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May 24, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

The Importance of Throwing First Pitch Strikes

by Brian Oakchunas

When MLB.com asked Carlos Zambrano to point to one thing he did during his no-hitter that he'd want to repeat in the postseason, he said, "Strike, first pitch, strike, and challenge the hitters." It is fascinating that Big Z responded this way because he had one of the lowest first pitch strike rates in the major leagues last year along with an uninspiring walk rate. More on what pitchers would like to do versus what they actually do a little later. In the meantime, it is worth looking at how correct his sentiment was and what value the first pitch strike mantra really has.

The first thing we need here is the definition for first pitch strike. The standard use of the term refers to not only pitches that lead to an 0-1 count, but also any balls that were put into play on the first pitch. The idea is that if the pitcher made a pitch that was in the strike zone or made the batter swing, he was throwing a strike regardless of whether it worked out successfully.

Of course, I am not the first person to look at the value of getting it in there on the first pitch. In 2003 Craig Burley found that only 7.3% of first pitch strikes turn into base hits on that pitch. He went on to relate some numbers from at bats that start with a strike as opposed to a ball:

0-0 Strike  .261/.296/.411
0-0 Ball    .280/.385/.459 (ignoring intentional walks)

Looking back at last year, it is informative to view the best and worst pitchers at throwing first pitch strikes (at least 100 IP category):

10 Best                  10 Worst
Mike Mussina    67.6%    Anwrew Miller     51.2% 
Kevin Slowey    67.2%    Barry Zito        51.5%
Ervin Santana   66.7%    R.A. Dickey       51.8%
Cliff Lee       66.6%    Jorge de la Rosa  52.4%    
Greg Maddux     66.5%    Edison Volquez    52.6% 
Dan Haren       66.1%    Oliver Perez      52.9%
John Lackey     65.2%    Seth McClung      53.3%
Javier Vazquez  65.1%    Brian Burres      53.7%
Jorge Campillo  64.3%    Miguel Batista    53.8%
Brandon Webb    64.1%    Greg Smith        54%

In case you were wondering, our friend Carlos Zambrano was a little higher on the bad list at 55%. El Torro aside, one of the first things you notice is that the players in the best column seem much better than players in the worst column. But let's not jump to any small sample conclusions just yet. Think about this: we already knew first pitch strikes were good; it's just that we only had absolute numbers to look at (all first pitch strikes vs. all first pitch balls). When we look at the actual players, we learn that the very best pitcher at throwing strikes, Mike Mussina, was only 16.4% better than the worst, Andrew Miller. As opposed to the 100% difference between Burley's offensive lines that we first looked at, we are only concerned with, in the most extreme circumstances, a 16.4% difference between the worst and best pitchers at throwing first pitch strikes. It bears repeating: those are only the most extreme cases. Most pitchers fall a lot closer to the middle, forming a nice bell curve. In fact most pitchers (using one standard deviation) fall between 56% and 63.4%. While we know that first pitch strikes matter, our question becomes whether throwing them 7.4% more often than someone else really makes that much difference.

In order to answer this question, I compiled (with a nod to fangraphs) data of all pitchers who threw over 100 innings in the last three years. First, I simply split these pitchers into two groups, one group that had a higher than average (average being 59.7%) rate and ones that had a lower rate. I'll refer to the two groups as "strike throwers" and "indifferent throwers". I weighted these pitchers for the number of innings they threw and then found their average rates:

Strike Throwers
62.6% first pitch strikes, 6.62K/9, 2.46 BB/9, 1.04 HR/9 .267 BAA, .305 BABIP, 4.13 ERA.

Indifferent Throwers
56.8% first pitch strikes, 6.30K/9, 3.44 BB/9, 1.06 HR/9 .268 BAA, .302 BABIP, 4.51 ERA. 

Looking at our results, we can easily determine that, yes, throwing first pitch strikes does make some difference or is at least linked to other good rates. Comparing these to Burley's earlier results, it appears that if it has any effect on batting average against or homeruns, it is insignificant when you're only talking about a 5.8% difference between the two groups. Also, while you may have noticed that batters as skilled as David Wright have very low averages after they get behind in an 0-2 count (.218 last year), it is clear that at least after the first pitch, batting average on balls in play is affected very little by the count.

