Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don't swing at the first pitch

At the high school level, less than 50% of pitchers throw a strike on the first pitch. A lot of hitters make the mistake of being too aggressive at the plate and swing at the first pitch- getting themselves out 81% of the time. Every coach has communicated to their players the need to be patient at the plate however few coaches have actually explained the strategy behind being patient, what do we hope to accomplish, how does the hitter/team benefit, and what are the situations when you would deviate from this approach. The text on this page will provide some answers to those questions. My hope is after reading this posting, you will understand patience and how the approach WILL result in improved success every at bat.

What if I told you that statistics show that you have a better chance of getting a hit on an 0-1 pitch rather than on an 0-0 pitch. Would that surprise you? I bet it would. Well, it's TRUE. There are 4 key reasons for not swinging on the first pitch: 1) starting pitchers will throw more pitches when teams commit to taking the first pitch, 2) allows for coaches to advance base runners, 3) permits the hitter to get timing on pitchers and see all pitches, and 4) assists the hitter to work toward a more favorable count. Let me explain each.

1. Starting pitchers will throw more pitches: If we can cause the starting pitcher to throw more pitches, we can reduce the number of innings he will be able to throw. In addition, as the pitcher fatigues, he will make less quality pitches resulting in an improved ability to drive the count in the hitters favor.

2. Allows coaches to advance base runners: Advancing base runners to second base is critical to scoring runs. If you think about it, a runner on 2nd is only one hit away from scoring whereas a runner on 1st is either two hits away or needs for the hitter to drive the ball to the wall for him to score. Probability of scoring from 2nd with no outs is 40% higher than scoring from 1st with no outs. Probability of scoring from 2nd with one out is 55% higher than scoring from 1st with one out. Probability of scoring from 2nd with two outs is 85% higher than scoring from 1st with two outs. Taking the first pitch allows for the coaches to steal 2nd or advance the runners via the bunt or hit-and-run play.

3. Permits hitters to get timing on pitchers and see all pitches: An important factor in hitting a pitcher is getting your timing. One way to improve your ability to time a pitcher is to see more pitches. The deeper you get into a count the more opportunity you have to get your timing. Also, the more pitches the pitcher throws to you AND your teammates increases the teams ability to see all his pitches (fastball, curve, slider, change up, etc.) and to uncover patterns for throwing certain pitches. For example, if over the course of the game you discover that the pitcher always follows his curve ball with a fastball, then the team can anticipate/predict the tendencies and use this to the hitters advantage. This can only occur if the hitters are patient and fight the urge to go after the first pitch.

4. Work toward a more favorable count: According to a study of Division I baseball for 5 years, the batting average on the first pitch, or 0-0 count, is .186. The batting average on the 0-1 count is .199. Below I have noted the Batting Averages on Specific Counts:

Count/ Batting Average

0-2/ .118
1-2/ .151

2-2/ .169

0-0/ .186

3-2/ .192

0-1/ .199

3-0/ .267

1-1/ .269

2-1/ .290

3-1/ .329

2-0/ .342

1-0/ .386

As noted earlier, with pitchers throwing less than 50% strikes on the first pitch, the percentages are in the hitters favor that the pitch will be a ball- thus increasing the chances of getting a hit- when they take the first pitch. In future blogs, I will explain how working the count allows the hitter to better predict/anticipate certain pitch types and locations. Once a hitter can anticipate and predict he immediately increases his ability to have a successful at-bat. Stay tuned for that discussion.

Exception: An exception to the "take the first pitch" rule is when you have a control pitcher on the mound that has EARNED the right for us to swing at the first pitch. A pitcher that consistently throws first-pitch-strike will cause the hitter to adjust his approach and look to go after the first pitch (only if it is a fastball- talk about that in the future). If we allow the pitcher to consistently get ahead of us by taking the first pitch then we are working from behind and the percentages are not in our favor. Note that the pitcher has to earn the right for us to change our approach to go after the first pitch. This is typically charted by the coaches and the adjustment is generally made in the 3-4th inning after going through the line-up once.

