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How Bad Are First Pitch Strikes?

The A's new offense didn't exactly start out as hot as some had hoped, and afterwards, people were naturally looking for things and people to blame. But one comment in a thread last week caught my eye.

I have it stuck in my head (especially after last night) that the weakness in the offense isn’t the talent or the ballpark, but more so a club sticking to a decade old philosophy. The early 2000’s success was built on a approach of patience at the plate. Take pitches, work counts, chase starters by the 5th or 6th.

It seems in recent years the league has figured this out, and now simply pours strikes over early in the count to then put A’s hitters at a regular disadvantage.

Is AsFan72 right? I've seen this opinion quite a bit over the years. Are the A's too patient, to the point where pitchers with good control can pour strikes in and blow them away?

Well, the easy answer is that the 2010 A's were 10th out of 30 teams in most first pitch strikes, so, no, they're not unique in this sort of thing. But what if we go deeper? How bad is a first pitch strike? What about contact? Do good teams make more contact or less? Swing percentage?


Explanations and more after the jump.

The numbers and the heights of the bars correspond to how well each factor correlates with 2010 wOBA, or in other words, how well each factor matches up with offensive production. A correlation of one means perfect positive correlation, where an increase in one factor would increase the other by exactly the same amount. A correlation of negative one would mean perfect negative correlation, where an increase in one factor would decrease the other by the same amount. And a correlation of 0 signifies no correlation, where an increase in one factor leaves the other unchanged.

In order, the bars mean:

  • O-Swing%: This is the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that a batter swings at. As you'd expect, this negatively correlates fairly heavily with offensive production. A team that swings at a lot of unhittable slop generally won't perform very well.
  • Z-Swing%: This is the opposite of O-Swing, in that it measures the percentage of pitches inside the strike zone that a batter swings at. It's slightly positively correlated with offensive production, although not as much as I would have guessed.
  • Swing%: This is fairly obvious—it's the total amount of pitches swung at, both inside and outside the zone. Swing% is negatively correlated with production, or in other words, there's a general trend that says that better offenses swing less. A note of caution: This does not imply causation. There's no way of knowing if better offenses are better because they swing less, or that since they're better, they get fewer good pitches to hit.
  • O-Contact%: This is the percentage of swings on pitches outside of the zone that result in contact. Note that it doesn't measure the quality of contact, just that contact was made, including fouls. It's positively correlated with production.
  • Z-Contact%: Much as you'd expect, this is the percentage of swings on pitches inside the zone that result in contact. Slightly positively correlated. The thing that surprises me here is that O-Contact is more strongly correlated than Z-Contact. This suggests that the ability to make contact outside of the zone is more important than inside. I'm guessing that this puzzling result is because most players are fairly similar at making contact on swings inside the zone, and the the talent distribution on outside contact is broader. The numbers back me up on this, as the standard deviation on O-Contact is twice that of Z-Contact.
  • Contact%: The total amount of swings that result in contact. Heavily correlated with offensive success, meaning that the better teams make more contact when they decide to swing. Fairly intuitive.
  • Zone%: The amount of pitches a batter gets that are inside the zone. Slightly negatively correlated, which makes sense. You don't throw down the middle to Albert Pujols, but you might do it to Jason Kendall.
  • F-Strike%: This result surprised me the most. The biggest correlation in this entire set belongs to F-Strike%, which is the percentage of plate appearances that result in a first pitch strike. It's hugely negatively correlated with offensive performance, meaning that the good players don't let pitchers give them first pitch strikes very often.
  • SwStr%: Another negative correlation here, this time for SwStr%, which is the percentage of swings that result in misses. Good batters tend not to swing and miss.

So is AsFan72 on to something? Is he correct?

He's right in that first pitch strikes are very bad for batters, and that the good ones don't let it happen often. But does that mean the A's should target batters who swing more often? No. The correlation between F-Strike% and Swing%? 0.676. That's a massive positive correlation, which says that batters who swing more rack up first pitch strikes far more than ones who swing less. Case in point? The team leader in least first pitch strikes last year? The ultra-patient Jack Cust. If you want to build a team that rarely starts off an at bat 0-1, you need to find more patience, not less.