The numbers that do seem to be affected by first pitch strikes are K/9, BB/9, and ERA. These results are very satisfying in a couple of different ways. First, we get what we really want to see, which is that throwing first pitch strikes has a tangible relationship with a good ERA, at almost 0.4 runs of difference between the two groups. Second, we learn why it has an effect on ERA. Pitchers are somewhat more likely to get a punch out and far less likely to give up a walk if they throw first pitch strikes. Furthermore, the effect on ERA is nearly what we would expect to find via the improvement in those two rates.

The stats whizzes out there may be concerned with the nature of this study. That is because I am including all pitchers in the study. The advantage of using all pitchers is that it creates a larger and therefore more reliable sample of players. The disadvantage is that most players fall right in the middle of the bell curve, and therefore, there are a large number of players labeled as either strike throwers or indifferent throwers that actually have a very similar first pitch strike rate.

A way to eliminate this concern is to repeat the study eliminating all pitchers in the middle of the bell curve. In order to do this we can take away pitchers within one standard deviation of the middle. This is just a fancy way of saying we'll take out all pitchers who had a similar percentage between the two groups. To that end, we'll take out all pitchers between 56 and 63.4%. This leaves us with 124 pitcher seasons (as opposed to 419) but it is worth taking a look to see if these results differ. Here, we will refer to the two groups as "extreme strike throwers" and "extremely indifferent":

Extreme Strike Throwers:
65.5% first pitch strikes, 6.85 K/9, 1.97 BB/9, .97 HR/9, .266 BAA, .307 BABIP, 3.81 ERA
Extremely Indifferent:
54% first pitch strikes, 6.26 K/9, 3.90 BB/9, 1.03 HR/9, .268 BAA, .303 BABIP, 4.65 ERA

The homerun rates get a nice little boost here, but it is small enough that it could still just be noise in the study. Otherwise, these results are virtually the same as those in the first study. They merely look larger because there is a bigger gap between the percentage of strikes in the two groups. No matter which way we look at the data, we find the same trends. That said, it helps to illustrate the point that extreme strike guys can be vastly more effective. Any team would love to have one of the 56 pitchers who averaged out to a 3.81 ERA.

Restating the conclusions:

  • There is not that much difference in the percentage of times different pitchers throw strikes.
  • But even a modest improvement over the league average positively relates to a pitcher's performance.
  • Extreme strike throwers tend to be far more effective than their counterparts.
  • First pitch strike throwers tend to have better ERAs (approximately .07 runs for every point higher they are in first pitch strike percentage).
  • The improvement in ERA is due to a tangible improvement in BB/9 (.17 improvement for each point higher) and K/9 (.05) among first strike pitchers.

Remember Carlos Zambrano's quote? He wanted to throw first pitch strikes; it just never seemed to work out for him. It is easy to get frustrated with pitchers when they can't seem to get their strikes right away, but it's important to remember that it is not necessarily a choice. It is easy to get into a chicken and egg argument where we wonder whether the pitchers are having better walk rates because they throw the first pitch strikes or they have better first pitch numbers because they also happen to have enough control to not walk people. Control superstar Kevin Slowey once said, "Control begets control, and command begets command." When pitchers can manage the strike zone well, they will see the first pitch strikes and the low walk rates and all the good fortune that comes with them. Clearly, both tools relate well with success.

Related Content:  Strike,  Pitchers,  Two Strikes

31 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


I found this beautifully written and tightly argued.

I think a stronger argument, however, could have been made had you somehow used individual plate appearances rather than the season-long statistics of individual pitchers. In other words, to really demonstrate the importance of first-pitch strikes, you'd have to show data for, on the one hand, all the plate appearances where a first-pitch strike was thrown, and on the other, all the plate appearances where a first-pitch strike was not thrown.

Your piece isn't really about the importance of first-pitch strikes. It's about first-pitch strike *pitchers* (if there is such a thing, which your data suggest there might not really be).

Nonetheless, I think you display strong analytical tools, of which I'd like to see some more.

Thumbs up!

May 24, 2009 15:17 PM
rating: 3
Richard Bergstrom

I found this to be an easy and pleasant read. My main quibble was in how ERA is presented as being more important than BB/9 and K/9. It seems to me it would have been more logical, persuasive and constructive to show how first pitch strikes lead to better bb/9 and k/9 ratios, then build on those relationships to show how BB/9 and K/9 affect ERA. Instead, the improved BB/9 and K/9 ratios seem to be a bit of a digression when it should be the core to the argument on the effectiveness of first pitch strikes.