Summary: At the major league level, the average player sees 3.85 pitches per at-bat. Data has shown that there is a direct correlation between the number of pitches a hitter sees per at-bat and his batting average. Acknowledging this fact, my teams have always had a goal to get to the 4th pitch every time up to the plate. Sometimes we will get to 3 pitches and other times we will get to 6 pitches. What I have found is that by targeting 4 pitches we can improve our on-base percentage, increase our batting average, and impact the number of runs we will score per game. All of which impacts the game positively for us.

So, take a patient yet aggressive approach at the plate. Don't swing at the first pitch to; cause the pitcher to throw more pitches; allow your coaches to advance the base runners, permit you to get your timing, see all his pitches, and discover tendencies; work toward a more favorable count while recognizing that the pitcher has to earn the right for us to change our approach and go after a first pitch (fastball-strike).


  1. Excellent - Great point!

    You're correct, some teams will have a pitcher or pitchers capable of throwing up to 65 percent first pitch strikes (FPS). They've earned consideration on the first pitch. It should be noted that many of those "control" pitchers possess enough command to throw a first pitch curveball strike.

    That's when you hope the pitcher wears your team's jersey.

  2. As a baseball NON-expert, I've always wondered about something....and since you are good with statistics....
    When a player has 3 balls and no strikes, why does the coach always tell the batter not to swing. Seems to me that that 4th pitch is a meatball down the center 90% of the time.

  3. Good questions Susie. I will answer for how I approach the situation. 9 times out of 10 I will have the player take. I will talk later about the 1 exception.

    For starters, the pitcher has thrown 3 balls in a row so there is legitmate concern that he can and/or will throw the 4th for a strike. Next, a walk is as good as a hit so no need to risk getting a hit on a 3-0 count because of the next reason. If he throws a strike on a 3-0 count then he has to do it again with a 3-1 count. On MOST occasions the next pitch will be a fastball because he doesn't want to walk the batter. So with a 3-1 count the hitter can anticapate a fastball over the plate and as you can see from the data above, there is a good chance we will get a hit. It is one of the most favorable counts a hitter can face. B
    esides anytime you can anticapate a pitch and location, it increases the success factor

    As for the exception, if I have a hitter and a game situation that feels right, I will have them swing away. I need to be confident that the 3-0 pitch will be the ONLY fastball the hitter gets. Then I will let it go. Otherwise I want the guys to hit fastballs when they expect them.

    That is my thoughts. Anyone else?

  4. Coach,

    I like the article and as you pointed out, the amount of pitches a batter sees will help his batting average; however, the data you have there also shows that the best time to swing is the first pitch. You will notice that by swinging on a first pitch you give yourself a 1/3+ chance of hitting the ball. This count is the 3rd best count for hitting a ball according to 2007 mlb Stats. By not swinging, your chances go down either way. A pitcher tries to locate this pitch to the inner 3/5 of the plate. At the 1-0 count even if the first pitch is a ball the pitch will be pinpointed slightly further from the middle of the plate and that causes averages to actually drop a small amount. If the ball was missed by the batter or it was a strike the batter is not in a hole. the average drops by 1 in 50 hits. Then, a good hitter has a .324 chance of hitting the ball. If the pitch is a ball his average goes back up. The Yankees utilize these stats perfectly which is why they are one of the best teams in baseball. You are exactly right about working the count, but that is after the first pitch. By getting the hits on first pitches the pither gets nervous about throwing to the middle and will eventually become less accurate. Good Luck this Season.

    The reason I dissagree with your ideas is because of the variable of fastballs. So what if it is a fastball or not. Stay back and hit a home run on the curveball.
    Also it is confusing to me why on an 0-0 count you don't want your players to swing. Its practically a free shot at a home run.

    CAL R.

  5. This way of thinking only applies to levels that pitchers don't throw many strikes. In the bigs, it's a huge advantage to swing at the first strike, as the chances of getting a hit drop drastically from there. Nice read however.

  6. If its a strike swing the damn bat. I can understand taking a pitch if the count is 3-0 and your team is losing and runs are needed. But baseball is so political and too many coaches don't think aggressively just ask yourself this question would Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson or any other good hitter just watch a fat pitch go by?

