Let 'er Rip II
On July 4, Tony La Russa said this to a beat writer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
I disagree with a lot of fans, some experts, whatever. There are times when taking a strike is a good baseball play. There are times when getting deep in a count is a good baseball play. But more often, aggressiveness with the first good strike you see gives you a better chance to be productive offensively. If you give a quality (pitcher) strike one, it's tougher to have a good at-bat.
It wasn't the first time we've heard that from Tony; he gave Buzz Bissinger much the same opinion in 3 Nights in August. It's a little bit jarring, because La Russa's offenses are generally patient and disciplined; they run up good walk totals and have high OBPs, characteristics that seem incompatible with a philosophy that seems to favor hacking at the first ball that catches a piece of the plate.
But is La Russa right? Will an offense get better results if the hitters just let 'er rip? I examined that question last year, looking at 2004 National League data. My study focused on the first pitch of the at-bat -- the 0-0 delivery, which Craig Burley described a couple years ago at The Hardball Times as "the predominant count in baseball." Of course it is: For every plate appearance, there's an 0-0 pitch. And it's a strike about 60 percent of the time.
What a hitter does with that strike goes a long way toward determining the outcome of his at-bat.
The 2004 data seemed to show that La Russa is generally correct: if the first pitch is a strike, the batter is best served to swing. I repeated the study this year, using 2005 data, and got nearly identical results. Take a look:
Keep in mind that the "swings on 0-0" section of this table includes at-bats where the batter swings and either misses or fouls the pitch off, resulting in an 0-1 count -- the functional equivalent of a called strike. Such is the result more than half of the time; the first-pitch hacker puts the ball into play on only about 45 percent of his swings.
It's in part for that reason that the conventional wisdom these days favors deep counts and abhors early-resolving at-bats -- the line of thought La Russa was reacting to in his quote to the Post. The reasoning goes something like this: the more pitches you see, the better your odds of drawing a walk or getting a mistake to exploit, hence the better the chances of getting on base or driving the ball for an extra-base hit. But the numbers in this table indicate the exact opposite -- if the 0-0 pitch is a strike, your odds of reaching base or driving the ball are better if you swing.
This would seem to be the proper time to repeat my disclaimer from last year:
I'm not suggesting 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.
The Cardinals as a team tend to reflect La Russa's philosophy; in both 2004 and 2005 they ranked among the league's most aggressive 1st-pitch teams, swinging at more than 50 percent of 1st-pitch strikes. But tendencies vary widely from roster to roster. For instance:
These three teams saw a nearly identical number of 1st-pitch strikes in 2005 -- about 21 a game. The Cubs swung at 11 of 'em, the Mets only 9, the Marlins just 8.
How did it affect their overall scoring? In this case, not much; the trio finished 7th through 9th in NL scoring last year. Indeed, the strong correlation between 1st-pitch aggression and high run totals that I found in 2004 did not recur in 2005. Whereas the 8 most aggressive teams from 2004 scored, on average, 104 runs more than the least aggressive teams, in 2005 it was a total wash:
Run scoring was dead even (an average of 721 runs per team) on both sides of the median for 1st-pitch swing frequency.
The same variation in 1st-pitch aggression did not apply to pitching staffs. Opponents' swing frequency fell within a narrow range (43 to 49 percent) for 15 of the 16 teams; the Milwaukee Brewers, for some reason, threw particularly juicy strikes on 0-0 and induced a 52 percent swing rate. Opposing hitters' aggression seemed to work to the Brewers' advantage: They allowed the third-lowest OPS in the league when throwing a strike on 0-0. But the correspondence did not hold leaguewide; we can't say that pitching staffs that "induced" more swings on 0-0 got better results. Indeed, it's not clear how you would replicate that tendency over time; the discretion lies entirely with the batter.
One final note: in 3 Nights, Bissinger claims that La Russa specifically wants his guys swinging away in RBI situations. Turns out that Tony is far from alone in that regard. I broke out the 1st-pitch data for RISP situations and found that all 16 teams swung at 1st-pitch strikes more often in those situations than otherwise. Leaguewide, the frequency increased by about 9 percent -- from 44 percent in non-RISP situations to 53 percent with RISP. That only makes sense: With runners in scoring position, there may be a reward for simply putting the ball in play; you can move a guy up or knock him in with a groundout or a flyball. A strikeout, conversely, gets you nowhere -- so big-league batters, as a group, alter their approach accordingly, expanding their swing zones from the beginning of the at-bat.
There's no universal formula here; as La Russa himself says, "There are times when getting deep in a count is a good baseball play." But there are also times -- lots of them -- when a guy's got to just take his hacks. Times, in fact, when it's the smart play.