First pitch swinging

There were a couple ways to describe the Tigers approach at the plate in 2006. The optimist might say they were aggressive, the pessimist might say they were hack-tastic. I guess one measure of this might be their propensity for swinging at the first pitch.

Now with the first pitch, 4 things can happen. There are two take events, a called ball or a called strike. There are also two swinging states, the batter can have put the ball in play or be sitting with an 0-1 count. At various times during the season I saw stats on TV broadcasts or in the paper that show how well certain Tigers did when hitting the first pitch, but that data neglected to take into account the swings and misses (or fouls).

The table below shows the frequency of the 4 first pitch outcomes for the Tigers:

First Pitch Results

			Called	Swinging	Swing	In Play Rate
Tiger		Ball	strike	strike	In Play	rate	(when swinging)	1-0%	0-1%
Shelton		187	149	48	27	18%	36%		45%	48%
Polanco		197	195	40	62	21%	61%		40%	48%
Inge		242	224	88	45	22%	34%		40%	52%
Casey		78	72	27	16	22%	37%		40%	51%
Granderson	298	213	109	56	24%	34%		44%	48%
Clevlen		21	10	8	3	26%	27%		50%	43%
Infante		81	82	40	41	33%	51%		33%	50%
Guillen		254	153	127	77	33%	38%		42%	46%
Stairs		19	10	11	4	34%	27%		43%	48%
Wilson		56	51	38	23	36%	38%		33%	53%
Santiago	32	22	14	17	36%	55%		38%	42%
Thames		163	82	98	45	37%	31%		42%	46%
Ordonez		257	133	139	113	39%	45%		40%	42%
Rodriguez	197	152	131	95	39%	42%		34%	49%
Monroe		222	126	152	82	40%	35%		38%	48%
Perez		21	20	12	17	41%	59%		30%	46%
Young		74	32	48	29	42%	38%		40%	44%
Gomez		39	25	21	26	42%	55%		35%	41%
Team		2438	1751	1151	778	32%	40%		40%	47%

As you can see the Tiger hitters swing at first pitch on roughly one out of every 3 plate appearances. This varies widely throughout the team though with Pudge Rodriguez and Craig Monroe swinging twice as often as Chris Shelton and Placido Polanco.

Now first pitch swinging isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All hitters putting the ball in play on the first pitch hit 341/341/555. As a team the Tigers bettered this mark significantly by hitting 395/377/615.

Results when first pitch is put in play:
Shelton		.370	.370	.741
Polanco		.368	.362	.404
Inge		.395	.372	.628
Casey		.400	.375	.533
Granderson	.491	.463	.679
Clevlen		.000	.000	.000
Infante		.500	.463	.550
Guillen		.408	.390	.724
Stairs		.750	.750	1.750
Wilson		.263	.263	.526
Santiago	.438	.438	.563
Thames		.318	.311	.727
Ordonez		.360	.345	.550
Rodriguez	.411	.396	.622
Monroe		.413	.390	.688
Perez		.250	.250	.250
Young		.379	.345	.690
Gomez		.400	.360	.480
Team		.395	.377	.612

So putting the first pitch in play seems to work for pretty much the whole team. But what happens in the rest of the at-bat when swinging at the first pitch? Putting the ball in play on the first pitch only accounts for 13% of the plate appearances. It turns out that the Tigers have better results when swinging at the first pitch, even when they don’t put the ball in play.

Full PA results when swinging at first pitch
Tiger		BA	OBP	SLG	K-Rate	BB Rate
Shelton		.310	.347	.507	21%	4%
Polanco		.344	.347	.385	3%	0%
Inge		.282	.300	.532	21%	3%
Casey		.317	.326	.415	9%	2%
Granderson	.290	.304	.465	30%	1%
Clevlen		.200	.200	.200	36%	0%
Infante		.346	.358	.436	11%	2%
Guillen		.342	.373	.600	13%	4%
Stairs		.357	.400	.714	33%	7%
Wilson		.283	.309	.491	13%	2%
Santiago	.241	.241	.310	13%	0%
Thames		.272	.301	.735	27%	3%
Ordonez		.282	.294	.461	14%	2%
Rodriguez	.330	.333	.514	12%	1%
Monroe		.302	.312	.547	20%	2%
Perez		.143	.143	.143	3%	0%
Young		.264	.312	.583	14%	6%
Gomez		.244	.261	.356	21%	2%
Team		.300	.317	.510	17%	2%

