Friday, August 21, 2009

Study: Baseball's First Pitch is Beautiful


As the sun faded out of the Comerica Park view, Curtis Granderson slowly sauntered toward the batter’s box. After peering at both his third base coach and teammate Josh Anderson on first base, Granderson turned his attention to Indians hurler Rafael Betancourt. With his team holding to a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, Betancourt knew getting a first-pitch strike would give him a major advantage in the at-bat. Granderson, like a professional poker player, already knew his opponent’s play.

“When you go all the way from high school to college to minor league ball and pro ball, pitchers are taught to throw first-pitch strike one,” Granderson said. “Those are the pitches you want to hit and it might be the best pitch you’ll get that at-bat if the pitcher is doing what he is supposed to do. He doesn’t want to fall behind. If a guy goes up there aggressive and looking for what he wants and puts it in play, it’s probably going to be something positive.”

Betancourt fired a fastball toward the inner edge of the plate. Granderson launched the pitch deep over the right-field wall, giving the Tigers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish and sending Detroit fans into a jubilant spring frenzy.

Granderson knows the stats. A career .280 hitter, Granderson’s batting average on first pitches put in play is a staggering .450. His success is better than the major league average but it does resemble an overwhelming theme: When hitters put the first pitch in play, their batting average is much higher compared to their career average.

Other hitters such as Jason Bay, Boston’s newest addition, has a Granderson-like approach at the plate. Bay has been known for years as one of the game’s most dangerous hitters, especially with runners on base. That’s why the Red Sox traded for Bay (.282 overall, .365 in 0-0 counts) at last year’s deadline, giving up some upper-level prospects as well as Manny Ramirez. “I’m a guy that’s paid to drive in runs and if there are runs out there I’m not going to be taking just to take,” Bay said.


While Bay also acknowledges there is more of a cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters at the major league level, Angels outfielder Torii Hunter says it’s essential to know the pitcher’s tendencies. “If you know this guy throws strikes and he’s always getting ahead, now you’ve got a plan. ...You try to jump on a guy like Roy Halladay early because a guy like that, you don’t want to get behind on him. Most good pitchers, great pitchers, pitchers who have a lot of success, are always ahead and they try to get ahead with the first pitch.” Hunter (.272/.329) stresses that having a plan to jump on a pitcher isn’t the same as hacking once a batter steps in the box. “You don’t want to guess,” he said.

Having a plan and “being ready to hit,” as he put it is one reason Angels third basemen Chone Figgins, despite his diminutive stature, has been so successful. Figgins (.290/.354) is known for long at-bats, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys them. “As you get older, you try and wise up. If it’s a pitch in that zone, be ready to hit it and hit it hard because you can’t control anything after that.”

Even the new crop of future all-stars such as Orioles catcher Matt Wieters is catching on quickly to baseball’s hidden, but not-so-difficult-to-decode secret. Speeding through the minor leagues, Wieters estimated hitters were given about two legitimate pitches to hit each at-bat. In his diminutive stint in the majors, Wieters said that number “might be one.” “If it’s the best pitch you’re going to get in an at-bat, then put a good swing on it,” he said. “You’re definitely looking for a pitch. When you’re younger, you’re probably looking for a fastball over the plate because until you really know a guy likes to throw a first-pitch breaking ball or a first-pitch change-up, you’re probably going to look fastball.”

***

Recently retired and sure-fire Hall of Famer John Smoltz will go down as one of the best pitchers in history. What won’t be on his Coopertown’s plaque is how he used his pitching knowledge when he found himself in the batter’s box. Smoltz spent last season with both the Red Sox and the Cardinals and the previous 20 years with the Braves. His 213 wins rank 88th on the all-time list and that number undoubtedly would be higher had he not recorded 154 saves (tied for 64th all-time) as Atlanta’s closer from 2001-04. Smotlz is the only pitcher in major league history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves and one of two pitchers (Dennis Eckersley is the other) to record both a 20-win and 50-save season. With 3,084 strikeouts to his credit, Smoltz credits some of his success to his ability to get that first-pitch strike. “You’ve got to be able to make your pitches,” he said. “It’s a risk-reward; you can get a quick out or you can give up a quick hit.”


