The Importance of the First-Pitch Strike

Pool

It's difficult to overstate just how important throwing a first-pitch strike is for pitchers.

The importance of throwing a first-pitch strike is stressed beginning at a young age and with good reason. It's a baseball truth that is glaringly obvious. A pitcher who gets ahead in the count with his first pitch is more likely to experience success. But it's hard to exaggerate the importance of the first-pitch strike.

Former St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach and current Arizona Diamondbacks special pitching something or another Dave Duncan understands this. Jimmy Greenfield's MLB.com article on Richard Dotson harked to Duncan's days as the Chicago White Sox pitching coach and how he would attempt to show the pitchers under his tutelage just how important throwing a first-pitch strike was:

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."

The split for MLB batters after getting ahead 1-0 as opposed to falling behind 0-1 isn't quite as Grand Canyon-esque as Dotson colorfully remembered. But the gap is yawning. Using Baseball-Reference, I made the following graphic, which shows how MLB batters fared last season after falling behind 0-1 and after getting on top 1-0.

HowImportantIsThe1stpP title=

On a rate basis, the gap between a batter's performance after getting ahead in the count 1-0 versus falling behind 0-1 is effectively the same as the production gap between Carlos Beltran and Jack Hannahan last season.

Let's take a look at how the 2013 St. Louis pitchers performed at throwing first-pitch strikes. The following chart compares the various Cardinals pitchers' first-pitch strike rates from last year and also includes other stats for reference.

2013 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: FIRST-PITCH STRIKE RATE

Pitcher

F-Strike%

ERA

ERA-

FIP

FIP-

K%

BB%

Edward Mujica

74.9 %

2.78

77

3.71

102

18.0%

2.0%

Victor Marte

70.6 %

6.00

166

5.71

157

11.8%

17.7%

Fernando Salas

69.5 %

4.50

124

3.62

99

18.6%

5.1%

Mitchell Boggs

69.5 %

11.05

305

7.68

212

13.4%

18.3%

Jaime Garcia

67.5 %

3.58

99

3.72

102

18.4%

6.4%

Seth Maness

67.5 %

2.32

64

3.43

94

14.1%

5.2%

Adam Wainwright

64.5 %

2.94

81

2.55

70

22.9%

3.7%

Trevor Rosenthal

63.3 %

2.63

73

1.91

52

34.7%

6.4%

Lance Lynn

63.3 %

3.97

110

3.28

90

23.1%

8.9%

Shelby Miller

62.3 %

3.06

85

3.67

101

23.4%

7.9%

Carlos Martinez

62.1 %

5.08

140

3.08

84

19.4%

7.3%

John Axford

61.4 %

1.74

48

2.08

57

25.0%

6.8%

Kevin Siegrist

61.2 %

0.45

13

2.29

63

32.9%

11.8%

Randy Choate

61.0 %

2.29

63

2.57

70

19.9%

7.8%

MLB Average

60.3%

3.87

100

3.87

100

19.9%

7.9%

Jake Westbrook

59.1 %

4.63

128

4.62

127

8.4%

9.6%

Tyler Lyons

58.7 %

4.75

131

3.73

102

19.3%

7.2%

Michael Wacha

58.1 %

2.78

77

2.92

80

25.0%

7.3%

Michael Blazek

57.7 %

6.97

192

6.82

188

19.2%

19.2%

Sam Freeman

56.0 %

2.19

60

2.97

81

16.0%

10.0%

Joe Kelly

55.3 %

2.69

74

4.01

110

14.9%

8.3%

Keith Butler

51.8 %

4.05

112

3.25

89

18.8%

12.9%

John Gast

50.0 %

5.11

141

4.02

110

15.4%

9.6%

Marc Rzepczynski

44.0 %

7.84

217

4.02

110

18.0%

8.0%

Maikel Cleto

40.0 %

19.29

533

8.19

226

33.3%

6.7%

I didn't use an innings cutoff, so we have every Cardinal who threw last year (except for Rob Johnson, who isn't a pitcher). A few things stick out:

  • Joe Kelly was one of the worst on the team at throwing his first pitch for a strike last year. I wrote about this during the postseason, but throwing first-pitch strikes is no less important during the regular season than it is in October. It will be interesting to see if Kelly can improve his first-pitch strike rate and other peripherals this year.
  • Edward Mujica is a strike-throwing machine. His first-pitch strike percentage and BB% are something to behold.
  • It's amazing that Mitchell Boggs threw that large a share of first-pitch strikes yet still walked as many batters as he did.
  • Randy Choate's peripherals (F-Strike%, K%, and BB%) feel inappropriately close to league average for a LOOGY.
  • Outside of Kelly and Wacha, the candidates for the 2014 starting rotation did a good job of throwing first-pitch strikes last season.

Last year, the Cardinals' collective 62.2% first-pitch strike rate placed fourth in MLB. If St. Louis hopes to compete in October again this year, the pitching staff will have to experience similar success on the first pitch.

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