Dave Duncan & the First Pitch Strike

Dave Duncan's democratic pitching philosophy is well-known to the St. Louis Cardinals faithful. The first principle applies to the first pitch: throw it for a strike. Every other aspect of Duncanism flows from this foundational principle.

In his critique of Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights In August, Josh Levin notes:

Dave Duncan uses mathematical evidence to convince his starters of the importance of throwing a first-pitch strike.

It is an statistical-based rationale that Duncan has used to win over his pitchers since his days with the Chicago White Sox. As Richard Dotson remembers:

One strategy Dotson immediately employed was to recall strategies used by former Sox pitching coach Dave Duncan, now with St. Louis. The Bristol club started the season 2-12 and in one game the pitching staff walked 15 and threw roughly 300 pitches.

"I remember Dave Duncan talking about first-pitch strikes when we were with the White Sox," Dotson said. "When we got ahead of the hitters they were hitting. 170. When we got behind them they were hitting .700. It was a pretty easy example to show them the importance of getting a first-pitch strike."

Under the tutelage of Duncan and Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright also adopted this founding principle. Wainwright shared not only this first principle but also others with Sports Illustrated for its preview of the 2007 season:

Wainwright, 25, was a starter in the minors but pitched in relief with the Cardinals last season as a rookie, assuming the closer's role in September and saving four postseason games. To transition back, Wainwright sought the guidance of ace Chris Carpenter and pitching coach Dave Duncan. "They're telling me to throw first-pitch strikes to get first-pitch outs," says Wainwright, whose tendency to try for strikeouts--even as a starter--was ballooning his pitch count. "[You want to] get them to put the ball in play and trust your defense."

It all seems simplistic. Getting ahead in the count is preached at every level of organized baseball, from the volunteer Little League coaches to high school ball. Because of this, it seems that every major-league team preaches this philosophy. Indeed the majority of first pitches thrown are for strikes. This got me to wondering whether Duncan's Cardinals are typically better as a group when it comes to tossing a first-pitch strike.

The following is a chart for the years 2002 through 2011. I had initially hoped to look at the stats for Duncan's entire tenure as St. Louis pitching coach but Fangraphs does not have first-pitch strike data for the years prior to 2002. I have included the Cardinals pitchers' first pitch strike percentage and how that percentage ranked amongst MLB pitching staffs as well as the Cardinals' team ERA and FIP with their respective MLB ranks.

YEAR

F-STRIKE%

F-STRIKE% RANK

STL ERA

ERA RANK

STL FIP

FIP RANK

2011

60.8%

3rd (T)

3.79

11th (T)

3.75

8th

2010

58.4%

17th (T)

3.57

3rd (T)

3.87

7th

2009

61.7%

1st

3.66

4th

3.82

3rd

2008

59.7%

7th

4.20

12th

4.40

18th

2007

57.8%

20th (T)

4.67

16th

4.66

19th (T)

2006

59%

9th

4.54

13th

4.77

19th

2005

60.1%

7th (T)

3.49

1st

4.09

9th

2004

59%

8th

3.74

1st

4.17

8th (T)

2003

59.1%

8th

4.62

19th

4.75

21st

2002

58.3%

11th

3.70

4th

4.09

10th

As you can see from the graph, over the last ten seasons the Cardinals have rated fairly well in terms of throwing first pitch strikes but this has not necessarily mean an equally good rank in ERA or FIP. While a clear connection between first pitch strikes and pitcher effectiveness may not leap out of this graph, throwing a first pitch strike is a very effective.

Craig Burley wrote an intriguing article for the The Hardball Times on the subject: "The Importance of Strike One (Part One). In the article, Burley shares "the most shocking, stupefying stat" that he has come across in his years following baseball, "that less than 8 percent of first-pitch strikes turn into base hits." Or, to put it another way, as Burley does, over 92 percent of first pitch strikes results in an out or a 0-1 count. To be sure, if the batted ball is a fair ball, it is beneficial to the batter (NL hitters posted a .329/.336/.518 line on first pitches in 2011). Even so, Burley explains the net advantage a first-pitch strike provides a pitcher.

So in fact, looked at carefully, the pitcher still retains a massive advantage when that first pitch is in the strike zone. Why? Because once a pitcher gets to 0-1, hitters hit just .239/.283/.372 against him from there on out.

Burley further explains the benefit to a pitcher throwing a first-pitch strike using run expectancy by creating a set of custom linear weights.

I constructed a set of custom linear weights (using a method shown to me by Tangotiger) that took into account only unintentional walks (since IBBs almost always go 1-0, 2-0, 3-0) and ignored all other events as well. The result? The expected runs produced from each plate appearance beginning with a strike decreases by .029. The expected runs produced from each plate appearance beginning with a ball increases by .040. So that's a difference of .069 runs on the scoreboard from one pitch.

With the 2012 Cardinals returning Kyle Lohse (67.7% in 2011), Chris Carpenter (63.7%), Jake Westbrook (60.9%), and Jaime Garcia (57.6%) as well as welcoming back Wainwright (60.1% for his career), the rotation will be full of first-pitch strike throwers that will need little convincing from Duncan. Because of the net advantage throwing a first-pitch strike gives a pitcher, this is good news for Cardinals fans.

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