Designated HitterAugust 04, 2005
Let 'er Rip
By Larry Borowsky

Early in 3 Nights in August, we learn this about Cardinal manager Tony La Russa: "La Russa likes his hitters to be aggressive on the first good strike they get in an RBI situation. Especially pinch hitters, because they often get only one good strike in the entire at-bat. La Russa and his coaches inculcate this philosophy into players from the earliest stages of spring training . . . . ." A few pages later, the manager watches approvingly as Scott Rolen swings and misses at an 0-0 pitch with the bases loaded: "La Russa prefers his aggressiveness here, would rather see it than not, convinced that this aggression will produce more runs over the course of the season."

Is that a fact? If so, it flies in the face of the deep-count batting approach that our SABR-savvy generation deems proper. In the Age of On-Base Percentage, first-pitch swinging has a terrible rap; you can't draw a walk if you go up there hacking. You're supposed to be patient, work the count, and wait for your pitch.

But what if you get "your pitch" on the first pitch?

As regular readers of my blog, Viva El Birdos, know only too well, I'm with La Russa on this one; or rather, I'm against the knee-jerk preference for "patience." My feelings on the subject sharpened this year in reaction to the popular storyline about StL's new leadoff man, David Eckstein. "He always takes a strike," broadcasters and writers repeated ad nauseum; "he fouls off pitches, really battles, makes the pitcher work." This list of virtues fits right in with the OBP gospel, although in Eckstein's case it strikes me as being a tad empty -- his career OBP is a middling .339. In mid-May, after watching him take a fat first-pitch strike late in the game with two out and the tying run at 2d base, I bitched:

[Eckstein] did get himself a couple of pitches to hit later in the at-bat (esp. a sloppy breaking pitch way up), but they came on 2-2, after he'd gone into hunker-down mode. He battled, and the at-bat lasted 8 pitches, but the best hitting opportunity was the first pitch -- and Eckstein was taking all the way, for no reason.

If Eckstein had swung at that 0-0 pitch and popped it up, he would have been criticized for lacking plate discipline. But when a hitter takes an 0-0 fastball right down the middle, nobody peeps; that's just seen as smart, patient hitting.

It isn't. Using the miracle of Retrosheet, I sorted all the at-bats for every National League team from last season according to what happened on the first pitch. (See the end of the article for data sources and notes.) Each at-bat went into one of five first-pitch categories: called ball, called strike, swinging strike, foul, and ball put in play. If we combine the last three categories -- which all involve swinging the bat -- into one, we end up with three basic 0-0 outcomes: called ball, called strike, or swing. Here are the results:

when batter... avg obp slg rc/27
takes ball on 0-0 .270 .382 .452 6.4
swings on 0-0 .270 .300 .439 4.9
takes strike on 0-0 .233 .275 .353 3.4

The table does reinforce one Age of OBP doctrine: discretion is good. Better to get ahead 1-0 in the count than to swing on 0-0. But the blanket "take a strike" approach looks rather foolish per these data; when the first pitch was a strike, hitters who swung at it (even if they missed or fouled it off) were 40 percent more productive than hitters who took it for strike one. Even with respect to getting on base, the swingers were more effective than the takers: hitters who swung at the first pitch had an OBP 25 points higher than hitters who took strike one.

I'm not suggesting (nor are the data) that hitters should swing at any 0-0 offering that comes within a foot of the strike zone; these are macro figures which mask all sorts of micro situations in which it might make sense to take a strike. If the pitcher breaks one off on the corner or puts a sinker in at the knees and you can't do much with the pitch, might as well take. And if the pitcher is struggling with his control, maybe it's not a bad idea to see if he can follow up strike one with strike two. But it is a bad idea simply to take a first-pitch strike on principle. La Russa's instincts are correct: you ultimately score more runs if you attack the first strike you see.

