What’s special about the first pitch of the game?
The first pitch of the game is nearly always a fastball. In 2018 Sam Miller about it.
Does knowing the type of pitch give the batter an advantage if he swings? In May Ben Clemens wrote an article with a graph that showed batters’ swing rate against that first pitch of the game increased from about 13% in 2014 to about 30% this season.
“This year, 97% of the first pitches of a game – by the home or road starter – have been fastballs. 95% have been fastballs dating back to 2008, the first year of the pitch tracking era.” — Ben Clemens
Let’s look at this season’s first pitch results when the Diamondbacks were at the plate.
Diamondbacks results against the first pitch of the game.
Through 8 June, fastballs were 98.3% of first pitches of the game to Diamondbacks’ batters. So pitchers treated Diamondbacks’ batters the same as other teams’ batters.
Through 8 June, the Diamondbacks’ batters results against the first pitch of the game were less than exciting:
- 62% of first pitches were strikes.
- Diamondbacks swung at 15.5% of the first pitches.
- Diamondbacks fouled off 5.2% of the first pitches.
- Diamondbacks put the ball in play 6.9% of the first pitches.
- Diamondbacks got a hit zero percent of the first pitches.
The batters knew with near certainty that a fastball was about to cross the plate and nevertheless they got zero hits. Last season, Diamondback batters got hits with about half their balls-in-play on the first pitch of the game. This season, that rate would be two hits (small sample size applies here). While that lack of hits was disappointing, perhaps those first pitches were part of successful plate appearances.
“Guessing what the pitcher is going to throw is 80% of being a successful hitter. The other 20% is just execution.” — Hank Aaron.
Perhaps balls-in-play (and associated hits) could be increased if Diamondbacks increased their swing rate, similar to what the league has done over the last eight years.
On the other hand, not swinging likely increased the pitch count, and offered the batter valuable insights. An example insight follows: in today’s game this pitcher has poor pitch control because he missed the strike zone by a wide margin. For example, Daulton Varsho was hit by a pitch in two of his plate appearances when he led off the batting.
Let’s look at Cooper Hummel and Daulton Varsho, who led off the game 54 times (ignoring 4 times when other batters led off the game).
Cooper Hummel and Daulton Varsho often led off the game.
First Pitch of the Game. Through 8 June, pitchers treated these two batters very similarly on the first pitch of the game.
- Fastball velocity: 91.7 MPH to Hummel and 92.7 MPH to Varsho, 92.68 MPH league average.
- Percentage strikes: 62.5% to Hummel, 62.2% to Varsho, 60.1% league average.
Through 8 June, these two batters had different swing rates:
- Cooper Hummel swung at 18.8% of the first pitches of the game.
- Daulton Varsho swung at 13.2% of the first pitches of the game.
“…it’s always nice to have an established leadoff hitter and to have someone who can really get on base and set the tone.” — Theo Epstein
First Plate Appearance of the Game. Instead of just looking at the first pitch of each game, let’s look at the first plate appearance of each game. My view would quantify success by added Run Expectancy (RE-24). The following are approximate values for added RE-24 in the first plate appearance of each game:
- +.370 reach first base (via single, HBP, or walk)
- +.607 reach second base via double
- +.965 reach third base
- +1.000 for home run
- Negative .218 for an out (via strikeout, foul out, or ball in play out)
This season through 8 June, Cooper Hummel had a positive .047 added RE-24, and Daulton Varsho had a positive .113 added RE-24. The positive added RE-24 means that through 8 June they increased the expected runs scored in those plate appearances. My view is that their positive average added RE-24’s show they were successful in their plate appearances when they led off the batting for the game.
Their success, while a good thing, was less than top-10 success. Through 8 June, their added RE-24 per plate appearance was less than Francisco Lindor’ s (.003 vs .046). Lindor ranked tenth highest in the NL.
The Diamondbacks capitalized when they reached base, which is a priority for leadoff batters. For example, once for Hummel and once for Varsho, when they reached base via a walk, the next batter hit a home run! When the leadoff hitter reaches first base, it gives the pitcher something to worry about!
“A successful pitcher keeps the leadoff hitter from reaching first base and puts the first pitch over for a strike – the two most important rules of pitching.” — Nolan Ryan.
Data was from Baseball Savant.
Filtering the data took two steps. The first step was find Diamondback batter data for first innings, count of 0-0, no outs, no runners on base, and the 2022 season. Baseball Savant provided data for each first pitch and for each first plate appearance.
The second step was to remove each plate appearance (and the associated first pitch) that was preceded by a base clearing homer with no outs, which made it look similar to leading off the game.
For Diamondback batters, nearly all first pitches of the game were fastballs. 62% were strikes. When Cooper Hummel and Daulton Varsho led off the game, their plate appearances contributed significant added run expectancy. It’s noteworthy that when the leadoff batters reached first base, they put pressure on opposing pitchers.