  7. I have heard that if you take the first pitch, and some freshman and JV coaches coach that way, that your batting average will be 77 points lower. I say hit the first pitch, but it has to be your pitch, in what I call a 12" circle, in your :wheelhouse, other wise lay off. some coaches have the entire team take the first pitch....crazy. if a hitter has discipline, swing away, he will not see a better pitch....after that the pitcher will nibble away, and make him hit his pitches. he most likely will get him to strike out or ground out.

    1. That is going on with my boys jv team , no is allowed to swing at the first pitch and the team B.A. is way low

  8. My boy leads off for his jv team and has been jumping on the first pitch, and has an on base % of .598. Then the coaches told the team to take the first pitch, since then his on base % dropped to .505. Not a big fan on taking that first pitch.

    1. 100% agreed. My 600 OBP dropped a lot when I stopped swinging at the first pitch but is rising again since I decided to swing at the first pitch.

  9. 0-0 Count is a sub-200 average? I'm hitting .350-400 and 70% of my hits are on the first or second pitch! I probably hit .600 on the first pitch and after that .200. I can understand taking that first pitch if the pitcher is really wild or a 3-0 count/situational hitting, but why give someone an even bigger advantage when they have a 75% chance of getting you out to begin with! I want to respectfully address your arguments made here.

    The first one, what is the big deal about wearing out a pitcher if you don't swing? Wear him out by getting tons of hits and being aggressive, eventually forcing him to throw balls, and then being selective.

    2, Unless you have a ridiculously fast team, taking pitches will not allow them to move over. By using hit and runs, bunts, or by just protecting them by swinging, you get rid of the chance of a caught stealing, and if you are a good situational hitter, than you just moved a runner from first to third instead of first to second.

    3, Probably 10% of the time a pitcher will NOT throw a fastball on the first pitch. That rate gets higher after every pitch. In youth/high school baseball, hitters love fastballs, not offspeed pitches and/or breaking balls. Very few pitchers are good enough to use offspeed pitches before a two strike situation. And about seeing the pitcher throw, if you swing at the first pitch, you will usually not have to deal with the offspeed pitch.

    4, This one makes a bit sense. However, why not hit earlier in an at bat than later? The longer the atbat, the greater chance of the pitcher throwing a pitch you are not good at hitting.

    I just found so many things wrong with this article, and, as you can tell, I am a big supporter of SWINGING at the first pitch.

  10. I truly believe taking the first pitch and making the pitchers get their pitch counts up is not a way to get a pitcher out of the game quickly now a day. Especially at the major league level, most of the starting pitchers are trained physically and mentally to keep going in their starts. Most of these starting pitchers will throw close or over 100 pitches a game. I believe the fastest way to get a starting pitcher out of a game is to be aggressive early in the count and put runs on the board. Make the pitcher adjust to the hitters, not the other way around. 90% of first pitches are fastballs so why not swing at a fastball early in the count? in the past two years the strikeout rate has risen 28% in MLB. The reason for that is because the theory of being patient at the plate has caused more and more strikeouts. I see so many of these MLB hitters watch fastball after fastball on the first pitch go right down the middle and then when it comes to an 0-2 count they are swinging at a junk pitch. The pitchers are only getting better as the years go by and the offensive production is decreasing. Want to see more runs scored? Hitters need to become more aggressive early in the count then wait around.

  11. Ok, here is my two cents. If you are making solid contact on the first pitch strike then stay with it...but if you are not you have to see more pitches to help with your timing.

  12. When I pitched (many, many years ago at the Div I level), I *hated* teams that took the first pitch. It would put tremendous pressure on me because I knew I didn't have to throw my best pitch. I didn't have to hit a corner. I didn't have to throw a big breaking ball. Just throw a batting practice fastball right down the middle. Actually KNOWING the batter wasn't going to swing no matter what I threw and no matter where I threw it made it exceptionally aggravating when the first pitch was a ball. Knowing that they were going to continue to take until I threw a strike was oppressive. It would have been better for me (psychologically speaking) if I never knew that they were always taking the first pitch.