And the effect is hardly limited to the Cardinals. It's nearly universal. Only one National League team (the Marlins) was better off taking an 0-0 strike than swinging at it -- and the advantage was infinitesimal (0.1 rc/27). All 15 of the other teams scored more when they swung, with advantages ranging from 0.5 rc/27 (San Francisco) to 2.6 rc/27 (Atlanta).

Of course, pitches don't come across the plate labeled "ball" and "strike" -- most of them are borderline. If the batter lets it go, maybe he gets the call and it's ball one; if he swings, it's a strike no matter what. So let's combine the two "take" categories -- i.e., called balls and called strikes -- into one, and boil the matter down to the hitter's fundamental choice: take or swing.

when batter... avg obp slg rc/27
takes on 0-0 .253 .337 .407 5.0
swings on 0-0 .270 .300 .439 4.9

Basically, it's a wash -- hitters who took on 0-0 registered tiny, probably random advantages in OPS and rc/27 over hitters who swung. But the data still seem to validate La Russa's emphasis on aggression in RBI situations. In such situations you generally need a hit, not a walk -- and first-pitch swingers hit 17 points higher, and slugged 32 points higher, than first-pitch takers. Conversely, if your team needs a baserunner more than a base hit, the conventional wisdom -- take a pitch -- is with you.

Interestingly, nearly half the teams in the league (7) were more productive when they swung on 0-0 than when they took, irrespective of whether the pitch was a ball or a strike. That's fairly remarkable, since swinging on 0-0 radically decreases the chance of a walk. Leaguewide, hitters who swung on 0-0 had a walk rate of .026; hitters who took (whether ball or strike) had a walk rate of .089. But some teams overcame that inherent OBP deficit by slugging the daylights out of the ball on 0-0. Consider the Cardinals and the Braves, who both were about 0.6 rc/27 more productive on at-bats that began with a swing:

avg obp slg rc/27
StL take .265 .346 .429 5.5
StL swing .288 .319 .497 6.0
Atl take .260 .352 .418 5.4
Atl swing .297 .324 .478 6.0

Whatever they lost in OBP by swinging aggressively, these teams more than made up for in slugging.

* * * * *

Leaguewide, National League batters swung at 47.8 percent of the 0-0 strikes they saw in 2004. But this percentage varied widely from team to team. The Expos swung at the lowest percentage of 0-0 strikes, only 38 percent. That's just 0-0 strikes, not all 0-0 pitches; the Expos let a lot of hittable pitches go for strike one. At the other end of the spectrum we have the Cubs, who hacked at 59 percent of the 1st-pitch strikes thrown their way.

The team-by-team median percentage was 48 percent. Now check this out: Of the seven teams above the median -- i.e., the teams that swung most often at 0-0 strikes -- six ranked among the top seven in NL runs scored. The seven teams below the median all ranked at the bottom of the league in runs scored, with the lone exception of Philadelphia. The teams that swung on 0-0 most often averaged 802 runs; the teams that swung least often, 698.

It's also interesting that the 0-0 swingers -- with the notable exception of Chicago -- ranked in the upper half of the league in both walks and OBP. Here, take a look:

team pct of
swings on
0-0 strikes
rank/runs rank/walks rank/obp
Chi 59 7 14 11
Col 54 4 6 2
Hou 54 6 4 6
StL 52 1 8 4
Atl 51 5 5 5
Pit 49 13 16 13
SF 49 2 1 1
Cin 48 10 3 9
SD 48 8 7 7
Mil 46 14 9 12
LA 45 9 10 8
NY 45 12 11 14
Chi 59 7 14 11
Pha 45 3 2 2
Fla 41 11 12 10
Ari 40 16 15 16
Mon 38 15 13 15

For all the first pitches they took, the Marlins and Dbacks et al drew fewer walks than the teams that went up there hacking. Which tells me that it's possible to be aggressive without sacrificing discipline. On the contrary, from this study -- admittedly limited, one league one year -- it appears that aggression is an essential component of discipline. You have to keep the pitchers honest, take the get-me-over fastball out of their kit and force them to work the corners from the beginning of the at-bat. That's how you get favorable counts -- make the pitchers work fine on 0-0, take part of the plate away from 'em. So it's not all about running deep counts and waiting for your pitch; it's about knowing the strike zone and recognizing your pitch -- even if it happens to come on 0-0.