Full PA results when  taking first pitch
Tiger		BA	OBP	SLG	K-Rate	BB Rate
Shelton		.265	.338	.457	27%	9%
Polanco		.282	.324	.359	6%	4%
Inge		.244	.317	.443	21%	8%
Casey		.224	.275	.350	11%	6%
Granderson	.251	.346	.432	24%	13%
Clevlen		.310	.355	.793	35%	6%
Infante		.238	.307	.401	22%	7%
Guillen		.309	.414	.476	14%	15%
Stairs		.185	.241	.333	24%	7%
Wilson		.277	.295	.406	23%	1%
Santiago	.216	.245	.235	18%	2%
Thames		.245	.352	.429	22%	13%
Ordonez		.310	.386	.489	13%	10%
Rodriguez	.280	.331	.387	16%	7%
Monroe		.222	.293	.437	23%	9%
Perez		.243	.300	.270	7%	7%
Young		.242	.283	.283	25%	6%
Gomez		.293	.359	.414	17%	8%
Team		.264	.336	.422	19%	9%

While the walk rate takes a huge hit when swinging at the first pitch, the slugging percentage and batting average are significantly higher. What’s more, there isn’t a significant different in strike out rates when swinging on the first pitch.

This actually meshes somewhat with work that Sal Baxamusa did for the Hardball Times. Sal took a look at what happens on 1-1 counts, and found that it matters how you get to the 1-1 count:

Consider the above case of the 1-1 count. When the first pitch is a ball and the second pitch a strike (called, swinging, or foul), batters have a line of .243/.312/.378. Curiously, batters perform better when the all-important first pitch is a strike and the second pitch is a ball; they hit at a .257/.314/.402. That’s a 25-point difference in OPS; not world-breaking but statistically significant (p<0.001 for you stat wonks) nevertheless. The path taken to reach the 1-1 count is important: better to throw a first-pitch strike in general, but better to throw a second-pitch strike if the count is going to 1-1 regardless.

He also found that hitters getting that first strike via a foul rather than a swing and a miss had the advantage. Looking at the Tigers and their swinging 0-1 counts, they were the result of fouls 65% of the time.

Now of course this data doesn’t mean it is a good idea to always swing at the first pitch. For one thing, chasing pitches outside the strike zone isn’t going to help the cause. If batters swing early every time it takes the pressure off the pitcher to get that first pitch strike so getting those good pitches to hit on the first pitch will become tougher. Then there is the issue of working the pitcher, and running up pitch counts, and waiting for those mistake pitches. Although with a slugging percentage over .500 one could make the case that a pitcher will get chased early anyways.

Now this isn’t to say that the Tigers lack of patience is okay. There very out-of-whack K:BB ratio is still evidence of that. What we do see is that the first pitch swinging didn’t have the adverse effect that many of us (myself included) thought it did.

UPDATE: Noticed that Guillen & Infante’s names were reversed in the tables. This has been corrected.

The Book Blog has all the data on performance by pitch count, including pass through counts. And the bulk of the data of course came from Retrosheet, so here’s the blurb: The information used here was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by Retrosheet. Interested parties may contact Retrosheet at “”.

For the sake of completeness, here are the links to the other 2 articles done here: More on First Pitch Swinging – Runners on Base and Even More on First Pitch Swinging – Starters vs Relievers

9 thoughts on “First pitch swinging”

  1. This is very interesting Bill. I go nuts when broadcasters talk about stats when swinging at the first pitch without talking about the full plate appearance. So, it was good to see you do just that. It is good to see that the Tigers *may* actually be benefitting in some ways from their first pitch swinging. One of my first thoughts though is whether their poor k/BB ratio is causing them to get more good first pitches to hit. Is this ability to hit on first pitch actually the result of their poor plate discipline?

  2. It seems to me that if a certain player (or entire team) has a reputation for swinging at first pitches, it would benefit the opposing pitcher to make pitches on the corners to try to get them to chase a bad pitch instead of grooving a fastball to them.

