It's a relatively slow Friday afternoon, and the conversation in our newsroom ended up turning to first-pitch strikes. (Yes, we're an odd group.) You may have noticed that all of our ESPN.com boxscores had this stat added at last season's All-Star Break. It's something we continue to track throughout the year as an indicator of how well a pitcher is able to get ahead in the count.
S&I's Marty Callinan, who normally works on our NFL data team, jokingly suggested that in addition to tracking first-pitch strikes this season, we should track "seventh-pitch balls". That prompted us to stumble onto this interesting data, courtesy of our friends at Inside Edge.
If you sort all of last year's pitches by which pitch of the plate appearance they were, you notice a couple really neat trends. The strike percentage (which includes foul balls and balls put in play) rises on every pitch. The percentage of balls that are swung at rises with each successive pitch (three-fourths of all first pitches were taken by batters last year).
We often talk about hitters being patient at the plate, but one of the more surprising trends was the dramatic rise in the chase percentage. This stat reflects the number of bad balls (i.e., out of the strike zone) that a hitter swings at. Sure, a pitcher isn't going to throw one right over the heart of the plate when he's already battled for nine or ten pitches. And long counts favor the hurler anyway. But maybe that's not because of anything the pitcher's doing. Maybe the hitters are more eager to swing at junk pitches, if only just to foul one off and stay alive. Even the most patient hitters eventually lose it.
Hitters swung more, chased more, and hit for less power with each successive pitch of a plate appareance.
Data from Inside Edge, for 2009 regular season. "WH Avg" = Well-hit average on balls in play.