In early June, after Scott Seabol hit a dramatic first-pitch homer to key a win over the Yankees in June, I had this to say at Viva El Birdos:

We've been trained to think the only good at-bats are patient, carefully considered ones, in which the batter steps out of the box between pitches to think things over and tap his pipe on the heel of his shoe. But a first-pitch swing can be carefully considered too; you can go up there looking for one pitch in one zone -- say, a fastball middle in, like the one Seabol whacked out the yard yesterday -- and swing if and only if the pitch meets those specs. That takes as much plate discipline as a 10-pitch at-bat, imho, for the latter is often born of sheer survival -- if it's close, you have to swing -- while the former requires a true exercise of discretion.

If Seabol had popped up, there would have been hell to pay. But he took the right approach; he was playing percentage baseball. Even in the Age of OBP, sometimes you just have to let 'er rip and take your chances.

* * * * *

A NOTE ON THE DATA
All of my data comes from the Retrosheet Event Files. The information was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by Retrosheet.

If you've ever used these files, you know they are a) extraordinarily useful and b) a bear to work with. For the sake of simplicity, I used fields that did not code outs for things like sac bunts, sac flies, etc. In my data these outs showed up as ordinary outs, inflating the number of at-bats and thus lowering all the run-scoring output. The effect is small enough that I decided to live with it, but I wanted to make the disclosure.

A second disclosure: Since the subject of interest is the batter's discretion to swing or take on 0-0, I threw out all at-bats in which that discretion was removed -- i.e., intentional walks and bunt attempts. However, only the failed bunt attempts could be excluded, since the ones that succeeded on the first pitch -- or that began with ball one -- were subsumed under other data categories. Similarly, I could not exclude mandatory swings on hit-and-run plays, nor mandatory takes sent in from the bench. A more refined study would account for such factors.

For another in-depth study about the 0-0 pitch, see Craig Burley's two-parter "The Importance of Strike One" -- part one here, and part two here.

* * * * *

Larry Borowsky writes about the St Louis Cardinals at Viva El Birdos, one of the blogs in the SportsBlog Nation
family. He has never knowingly taken steroids.

[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

Comments

Excellent work.

Larry, great piece, thanks for your hard work.

I used to envy Frank Thomas during his best days, as he would take on almost every first pitch. Opposing pitchers were so intimidated of Thomas that if often meant they threw a ball. But I think Thomas was a good enough hitter to not let it effect him if the first pitch was called a strike. Hitters like Thomas and (maybe?) Eckstein can afford to do this because they are very good two-strike hitters. I think if you were to eliminate some of the better two-strike hitters in the league, the "takes strike on 0-0" row would have even worse numbers.

Ah, yes!

This is something that has bothered me for years as an A's fan. They would acquire players who take a lot of pitches. But those players would take a lot of pitches no matter what the situation, being patient until they got two strikes, and only then would they (sometimes) shorten their swings and be less picky about their pitch.

Then they'd get a runner on third with less than two outs, and the batter would work the at-bat the same way he always does, which would typically result in either a walk or a strikeout, neither of which brings the run home.

I'd sit at home and scream at my TV, "Argh! You don't have to wait until two strikes to use your two-strike approach!" to no avail. (They've been much better this year, however.)

That, to me, is what situational hitting is all about. Not this productive outs nonsense (nobody should want to make outs), but using the game and count situation to adjust your criteria for what to swing at, and how hard.

Good analysis but its a little obvious to me. I mean, look at it from the other perspective - If you're the pitcher, is it a Good Thing to go up on the batter 0-1? Does anyone dispute this?

