During the TV broadcast of the Rangers-Mariners game on Monday night this week, the Rangers TV crew was talking about Felix Hernandez and a part of his pitching philosophy. Getting to learn more about the way the mind works of one of today’s greatest pitchers is always interesting, but one tidbit in particular grabbed my attention. Tom Grieve made the declaration that Hernandez doesn’t worry as much about throwing first-pitch strikes as he does making sure he throws a strike on one of the first two pitches.
Off I went to baseball-reference.com and Excel, my two favorite baseball research tools. I began to look at the Texas Rangers starting rotation and the success of each starter after starting an at-bat with a strike compared to a ball. I am looking at career numbers only to help reduce the small sample size issue (though there is no way around it with Darvish). Additionally, I expanded my view outside of my Texas Rangers world to look at King Felix in his career, and the results of all American League pitchers in 2011.
That answers the question of whether or not first-pitch strikes are important. Clearly, they are. Now for the second question inherent in Felix Hernandez’s philosophy: are first-pitch strikes more important than just getting one strike in the first two pitches?
Now we move to a second table of data to help determine if Felix Hernandez is thinking about things the right way. For every pitcher sampled here (except Darvish, which as stated earlier has a sample size issue), you will see that the difference in OPS is greater between a 2-0 and 1-1 start than it is between a 1-0 and 0-1 start.
There is a hazard to focusing on throwing a first-pitch strike, which is not seen in this data. These numbers only show the impact of at-bats where the count advanced to 1-0, 0-1, and beyond. What they don’t show is what happens when the hitter swings and puts the first pitch into play, which is below.
If we do a similar review of the difference between balls put into play on a 1-0 count, compared to what happens after an at-bat advances to a 2-0 count, we would see the below.
The conclusion is that it is best to be ahead in the count 0-1, which is perhaps too obvious of a statement. However, there are two other conclusions to be made as well. The first is that at times, it may behoove a pitcher to mix things up on the first pitch of an at-bat so as not to allow the hitter to be overly aggressive and jump on a hittable first pitch. The second is that if an at-bat begins with a 1-0 count, it is even more important to throw the next pitch for a strike than it was to throw the first pitch for a strike. For these pitchers, 2-0 hitters have been as successful as the 2011 version of Prince Fielder.
As you probably expected, Felix Hernandez knows what he is talking about. There is a reason that he has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball ever since he stepped on the mound as a 19-year old.
Appendix of interesting but only slightly related facts:
- In 2012, hitters have a 1.259 OPS off of Harrison on the first pitch. Harrison has thrown 4-seam fastballs 34% of the team on the first pitch, compared to 28% of the time in all counts.
- 15.6% of all plate appearances by Felix Hernandez opponents have ended after one pitch in 2012. The next highest total from this list is Harrison with 11.3%.
- If not for his walks, Neftali Feliz has been an effective pitcher in 2012. Opponents have a .187 batting average on the season. Even when ahead in the count, opposing hitters only have a .204 batting average.