Smoltz is a career .161 hitter but, using his knowledge of what he tries to do as a pitcher, resembled a Hall-of-Fame hitter with a career .303 first-pitch average. “If you can catch a guy sleeping, that’s great,” Smoltz said. “If you can’t, you better be prepared to know what he’s capable of doing.”

Mariners pitcher Jarrod Washburn will forever be labeled as the “crafty lefty.” He takes that as a compliment, especially because if you’re crafty and you’ve survived in the bigs as long as he has - he’s currently in his 12th season - it’s because you dictate at-bats. “Getting that first-pitch strike is huge. It puts them in a hole right away and makes them defensive,” he said. “Sometimes there are guys that come up there, especially with runners in scoring position, and they’ll be looking to hack at that first pitch so you still want to throw a strike, but you want to throw a quality strike or maybe something off speed to get them off balance. You just try and mix it up, but pretty much every time you’re out there you’re trying to throw a first-pitch strike.”

There isn’t a better example of Washburn’s theory than new Yankees hurler A.J. Burnett. The Yankees signed fireballer A.J. Burnett to a 5-year, $82.5 million contract with one desire: Burnett would team with new additions C.C. Sabathia (7-year, $161 million) and Mark Texieria (8-year, $180 million) and the rest of the already immensely talented squad to capture the Yankees first World Series title since 2000.

When Game 2 of last season’s World Series rolled around, Burnett found himself pitching the most important game in his life. Burnett knows the cardinal rule that the game’s best pitchers follow: Get ahead of hitters. Inexplicably, the Phillies seemed willing to let Burnett do just that by taking first pitch after first pitch. The first eight Philadelphia hitters watch Burnett’s first pitch cross the plate. It wasn’t until the ninth hitter – Carlos Ruiz – grounded out to shortstop on the first pitch that the Phillies had shown any other strategy than taking Burnett’s first delivery.

Burnett threw an opening strike to the game’s first 11 hitters. The streak might have continued had Yankee manager Joe Girardi not demanded Burnett intentionally walk Chase Utley. Burnett faced 27 hitters in the game, issuing 23 first-pitch strikes. Not surprisingly, Burnett was dominant for seven innings before turning the game over to Mariano Rivera for the final two frames. The Yankees won the game, 3-1, against the offensively passive Phillies en route to a six-game series victory and World Series Championship.


Burnett's World Series first-pitch philosophy wasn't a surprise to anyone who watched him pitch during Game 5 of the American League Championship Series in his previous start. The only difference was the Phillies didn't follow the fail-safe script the Los Angeles Angels had perfected.

After issuing a walk and double on the crisp October evening - leaving runners on second and third - Torii Hunter came to the play knowing the Angels already had Burnett reeling. Hunter anticipated the first offering would be a scintillating. Burnett hung a breaking ball over the heart of the plate and Hunter scorched a single up the middle scoring both runners. Vladimir Gurerrero, the next hitter and self-described free swinger, eagerly anticipated Burnett's first delivery. The 93 mph fastball caught a hefty chunk of the plate and Guerrero doubled to deep left-center field. In two pitches the Angels had turned an expected pitcher's duel into a 3-0 advantage. Two pitches. Two hits. One under-appreciated statistic.

***

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon believes a pitcher’s first offering as equal parts risk and reward. A hitter must zone up the plate, in Maddon’s opinion, to have a realistic shot at being a good first-pitch hitter. “You’ve got to look in one area. If you see it in that one area go get it; if you don’t, don’t swing.” Maddon believes the set-up is more important than whether a hitter swings or not.


Twins manager Ron Gardenhier knows his best player, catcher Joe Mauer, is known for being one of the game’s most patient and productive hitters. However, most pitchers know Mauer has no issues mirroring the great Ted Williams’ philosophy of gathering information on a hitter on the first pitch and, in doing so, purposely accepting being behind 0-1 in the count. “Most of the time Joe Mauer doesn’t swing at the first pitch, so when he swings he goes up there knowing what the guy is going to try and do,” Gardenhier said. “He gets a cookie and he whacks it. It’s kind of a set-up with Joe Mauer and other guys. …We get that against other teams; this guy never swings at the first pitch and his third time up all of a sudden he swings at the first pitch. It’s a base hit and you’re like ‘son of a bitch.’”

Says Maddon: "You can talk for hours on the first pitch but for me, if you like it, go for it."

More often than not the stats prove the first pitch is extremely likable.



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