The Further Question I see that needs to be now asked is this: Is taking the first strike as bad as swinging and missing at the first pitch?

Great work, Larry, as usual. There's a larger point here that I think is quite interesting, and that is that overly predictable strategies are never a good thing. If taking pitches becomes gospel, then you're ceding a huge amount of leverage to your opponent, for he knows he can lay a fat one across the heart of the plate and put you in an oh-one hole. Likewise statheads like to point out how it's unwise to bunt in certain situations, but that advice only works in the aggregate. In real game situations, you must occasionally buck the trends -- play against the percentages now and again -- so that you don't fall into mechanical routine. For example, if your opponent knows everytime you plan to bunt, then he can cheat his defense, pitch you in advantageous ways, and so on.

Watching Tony La Russa can drive me up a wall. He puts on some of the goofiest strategies, and at times it seems he's just throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. But there's a side benefit to his kookiness that I (and most of the stathead community) credits him with too little, and that's the degree to which his unpredictability makes his teams difficult to defend against. It's difficult to prove that notion with evidence, but I think you've done a good job, Larry, of showing how that strategy -- a game theorist might call it something like "rational unpredictability" -- can work.

Great work. I think you've definitely added to the debate. That being said something doesn't sit right with me.

Taking a ball v. swinging leads to an 80 point drop in OBP. Taking a strike v. swinging leads to a 25 point drop in OBP.

I guess I'd need to know how many first pitches are balls v. strikes. If most first pitches were balls, it makes sense to take. If most are strikes, it makes sense to swing. If it's 50/50, it makes sense to take (I think) because the gains of taking a ball outweigh the losses of taking a strike, no?

Maybe I am deluded but I don't think batters are trying to take strikes on a 0-0 count, either. I think most of time that's done, it situational, i.e. the pitcher walked the previous batter on four pitches.

tom: re proportion of strikes: my figure for last year's nl was that 58 percent of 0-0 pitches are strikes. once you factor back in the intentional walks adn pitchouts (which i excluded), the figure maybe drops 1 percent. if we only look at pitches that were called ball or strike (excluding swings), the proportion is 52 % strike, 48 ball.

i think many batters DO take 0-0 strikes on principle; i think it happens all the time. they're not playing the situation at all, they're simply following the dogma that deep counts are good and first-pitch swinging is bad.


ken: these conclusions may be obvious to a lot of folks (including me), but they're heresy to a wide segment of the fan / media base. when i suggested at my blog that david eckstein ought to be more aggressive early in the count rather than let himself fall behind 0-1 and 0-2 so often, nearly every response was that it would hurt his OBP. obviously moneyball has something to do wtih this --- many people derived oversimplified lessons from that book and the success of the A's (see ken arneson's comment above), and it's those people i'm attempting to engage. it's not that walks are bad; it's that aggression ISN'T bad, in and of itself.

wait, above comment shoud be addressed to kevin --- sorry

brian: it sounds like you've undergone the same sort of evolution re la russa as i have. for years he drove me nuts wtih nonsensical decisions ---- batting dunston and paguette 1-2 in the batting order when they both had sub-.300 OBPs was one of my all-time favorites. and he and duncan clearly mishandled ankiel, with high costs to rick and the organization. but i softened on TLR after the way he dealt with the darryl kile situation: absolutely masterful, humane leadership. and i do think he has managed differently the last couple of seasons. a number of players apparently came to him in spring training 2004 and asked him not to intrude so much, take more of a let-the-players-play approach; i think he heeded that advice. it's especially evident in his management of the pitching staff -- seems like he stays with his starters much longer than he used to, is less jittery about getting a fresh arm into the game. that would make an interesting study too.

and he's gotten too much value over the years out of guys like paquette, eddie perez, marlon anderson, abe nunez, etc for it to be a coincidence. he must know something other managers don't. i still don't get a lot of his decisions, but i now give him the benefit of the doubt --- even when his moves don't work out.