May 24, 2009 15:26 PM
rating: 1
Richard Bergstrom

This article was one of the five that I gave a thumbs up to on my initial read through.

May 24, 2009 16:18 PM
rating: 0
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Kris Allen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

May 24, 2009 17:10 PM
rating: -7
Matthew Avery

I'm still not sure what you've proved. Is it throwing the first strike that leads to success or do successful pitchers throw first strikes? My assumption would be the latter. To figure this out, I'd look at the outcomes pitchers in the different groups have in the different counts. If a "strike thrower" and an "indifferent thrower" have similar K-rate, BB-rate, etc. in 1-0 counts, 0-1 counts, etc., then the difference is getting that first pitch. If the "strike throwers" have superior rate stats, then they're just better pitchers.

May 24, 2009 18:48 PM
rating: 1
Greg Ioannou

I was stopped cold at "The homerun rates get a nice little boost here, but it is small enough that it could still just be noise in the study." That's so easy to check -- it makes it sound like you haven't heard of measures of statistical significance. Then I read back again and found a really unsettling vagueness to the analysis of the stats.

May 24, 2009 20:35 PM
rating: 0
Brian Oakchunas

A couple of people suggested privately that I respond to this comment so I'll mention that I didn't feel that I needed to unnecessarily complicate the article with a discussion of p-value and its viability over a stat difference hat was so small it wasn't affecting the outcomes much at all. Thanks for reading.

May 25, 2009 21:46 PM
rating: 0
Sky Kalkman

Solid article, and was more on the Basics end than most of these pieces, which is a compliment.

I would have focused more on the walks, as they explain most of the variation in ERA. One thing to mention is that pitchers who throw more fewer first pitch strikes probably also throw fewer strikes later in the plate appearance, too. There could be two causes. One, that pitcher's control isn't as good or two, that pitcher's stuff isn't as good and needs to nibble a bit more or else risk giving up more home runs.

May 24, 2009 21:19 PM
rating: 1
JD Sussman
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May 25, 2009 05:06 AM
rating: -4

I also like this article, but wish that it took another step or two along the analytical path. I'd like to see the relationship between first pitch strike and later strikes. I'd be even more interested in the relationship between first pitch strike and pitch velocity and movement (which might help demonstrate the relationship between first pitch strikes and "stuff").

I'm voting to keep him around, but I'm hoping to see a bit more out of an eventual winner.

May 26, 2009 06:24 AM
rating: 0
John Carter

It surprises me KG chose to criticiza the style as needing to have "more fun", as I think Brian Oakachunas's sense of fun shines through.

Brian is who I bet was the 11th entrant - the one who made it in because Jeremy Greenhouse dropped out of the competition. It's just a gut feel, perhaps, because I indentify with his writing skills more than anyone elses and I didn't get picked.

This piece started off very strongly. I loved the top 10 and worse 10 lists of first strike pitchers. Shortly after that I started getting heavy eyelids. Nonetheless, Brian (both Brians) had one of my top five (including Jeremy's) qualifying entries to this competition, so he gets my vote to continue another week.

May 24, 2009 23:58 PM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

I'll admit Brian's Initial Entry was the one I was the most "ho-hum" about. This article made up for it though. Just would've liked to see first strikes lead to bb/9 and k/9 then into ERA, but overall pretty happy with it.

May 25, 2009 14:53 PM
rating: 0

I liked this article, it was pretty readable, but I found myself at the end of it wanting. At the beginning he says that he will talk about the issue of pitchers who want to throw first pitch strikes but can't. By the end, he spends only one little paragraph on it, with nothing supporting it. Its like he ran out of space for the rest. This wouldn't have been an issue if he hadn't whetted my appetite for it. I wanted to see some data.

Of course, as far as I know, there is no data out there which tells how far a pitcher has "missed". But what I wanted to see is the question of "How badly can a pitcher get messed up by throwing a first pitch strike that gets hit really hard". As I've heard some announcers say, "Its not enough to throw a first pitch strike, you also have to throw a GOOD strike on the first pitch."

May 25, 2009 06:35 AM
rating: 0
Randy Brown

A positive aspect to this article was that it went beyond merely describing a particular statistic, and produced data that explained why it "works" and why I should care about it.

