Has the first-pitch take become a losing strategy?
By Dave Cameron FanGraphs
When a major-league hitter has swung at the first pitch of an at-bat in 2014, the average OPS in that at-bat — not just OPS on first-pitch swings, but the OPS for all at-bats in which there was a first-pitch swing — is .710.
The average OPS for an at-bat in which the batter does not swing is .708. For all intents and purposes, that is a statistical tie and suggests that there has been no obvious advantage to pursuing either approach this year.
If this lasts, it would mark the first season since 1988 where the OPS on at-bats with a first-pitch swing was higher than the OPS on at-bats with a first-pitch take. For most of the last 25 years, it hasn't even been close.
From 1988 to 2011, the advantage of the first-pitch take was consistent and constant. There were years where the advantage wasn't enormous — in 2001, the gap in OPS was only seven points, and it was just nine points in 2004 — but the blue line and red line never really came that close to intersecting until 2012.
That year, the gap fell to just two points, which still stands as the lowest recorded advantage for the first-pitch take over a full season in the last 25 years. Last year, the advantage jumped back up to six points, but that was still lower than any season prior to 2012. This year, the gap has not only disappeared, but it's reversed course for the first time.
From 1988 to 2011, the average OPS in an at-bat when a batter took the first pitch was .752, and only .725 if the batter swung at the first pitch; a 27-point gap overall. Since the start of the 2012 season, those numbers are .718 and .714 respectively, a four-point gap. Compared to 24 years, a little under two and a half seasons is a smaller sample, but still with a total of 441,000-plus plate appearances over these last few years.
While a one-year disappearance of the gap could have been considered an aberration, at this point, it can only be considered a trend.
What could be driving this change? Many prominent writers have speculated that the modern hitter is simply too passive, too willing to stare at a hittable first pitch in an effort to "work the count" and curry favor with the OBP-loving nerds that populate today's front offices. Perhaps the most vocal scribe on this issue has been Tom Verducci, who wrote the following last year.
Welcome to the state of the art in hitting these days, where aggressiveness is disdained and passivity is exalted. The modern hitter is guided by the accepted wisdom in catchphrases such as “driving up pitch counts,” “taking pitches” and “quality at-bats.” There is one serious flaw in this groupthink strategy.
It isn’t working.
Hitters are striking out more than ever before in baseball history while runs, walks, hits and home runs have been on the decline for years. And while teams still preach the religion of driving up pitch counts to “get into the bullpen” of the other team, they may be pushing an outdated agenda.
I responded to Verducci's claims at FanGraphs, noting that while he's correct about the fact that swing rates on first pitches are down substantially, the rest of the data doesn't support his conclusion. The overall league average swing rate is essentially flat, and has been for 20 years.
Contact rates are essentially unchanged, so the problem isn't that hitters are swinging through more pitches than they have before. The most significant measurable change has come from a dramatic rise in the number of called strikes.
As called strike rates have risen and first pitch swing rates have fallen, the natural result is that more pitchers are getting ahead in the count than they have historically. From 2002 to 2010, the rate of first-pitch strikes held steady between 58-59 percent. In 2011, it went to 59.4 percent, 59.8 percent in 2012, then 60.3 percent last year.
It is again over 60 percent this season, and with more hitters falling behind 0-1 than any time in recent history, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that the outcomes for hitters who take the first pitch have been declining rapidly in this environment.
But are hitters really just taking meatballs down the middle that they used to swing at, and is that really the reason for not only the rise in first-pitch strikes, but the subsequent rise in strikeouts that Rob Neyer continually preaches against?
There isn't reliable, comprehensive pitch-location data prior to the 2008 season, so it's unknown which pitches hitters were getting back in the offensive explosion of the 1990s, but even back in 2008 and '09, first-pitch takes led to substantially better outcomes than first-pitch swings.
What about measuring some differences in swing rates for hitters from 2008 to 2014?
First, here's the league-average swing rate by location for all hitters on the first pitch in 2008.
And here's the same map for 2014.
There are some notable differences in the middle of the plate. In the six boxes that comprise the area that could effectively be described as "middle of the plate and elevated," regardless of whether a left-handed or right-handed batter was hitting, swing rates were about 2 percent higher in 2008 than this year. Those pitches are almost always called strikes, so by not swinging at those, the batter is basically asking the umpire to put him down 0-1.
The data actually supports Verducci's suggestion to some degree, and a case can be made that hitters are being too passive on grooved first pitches. If a pitcher throws an elevated, middle-of-the-plate pitch, try to hit the crap out of it, and worry about working the count next time.
But at the same time, it still must be acknowledged that the rise in strikeouts and the overall dominance of pitchers is not simply a byproduct of hitters trying to see more pitches. There are other factors at play here. Pitcher velocity is trending upwards, and harder thrown pitches are harder to hit, so perhaps the middle-middle pitches of today aren't as meaty as the middle-middle meatballs of a decade ago.
Encouraging hitters to swing at more pitches won't lead to more offense if the pitches they have to swing at aren't in the zone, and if with the growing strike zone, pitchers don't need to be able to throw it over the plate as often as they used to.
The reality is that big changes like this are never just one thing. It's not just pitchers throwing harder, though that probably is a factor. It's not just size of the strike zone, though giving hitters more area to have to cover is a clear benefit to the defense. And it's not just modern hitters taking more first-pitch strikes in an effort to work the count.
But over the last few years, the first-pitch take has all but lost its advantage over the first-pitch swing, and an overly passive approach to attacking hittable 0-0 pitches could be part of the culprit.
Being selective shouldn't be equated with standing there watching a centered, elevated fastball get called for strike one, but maybe major-league hitters have indeed become a little too willing to take a good first pitch, only to strike out before ever seeing another meatball again.