovers. Working the count is good, but there are other ways to generate offense, including swinging early in the count. In fact, the Yankees as a team should maybe consider swinging early in the count — and by early in the count I mean the very first pitch — more often this coming season.
Last year the Yankees swung at the first pitch in 6.14% of their plate appearances compared to the 7.36% league average. Only the Red Sox (5.77%) swung at the first pitch less often. The Yankees as a team hit .303 with a .198 ISO when swinging at the first pitch last year, and .248 with a .169 ISO following the first pitch of the at-bat. The MLB averages were a .340 average and a .213 ISO on the first pitch, and .248 with a .144 ISO thereafter.
That makes sense, right? Hitters swing at the first pitch when they get a really good pitch to hit. Plenty of guys go up to the plate hunting a first pitch fastball or curveball or whatever based on the scouting reports. That’s one of the reasons Brett Gardner‘s power has spiked the last few years. He started ambushing first pitch fastballs. And these days pitchers are throwing more first pitch strikes than ever before. Look:
Do you see what’s going on there? Over the last few seasons — this goes back to 2008, the start of the PitchFX era — pitchers are throwing more first pitch strikes but fewer pitches in the zone overall. It’s a trend too. First pitch strike rate and overall zone rate are headed in opposite directions and have for a few seasons now. Chances are the first pitch of the at-bat will be in the zone. After that? The numbers say it is likely to be out of the zone.
PitchFX data says pitchers throw a first pitch fastball roughly two-thirds of the time, and that’s held pretty constant over the years. I actually though it would be higher than that, but two-thirds of the time it is. I’m sure it’s different for each pitcher. Some guys probably throw a ton of pitch fastballs while others pitch backwards with breaking balls. Masahiro Tanaka seems like a guy who throws a lots of first pitch breaking ball, but I digress.
For the sake of having the information readily available, here is how the returning regular Yankees fared when swinging at the first pitch in 2015, via Baseball Reference:
New addition Starlin Castro put up a .328/.317/.552 (91 OPS+) batting line in 61 plate appearances when he swung at the first pitch last season. Keep in mind we’re talking about a very small sample of plate appearances here. I don’t think these splits have much year-to-year predictive value at all. I don’t think “good first pitch hitter” is a thing that exists.
Anyway, hitters generally do much more damage when they swing at pitches in the zone for pretty obvious reasons. When you swing at something out of the zone, you’re either reaching or getting jammed, and it’s tough to drive a ball with authority that way. Last season batters hit .300 with a .202 ISO on pitches in the zone. It was a .188 average and a .075 ISO on pitches out of the zone. So yeah. Swing at stuff in the zone. And based on PitchFX data, the first pitch of the at-bat is much more likely to be in the zone than any other pitch in the at-bat.
This isn’t to say hitters should always swing at the first pitch. That’s a bad idea. Pitchers aren’t stupid. They’ll pick up on it quickly and adjust. But swinging at the first pitch a little more often isn’t a bad idea. Like I said, only one team swung at the first pitch less often than the Yankees last year, and the Yankees will have almost the same exact lineup in 2016 than they did in 2015. Castro’s the only new regular. They can change the scouting report a bit and start punishing pitchers when they try to steal a strike with a first pitch heater.
Working the count and driving up the pitcher’s pitch count is awesome. The Yankees won a lot of titles doing exactly that. The game is changing though, and getting into the bullpen isn’t as effective as it was 20 years ago, especially in the postseason when teams use only their best relievers. Gardner started hunting first pitch fastballs a few years back and his power output nearly doubled. If the rest of the lineup picks their spots and jumps on the first pitch a little more often, the result could be a nice boost for the offense in 2016.