May 25, 2009 07:55 AM
rating: 0

The writing needs to be tightened up. Also, I think Brian would have done well to offer (or perhaps just speculate about) a deeper explanation for the correlations he's uncovered. The piece is interesting, but the conclusion is pretty weak. Why isn't the angle that there is an interesting correlation here, but further work needs to be done to determine the root causal factor?

May 25, 2009 09:25 AM
rating: 0
Jason Snell

I think this article works as a Basics article. I didn't want more charts or delving into the stats. Brian hit just the right level.

May 25, 2009 11:55 AM
rating: 0

What is the 100% difference he is talking about? The approximate shift in OBP between the two stat lines? For one, percent difference is not a good number to use, as it could have two different connotations. For another, Brian never seems to commit to writing a serious numbers piece versus a more casual editorial piece. Overall it is fair, but could stand to be considerably tightened up.

May 25, 2009 12:00 PM
rating: 0
Brian Oakchunas

I was commenting on how previous research compared all at bats that started with a first pitch strike vs. all that started with a ball. The findings are fun to look at but since real pitchers never throw first pitch strikes 100% of the time, it doesn't help us to understand how much better pitchers who throw them frequently really are. Thanks for your feedback.

May 25, 2009 12:37 PM
rating: 0
Ben F.

I noticed the 100% difference line as well. It certainly wasn't clear to me from the article what you were refering to. Thanks for the clarification.

May 26, 2009 08:24 AM
rating: 2

I liked the approach quite a bit - give a motivating example, then a definition (I love those), and then some lists that show the range of possibilities and who is at the two ends of that range. By the time we get into the actual number-crunching, we are well prepared.

And then, the piece just does not do what it claims to. I'm surprised that this is mentioned only minimally in the comments so far. It is shown that pitchers who throw more first-pitch strikes are on average more successful. But what about second- or third- or twelfth-pitch strikes? There is no comparison made; you might as well have used overall strike percentage. So, strikes are good.

Also, seeing something I write get automatically hot-linked is such an ego boost! So, Dick Tidrow! ERA!

May 25, 2009 17:32 PM
rating: -2
Dr. Dave

The key point has already been made above: do specific individual pitchers do better when they throw more first-pitch strikes, or is it something that depends on what kind of stuff they have? Even if you can't answer that question in this article, you could at least pose it, and talk briefly about how it _could_ be answered.

May 25, 2009 20:32 PM
rating: 0

Good article, but from the start I was thinking "Is the term 1st pitch strikes really a stat that would qualify for a Basics article?" VORP, DER, DTs etc definitely, but 1st pitch strikes is not really a stat that you see in anybody's stat lines.

The topic is worthy of an article no doubt, but did this really meet the rules of the week?

May 25, 2009 20:57 PM
rating: 1

I clicked on this article before any of the others specifically because of the stat he chose. It's not an obvious choice, but you hear about first pitch strikes so much when you're watching baseball I definitely think it's warranted.

Nice piece. I feel like this week's rules kept Brian from rolling up his sleeves a little more on this, though.

May 26, 2009 09:52 AM
rating: 0

I may be persnickety, but I was hoping to see some data showing that the "first pitch strike" was more significant than the "first strike pitch", i.e. are ABs that start 0-1 and then go to 1-1 result any differently than ones that start 1-0 and go to 1-1.

May 26, 2009 17:42 PM
rating: 0
Brian Oakchunas

Funny you should ask. I was actually going to reference an article that answered that exact question but I was over my word limit and I didn't quite have a good spot to put it in anyway:


Baxamusa finds that counts that start 1-0 and then go to 1-1 are actually more successful than the reverse.

A lot of the comments asked for more detail in various ways but it is tough with the word limit. I would probably run the topic into two or three continued articles under different circumstances.

May 26, 2009 19:43 PM
rating: 0

Thanks for the link, Brian.

May 26, 2009 20:26 PM
rating: 0
John Carter

Now that's interesting.

May 27, 2009 14:01 PM
rating: 0

I think Brian sort of rushed into the conclusions. I'd rather see some categorization of pitchers analyzed. And, I don't mean only SPs and RPs. There are objective ways to divide pitchers such as power pitchers or pitchers who pitch to contact. I bet we would find more insight in looking at that instead

BTW.- Carlos Zambrano's nickname is El Toro... not El ToRRo! These are things you should know well!! LOL.

May 29, 2009 11:55 AM
rating: 0
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