In his postgame notes from last night, Journal News beat writer Chad Jennings observed that the Yanks are swinging at pitches earlier in counts. He does note that he doesn’t have the numbers to back it up, and after scouring splits of every sort this morning I couldn’t find much either. What’s interesting, though, is Joe Girardi‘s reaction to Jennings’s observation.
“At times guys will do that,” Girardi said. “If you go up and take the first pitch all the time, just throw strike one and now you’re ahead of our hitters. I think hitters can’t fall into just one pattern of hitting. At times they have to be aggressive.”
The Yankees have long been a patient team. For years they featured hitters like Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, and Bobby Abreu, guys who would work the count and wait for their pitch. Even after those three departed the team still features a number of patient hitters. Nick Swisher has long been known for working long counts, and Brett Gardner has emerged as someone who can not only take a pitch, but also foul off two-strike pitches not to his liking.
As Girardi said, this comes with unintended consequences. Aggressive pitchers could throw one over for strike one and pitch ahead for the rest of the at-bat. I’m sure we all remember games where the Yankees faced someone they should have beaten — or in my case, regularly beat — but can’t get anything going because the pitcher won’t play their game. I remember a start a few years ago where Josh Beckett threw strike one nearly every time, and the Yanks hitters just couldn’t keep up when he threw them a steady diet of breaking pitches later in the AB.
Has this changed lately, though? Looking at the team’s pitches per plate appearance, that doesn’t exactly appear to be the case. In April the team saw 3.98 pitches per plate appearances, and that number is down to just 3.91 in May, and 3.93 in the past week. That doesn’t represent much of a change. Most of it, I’m sure, comes from Nick Johnson‘s absence, though a number of guys, including Marcus Thames, have worked a few deeper counts in May.
Of course, pitches per plate appearance doesn’t tell the whole story. Guys might be swinging at the first pitch and missing, or otherwise fouling it away. They’d still be swinging at the first pitch, but they might end up working a deeper count because nothing happened on that first pitch. Another place we can look is FanGraphs’ first-pitch strikes. This is defined as either the ball being put in play or the count being 0-1. Flaws abound here, too, as a called strike one counts. We’re looking for swinging.
Just because it’s interesting, the Yankees saw a first-pitch strike in 57.9 percent of their April plate appearances, but just 55.7 percent in May. This suggests, if nothing else, that the Yankees are taking ball one a bit more in May. What we don’t know, and what I can’t readily find, is how those strike ones break down. Maybe there were a lot more called strike ones in April, leading the Yanks to be a bit more aggressive in May and swing at strike one more. That’s data I just can’t find, though.
Anecdotally, it would seem to be a positive if the Yankees are adjusting and swinging earlier in the count. As a general principle the correct approach is to remain patient, but if pitchers try to take advantage and start slipping by strike one, the hitters have to adjust. From what Jennings has observed and Girardi has confirmed, the team is doing just that. The data we have doesn’t exactly line up with that anecdote, but we also don’t have a perfect measure.