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February 10, 2011

Spitballing

Welcome to The Show

by Jeremy Greenhouse

A bad first impression can be overcome, be it by Austen's Mr. Darcy or MTV's Snooki. (See, I make both high- and low-brow pop culture references. You can relate to me! Unless you haven’t watched The Wire. Then you’re dead to me.) Good ones, well—you never really know if you’ve made a good first impression.

We can try to quantify first impressions, like most everything else having to do with baseball. This being PECOTA week, I got to wondering about the predictive value of a major leaguer’s first plate appearance. When you think about it, there’s probably no more nerve-racking moment in a big leaguer’s career than his first time up. The moment is the culmination of a lifetime of work, and nobody forgets their first time. What can we learn about those who deliver? Are they any better than those who don't? Are they more clutch?

Since 1974, ballplayers have hit .183/.224/.236 in their first trips to the plate. There are some biases going on there, so I’ll break it down a bit.

Sample PA BA OBP SLG
All Players 5302 .183 .224 .236
Non-Pitchers 3096 .236 .282 .317
Non-Pitchers, >=100 Career PA 2259 .249 .293 .337
Non-Pitchers, >=1000 Career PA 1239 .250 .296 .349

Keep in mind that each of these plate appearances occurs when a batter is facing a pitcher for the first time in the game, which is a known disadvantage to the batter. Furthermore, exactly 1,000 position players debuted as pinch-hitters, another significant penalty. (It’s odd that managers put so many players in a position to fail their first time up.) The pinch-hitters managed only a .239/.291/.311 line.

I chose the non-pitcher, 100-PA group as my sample. Of these batters, 520 struck out in their first plate appearance; over their careers, they struck out 16.9% of the time. Those who did not strike out in their first plate appearance struck out in 14.9% of their career PAs. I broke down batters into similar groups based on the outcome of their first plate appearance and how it related to the rest of their careers:

  1B 2B 3B HR NIBB IBB SO HBP SH GIDP
Sample 371 77 15 36 130 1 520 12 14 52
Yes (%) 16.5 4.5 0.7 3.0 8.7 0.6 16.9 1.5 1.3 2.2
No (%) 16.2 4.5 0.6 2.5 8.0 0.7 14.9 0.7 0.7 2.0

We don't see drastic divergences based on extremely early returns, which isn't surprising—after all, we're talking about one at-bat here, however significant—but a few differences do crop up. Players who lay one down or take one for the team in their first at-bat seem more likely to do so in the future, but the most significant outcome is the difference in strikeout rate. Indeed, PECOTA projects players who strike out their first time up to strike out in 21% of their plate appearances in the upcoming year, compared to a rate of only 19% for everyone else. I was also interested in finding out whether players who K’ed in their debuts were “clutch” or not. These batters do in fact perform worse in higher-leverage situations according to FanGraphs data, but most batters who strike out often perform worse in high-leverage situations, since such batters have deficiencies that can be more easily exploited by specialized relievers. It must come as a blow to strike out in your first at-bat, but it gets worse: in 108 even more ignominious instances since 1960, a batter made the final out of the game in his first plate appearance.

There are few things on the field more exciting than watching a player hit a home run in his first at-bat. 69 players have pulled off this feat since 1960, four of whose first round-trippers I remember having witnessed on TV: Marcus Thames, Jordan Schafer, Jason Heyward, and Daniel Nava. In the chart below, I label each player who has homered in his first PA over time, with bars representing career home-run totals (click to enlarge):


I also found five examples of a batter walking off in his first plate appearance: Jack Hiatt in 1964, Bob Pate in 1980 (a pinch-hit walk-off walk), Danny Tartabull in 1984, Curt Ford in 1985 (off of Lee Smith), and the most recent occurrence on May 3, 1995, when Tomas Perez entered a tie game in the eighth inning as a pinch-runner for Carlos Delgado. The Jays failed to score that inning and found themselves down a run with nobody on and two outs in the ninth. But Roberto Alomar homered off of Roberto Hernandez to send the game into extras, and in the bottom of the tenth, with two outs and a man on second, Tomas Perez singled home the winning run in his first ever plate appearance.


When we dream about playing in the majors, we don’t really consider the pressure of the fans or the grind of the games. We think about that first time at bat or on the mound. With that in mind, I thought I’d provide as much context surrounding debut appearances as I could find.

On average, 52% of debuts are made at home. The average attendance is 24,000 fans. 25% of debut plate appearances occur in the second inning, and another 25% in the eighth or ninth. These PAs occur in the following distribution of lineup spots:

As one would expect, raw rookies receiving their first taste of the majors tend to congregate toward the bottom of the lineup. Batters have the platoon advantage two-thirds of the time in their first plate appearance, and the debuting batter’s team wins 40% of the time. (For debuting pitchers, that figure is only 30%, which suggests that opposing teams aren’t inclined to make newcomers feel at home.)

Every once in a while, a player comes along who's anticipated enough to affect the context of his debut appearance. (If he’s really good, he’ll even have Bob Costas come out to validate the occasion.) The following starting pitchers drew crowds of at least 97% capacity and 1.7 times the average for that home team in that year:

So much for Strasburgmania; who knew John Cummings was such a draw?

And finally, a quick look at debuts by date, dominated by Opening Day and September call-ups:

Thanks to Retrosheet for first plate appearance data.

Jeremy Greenhouse is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeremy's other articles. You can contact Jeremy by clicking here

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