It’s been said that the most important pitch in baseball is the first pitch. This year, if you get ahead 0-1, hitters subsequently manage a .598 OPS. But if you fall behind 1-0, that rises to .797.
A proxy for this is the frequency with which pitchers throw first-pitch strikes. The higher, the better -- unless, of course, they are just tossing pitches over the plate that get hammered mercilessly. We sure don’t want that.
This is the rub with first-pitch strike percentage. It includes pitches put in play as strikes. So let’s combine two stats this week in Pitching by the Numbers: first pitch strike percentage and batting average allowed when hitters swing at the first pitch. Who is finding the sweet spot most often by either starting off 0-1, which is good, or – even better -- actually getting hitters to unsuccessfully put the ball in play on the first pitch by limiting batting average (or perhaps just getting really lucky on BABIP, a distinction for another day).
For context, the MLB average this year is first pitch strikes on 60.2% of pitches. The batting average on first pitches is .341. Yikes! Hitters really can make pitchers pay for grooving fastballs over home plate on the first pitch. And this is nothing unusual. Since 2000, big league hitters have stroked at least .330 every year on first pitches (.344 in 2007 is the highest).
So let’s look at the pitchers this year who are helping themselves the most by throwing first-pitch strikes at least 65% of the time (well above league average) while also limiting batting average on the first pitch to .300 or less (which sounds bad but is well below league average). These pitchers aren’t necessarily good, they are just really helping themselves with first-pitch success.
Column key: 1st% = % of first pitch strikes, BA is batting average when hitters put first pitch in play, BAtot is average allowed overall. Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, entering Sunday’s action.
The asterisk simply means the pitcher is a lefty.
What can we say about Cueto? The guy is simply amazing. He just does everything right, except stay healthy. Cueto is the rare pitcher who gets the most out of his ability while also having very good ability. He’s an artist, pure and simple. And a virtuoso one at that. But what’s up with his abdominal issues? I have no clue, and neither do you or anyone except maybe his doctor.
Elias is a real sleeper who I like. I don’t want to just go the “use him in AL-only formats” route here. That’s lame. Hardly anyone even plays these formats. I can’t recommend for mixers a guy with a BB/9 over 4.0. It’s 4.1 now. I need it to be 3.5 or less and then I’m all-in. I mean, I’m all-in on Elias the second his BB/9 gets to 3.5. So I would have him reserved in mixed leagues, ready to quickly promote him to the active roster. I would not sleep on him. He has plus stuff, probably a 70 curve (maybe an 80), and varies his arm angles like so many Cuban pitchers. He also varies his velocity and the movement of his fastball. Check out this sick fastball to Carlos Beltran, who never swung at a heater this far out of the zone in his life, I’d wager. And if you don’t believe me regarding Elias’s curve, witness.
Lohse is like the poor man’s Cueto, especially if he can keep the K rate about 2/9 over his career rate. Strikeout rates have stabilized to the point where we can say that half of that improvement is projectable. We’re stuck with his career rate for the rest. So do you roster Lohse as at a K/9 of about 6.6? He’s borderline, but yes, given the bettable averages.
Now let’s look at the guys who throw strikes frequently on the first pitch, which we think we want, but who are paying a steep price even relative to league averages – a batting average allowed of over .380 to go with that first-pitch strike rate over 65%.
Does this make Sabathia (DL'ed on Sunday with fluid on the knee) even more unlucky or is it more proof that he’s just hittable? I think Sabathia is the most interesting pitcher in baseball now after Danny Salazar and just ahead of Tim Lincecum. Clearly, Sabathia is seeking to get ahead of hitters quickly. But, man, is he paying a heavy price when they put the ball in play. He’s also given up three homers on first pitches, the most in baseball. Sabathia has remained a sabermetric darling, someone who does all the foundational things right and just seems to suffer from chronic bad luck. But there are pitchers who go their entire careers like this, puncturing the idea that luck is really this issue. I remember Dave Bush was always unlucky. Ricky Nolasco of course. Now maybe Sabathia is too hittable even with the solid K rates and K/BB. I would still be buying him though or simply picking him up off waivers. But I am sabermetrically inclined, obviously.
Price has become the rich man’s Sabathia this year. No one is bailing on him. His K/9 and K/BB are otherworldly. Felix. as always, allows low hit quality even when he does get hit. Do not worry at all about him, even with the bizarre zero-K start last week.
Cashner does not strike out nearly enough batters given his stuff. Earlier this week, Eno Saris of Fangraphs charted up the whiffiest pitches and Cashner’s change was pretty good, maybe 90th percentile. But he only had thrown it 98 times.
Cole on the above list is similar with his slider as a great whiff pitch, but he throws it a lot (129 times) for a slider. Cashner should really have no limits, arm wise, on how often he can throw his change, which would seemingly boost his K/9.
Zimmermann’s K rate is through the roof, relative to this career rate. Again, buy about half of that gain and throw back the rest (at this point of the season). He’s been unlucky on BABIP on first pitches, it seems. But the hit quality, like Felix’s, is low (no homers). So this really hasn’t really hurt him much.
Some of you ask for complete lists. This is through Saturday. Feel free to dive in and look for your specific hurlers.
Remember if you have any questions, the best place for a quick reply is via Twitter @MichaelSalfino.