For some reason, swinging at the first pitch is something of a divisive act. Like just about everything, it is a largely a product of results. Player swings at first pitch and makes out? Bad idea. Player swings at first pitch and reaches? Aggression is good!

The numbers suggest that swinging at the first pitch is often good for business, even if our mind tricks us into thinking otherwise.

Quite obviously, swinging at the first pitch is contingent on the first offering of the at bat being hittable. Swinging away at just anything a pitcher throws up there is not good for anyone, in any count. But the hitters of the world thrive when they jump on the first pitch, as evidenced below.

The numbers suggest the first pitch is a great time to rake: hitters slug the first pitch at a high rate, much higher than other even counts. Swinging at the first pitch is also wise at it represents a high likelihood of seeing a fastball. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, 57% of the first pitches thrown to qualified hitters were fastballs. 53% of those pitches were in the zone. Fastball in the zone? Pull the trigger, friends.

While the league-wide numbers suggest swinging at the first pitch (if it is a strike) is good on the whole, there are plenty of players who individually excel at hitting first pitches. Matt Kemp has 12 first pitch home runs since the beginning of last year, though Aramis Ramirez leads with 15 first pitch homers. Of Kemp’s 12 long balls, 10 came on fastballs.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Aramis Ramirez also leads with 64 “well hit balls” on first pitches, with Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera and Michael Young (!) rounding out the top five. As a whole, qualified hitters have a .297 Well Hit Average, comparing well to 3-1 counts (.355 Well Hit Average) and 3-0. where hitters have a .424 WHA, though fewer hitter swing 3-0 as a rule. Big leaguers swing at 3-0 pitches just 7.5% of the time, compared to 54.8% of 3-1 pitches. The league swings at the first pitch 25.9% of the time.

The other major advantage of being aggressive with the first pitch seems obvious, when the numbers listed above are considered. Falling behind in the count is deadly. Hitters on the first pitch own a .848 OPS but falls to .603 after falling behind 0-1.

Hitting 1-0 is as beneficial to a hitter’s numbers as falling behind is detrimental. It certainly seems like something worth considering, contrary to what we all told each other in little league. Really, it all comes back to fastballs. More fastballs means more line drives, it would seem.

It is a delicate balance to strike, quite obviously, between aggression and hacking. How a professional hitter can maintain that balance…well that is what makes these guys so good and, eventually, rich. Good hitters post great numbers in just about every count mostly because they’re good hitters, the count is just the framing device. A good approach needs to be applied at all times: see a pitch in your zone and drive it. Simple, right? I’ll just sit here by the phone, waiting for the roving hitting instructor job offers to roll in.

Hat tip to ESPN Stats & Info for some of the, um, stats and information used here.

Comments (7)

  1. This is one of the most frustrating complaints I hear from other fans at the park. A first pitch swing resulting in an out is never forgiven it seems. On several occasions they’ve lamented the very act after the last AB where the player swung at the first pitch resulted in a hit.

    Alas, mentioning “He hit a home run on the first pitch in his last at bat.” just falls on deaf ears.

  2. This post Murphy approved… but he stopped reading after the headline.

  3. the reason people get gripey about 1st swing outs is as you say, probably primarily based upon some inherent disatisfaction with the result.

    however one item to consider might be this: considering the wisdom/benefit of swinging at the first pitch from a batters perspective seems supported by what you have laid out here.

    however the possible counter argument here might be looking at this issue from the perspective of driving up a pitchers count.

    as we know….getting that starter out of there after 100+ pitches in as early an inning as possible also poses benefits, which are not likely captured by the stats/perspective presented here.

    I think ultimately to have a thorough consideration you’d have to assess the benefit result here vs. the loss of pitching count.

    obviously it doesn’t matter where you hit a HR ..and arguably also not as much if you’re getting on-base…but from a strategic perspective if you’re batters all have a swing at first pitch approach, over the longer sample size there may be risk/loss in terms of not driving up the counts.

  4. Great article Drew, that’s really interesting. It’s never made sense to me why so many batters are willing to give away the first strike and it’s cool to see some statistics to back that up.

    Of course if more guys swung at first pitches pitchers would probably stop serving up so many first pitch fastballs in the zone which would affect results, but at the speed that baseball accepts new philosophies and approaches I’m sure that would only take about a century.

  5. why not more swinging at 3-0 counts?!?! look at those numbers!

  6. Cito would be proud.

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