First Pitch Balls in Play: How to Win in 2007?
David Appelman of FanGraphs fame, penned a nice article called Expanding the Strike Zone over at The Baseball Analysts in December where he looked at how often pitchers got batters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. That article caused one Bucco Blog reader to send me an email asking:
"The Pirates walk so many batters you would think they would throw more strikes on pitch one instead of trying to get batters to chase. We have to be well below league average on first pitch strikes, aren’t we?" — JG, Penn Hills
So I poured over the 2006 statistics to find out.
Using Retrosheet.org’s 2006 database I determined that the Pirates pitching staff as a whole obtained 1.7% more first pitch strikes than the MLB league average — 60.0% vs 58.3%.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why our hits allowed per nine innings was so high last year, I immediately suspected. After all, if batters went to the plate knowing there was a higher probability of seeing a first pitch strike, you would think they would be sitting dead red on the first pitch every at bat.
So I looked, and here is what I found:
Of the 844 first pitches put in play against Pirate pitching last year, sure enough – 33 of them went for home runs (0=didn’t reach base, 1=single, 2=double, 3=triple, and 4=home run). That certainly seemed like a lot considering the Pirates only allowed 156 total home runs all year.
I also noticed opposing batters reached base 31.9% of the time when the first pitch was put in play. That had to be above the MLB league average I thought.
So I looked.
Here is how all 30 MLB teams did as a whole:
Interestingly, Pirate pitching suppressed base runners 0.5% more than the MLB league average pitching staff when opposing batters put the first pitch in play.
I then thought maybe some of the Pirates suppression was spurious because of errors committed on the plays.
So I looked.
Nope – 2.0% league average error rate for MLB and 2.3% for the Pirates – the equivalent of two additional errors for the year.
Considering the Pirates gave up the fourth highest number of walks and the tenth highest number of hits last year, you would think our starters would have said ‘here’s an easy one for you’ on the first pitch to every batter and grooved a nice two-seamer low over the plate for them to whack at.
So there you go – the Pirates did a better job than most MLB teams of keeping men off base if the first pitch thrown was put in play by the opposing team.
Perhaps you have already guessed the rest of this story by now considering we won less than 30% of all away games last year. While young players typically have a hard time adjusting to road trips for a year or two, it is especially hard for young pitchers who face the crowd noise and the other teams confidence in front of their fans every pitch.
And it showed up in the stats too.
While Pirate pitchers exceeded MLB league averages in suppressing base runners or getting the first batter or two to put the ball in play at PNC, on the road it was a completely different story. They got hammered because batters tended to wait for the fourth or fifth pitch and they drove it, and drove it hard. Not so at PNC Park where we went right after batters.
Part of that is explained off by some of the very hittable parks we travel to like Wrigley. Some of it could be explained off because our staff knew they had some pretty rough defenders behind them last year and possibly they felt they had to make perfect pitches in away games. But most of it is simply not being aggressive on the mound on the road.
Great question JG. My guess is that Jim Colborn will instruct the Pirates pitching staff to start grooving move first and second pitch strikes on the road next year and win or lose from the results.
Because opposing batters won’t be looking for that.