    For example, if Pudge is at the plate I’d want to start him off with a breaking ball away because he just might chase it. If I was pitching to somebody that took a ton of pitches, a first pitch fastball to get ahead 0-1 would be a nice option.

  3. All these stats are good and nice but when it comes right down to it there are ways to have at-bats become more efficient. When a pitcher goes 0-1 on a hitter that hitters average dives and even more so (for most) at an 0-2 count. I’d rather have a Travis Haftner up there or Lance Berkman than a Pudge Rodriguez or a Craig Monroe. Heck even Guillen would do.

    I think you have take a look at what makes a talented hitter become sucessful – being able to recognize different types, being able to predict if they will be inside the strike zone, and being able to have bat control (and quickness) to be able to capatizle on ones that are, and being able to lay off ones that aren’t. The guy who does that best by far on our team is Carlos Guillen, and that is why in my opinion he is our MVP hitter. He had a “good eye”, he had good bat control – hits it down each line, and also is not afraid to draw a walk and start a ralley.

    Now for a team to be sucessful you have to have guys like Guillen and Inge(works the count) inorder to tire out pitchers and make the oposing team reach into their bullpen in the first game of a 3 or 4 game set.

    Pitchers dont want to pitch to Guillen because of all of those things, but they know that if they have good command they can strike Pudge, Grandy and Inge out with the high heat, and have Monroe diving for pitches in the dirt.

    I think if Gary is up to snuff and Maggs returns to form somewhat, they can provide some of that and beef up the heart of our order.

    I duno, I think the first strike stuff is overplayed for teams. You have to go on a hitter by hitter basis and see if they have good pitch recognition. If they dont maybe force them into laying off of the first 2 so at least they tire the pitcher out more than they would have if they would have put the first pitch into play and recorded an out.

  4. The way the numbers actually add up is that this teams average drops when they take by 36 points. OPS dives 69 points. Using the a simple RC formula (AB times SLG times OBP)* to get a simple RC/AB, find that the swinging Tigers create .16 runs per AB against .14 when they don’t swing.

    I think the main problem with the whole “swing at the first pitch bad” thing is the assumption that if you don’t swing at the first pitch you start the PA with a 1-0 count. When the Tigers didn’t swing the count was 1-0 only 57% of the time. I’m certain that they swung at more than a few balls on a first swing, but I would bet serious money it wasn’t 57% of the time. In short, if they hadn’t swung in most of those at bats, it would have still been 0-1.

    In fact, if you look at the results when they didn’t swing at the first pitch, the strike out rate went up. Guillen’s even doubled to 22% of the time. On top of this, his BA lost 95 points and his OBP lost 51 points. The extra walks he picked up were more than balanced out by the lost hits.
    * I can justify this.

  5. The real issue is simpler and goes back to the old Ted Williams chart (the baseballs with batting averages on them making up the strike zone). It’s better to take a pitch that’s barely on the corner and go down 0-1 than it is to swing at a pitch that, if put into play, results in an 80% chance of making an out.

    The problem isn’t take or swing on the first pitch; it’s understanding that one should swing at the first pitch if it’s in the wheelhouse, not just if it might be called a strike. You don’t approach the first pitch as if you’re playing Pong, with the attitude that if it might be called a strike it’s important to block the pitch with your bat.

    And that’s what was frustrating–if the pitcher grooves one, swing away. But if the first pitch is a tough one to hit that may or may not be in the strike zone, it’s better to take it. The calculation is different from the situation where there are two strikes and you’ve got to be a lot more defensive.

    Certainly guys like Shelton got too much into taking all first pitches, so they started getting first pitches that were grooved. And other guys like Pudge got too focused on swinging at any pitch that might be called a strike, so he was being given low outside breaking balls aimed for the corner.

  6. I think you also have to look at what point in the game the players are swining at a first pitch. Generally from the 7th inning on, hitters will be facing relief pitching. In that situation, tiring the pitcher out isnt really an issue anymore as they’re not expected to go long anyway. Also, most relief pitchers have only 2 good pitches and work to get ahead early(often with a fastball). In this case, that first pitch is more likely than ever to be a good one.

    Still, I dont mind them swinging at the first pitch, but like Jeff says, swing at a good one, not anything that might be called.

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