It appears this frustration is not unique to me. Camden Depot received an email from a reader detailing Statcast rankings for some of baseball's most infuriating events: first pitch swings, outs made on the first pitch, taking third strikes in unfavorable counts, etc. While I've covered some of these frustrations in the past, I think it's worth airing them out frequently. Each time I consider my own feelings toward the aggressive, free-swinging style of play that the Orioles batters employ, I learn something new and frequently come away from it with a (begrudging) acceptance that perhaps things are for the best.
Swinging at the First Pitch
One of the my pet peeves is swinging at the very first pitch of the at-bat. To me, it feels very much like trading significant long-term benefits (favorable counts, a tired starter, early access to relief pitchers, better timing, seeing a whole pitch arsenal, I could go on) for immediate, but potentially smaller, short-term benefits (most first pitches are fastballs and fastballs are easy to hit).
In 2016, 38% of first pitches of at-bats were fastballs. This is pretty standard; pitchers looking to get a quick strike are likely to lean on the pitch that they can throw straight rather than hope for a swinging strike against an off-speed pitch. Most hitters prefer fastballs, since they move less than off-speed pitches, so it makes sense that aggressive batters would want to jump on straight, hard pitches regardless of when they show up, first pitch or not. The top five batters in 2016 that jumped on the first pitch, not filtered for outcome are:
- Adam Jones
- Corey Seager
- George Springer
- Yasmany Tomas
- Freddie Freeman
Batting average king Jose Altuve ranked sixth, while Jonathan Schoop and Chris Davis ranked among the league leaders as well. Clearly, excellent hitters take advantage of the first pitch frequently. It helps to make contact with the first pitch, but the batting leaders in whiffing on the first pitch are very similar to the leaders in making an attempt at all. Adam Jones, for as much as I make of his proclivity to swing early and often, ranked 12th in whiffing on the first pitch, well below the other names on the above list.
As frustrating as swinging at the first pitch is when it doesn't work, it seems to be a perfectly reasonable strategy for a batter. It's impossible to know whether another, better pitch will come up later in the at-bat, and frankly, how much difference is there between a hit now and a hit against a "better pitch" later? Unless the pitch later can be swung at with a corked bat, the likelihood that it will yield significantly better results is low, if it yields any results at all.
Further, for accomplished batters who have made their entire career on aggressiveness, asking them to suddenly change their entire approach at the plate - the one that got them to the Majors in the first place - could do more to derail their rhythm than taking a few pitches helps.
Swinging at Straight Up Garbage that Everyone Knows is Coming
Wow, sorry for the language, but this topic gets me so heated. If I pitched to Adam Jones, I wouldn't throw him anything but pitches away and in the dirt. To my eyes, he swings at all of them. I haven't watched every other batter as much as I've watched Jones, but I would venture to guess that he swings at these nearly unhittable pitches far more frequently than others.
Among batters who have seen at least 400 pitches in 2016 low and to the right of the catcher, outside the strike zone, that would be close to correct. The following batters are most likely to swing at these pitches:
- Salvador Perez (R)
- Robinson Cano (L)
- Jose Abreu (R)
- Paulo Orlando (R)
- Chris Davis (L)
- Adam Jones (R)
I added each batter's handedness because pitches in this area are low and away to righties and low and inside to lefties. Depending on swing type and preferences, these might be easier to hit for lefties.
I don't want this to be an Adam Jones hit piece; it's not supposed to be at all. So I'll point out that Chris Davis, when he swings at pitches very low and very inside, had a 0.089 batting average in 2016. You would hope that someone swinging at those pitches often would be able to hit them with some frequency, but Davis is ice cold when he hacks at those pitches.
While I have not yet explored all of my frustrations with aggressive batters (surely I will soon), this article has done well to remind me that aggression can be good, but discernment is required. I hope it has done the same for you. If not... well, everyone's tune changes when the Orioles' free swingers connect for huge home runs.