OK so the hypothesis is that agression isn't bad. OK. To fully prove this in my mind (which is basically an opinionated statement, I admit) not only do you need to show what you've shown above (that swinging at the first pitch is better than taking the first strike) but also any added value gained by swinging and making contact vs. swinging and missing vs. taking the first strike.

Put more simply, I want to know if taking strike 1 is the same as, or better, than swinging for strike 1. The additional question then also becomes what is the BABIP on first-pitch contact, and how does it compare to BABIPs on 0-1 take counts and 0-1 swing and miss counts.

This is suddenly a ridiculously complex question in my mind now. Maybe I should never have read this article.... 8) I'm probably overcomplifying things.

And of course, this is overall. I also believe that it is possible that some players prefer to see a pitch, strike or not. As an Angel fan, I always basically felt that Eckstein was a guy who really liked to see a pitch before he did anything, and probably benefitted from it.

Irrespective of what the standard notice says, I don't know that the Retrosheet data is actually copyrightable.

Excellent post, while I agree most hitters should not take a first pitch on principle, I think La Russa was making a comment on situational hitting. For instance, last Saturday, the Yankees were playing the Angels, in the bottom of the ninth, K-Rod walked four batters, including the un-walkable Tony Womack, bringing Hideki Matsui to the plate with the bases loaded. While some traditional thinking would suggest Matsui take a pitch, instead he swung at a letter high fastball and rifled it into the gap for a game winning double. Matsui realizing that K-Rod could not get his slider over and had to throw a strike after walking a run in, was looking for the fastball and got one. Had he taken the pitch, which was a strike, he was would have been more vulnerable to the devestating K-Rod slider. Applying La Russa's theory, Matsui realized the best pitch he was going to see was the first pitch and he hammered it. Perhaps the most important lesson is that there is no rule to approaching the plate, with the best hitters understanding that there are times to swing at the first pitch and times not to (for instance, any time Al Leiter is pitching).

Willie,

The organization of the retrosheet data is alot more complex than a phone book. So, I'd say that it may be copyrightable.

I was all set to disagree with Tangotiger, which is usually a fool's bet, but I have to say, even as a copyright lawyer, that I don't know whether what's on retrosheet is coprightable or not. Calling it "data" is a little misleading.

With Retrosheet, there's more there than the boxscore, which I think is a fair example of what's not copyrightable (apart from the specific arrangement). While there are a lot of facts presented, there's a lot of originality in the arrangement. There's also a lot of data about how the material was compiled, etc.

In short, I have no idea and this is what I do for a living. I think it's fair to say that no one has any idea until the matter is litigated.

adam d: excellent example, thanks for sharing that. but i guarantee that if matsui had gotten under the pitch and popped it up, a lot of people would have been all over him for taking that swing. in such a case the fault would have lain with his execution, not his selection --- but the latter would have drawn the criticism anyway.

re the copyright thing: they have this assertion on their home page

"All data contained at this site is copyright 1996-2005 by Retrosheet. All Rights Reserved."

but who knows if it means anything legally

On the copyright issue, I agree with tangotiger and Tom that these are murky waters. It likely all boils down to what "data" is used (e.g., game statistics v. data on Retrosheet's methodology) and how the data is presented. If I pull a single piece of data from the site and post it, I think it's pretty clear that it's not copyright infringement. If I manipulate the data (even a whole bunch of it) and present it in a unique way or with different headings, I also think it's unlikely that there's a violation. If I take a table from Retrosheet and reproduce it in its entirety, there's potentially a problem. Both tangotiger ("The organization of the retrosheet data...") and Tom ("...originality in the the arrangement...") rightly focus on that. I generally don't think anything Larry has done in this post, however, would reach the level of a copyright violation (assuming the use was not licensed by Retrosheet, which is obviously not the case) of any copyright Retrosheet may have. That said, no harm in including the copyright notice.

I remember Mark McGwire always said if he saw even one decent pitch in an AB it would be the first one.