Yadier Molina and swinging at the first pitch

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Yadier Molina swings at the first pitch a lot, and that's okay.

Saturday was VEB Day at Busch Stadium, and we packed into the ballpark to watch the St. Louis Cardinals take on the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cards were giving away a Yadier Molina replica jersey at the gates, as well. It seemed like the giveaway could not have been better timed, what with Molina was riding a 13-game hitting streak coming into the game. But the MVP candidate went 0 for 4 and posted a -.201 WPA (thanks to stranding six baserunners), which tied starter Tyler Lyons (who allowed four runs in six innings) for the worst on the team.

During the game and after, some Cardinals fans questioned Molina swinging at the first pitch during one of his plate appearances. This is not an uncommon occurrence when a Cardinal swings at the first pitch and makes an out, so I thought it might be interesting to dissect Molina's plate approach on the first offering he sees from the opposing pitcher and see how it compares to MLB as a whole.

The first pitch of a PA represents a fine line. In nearly all situations, a batter doesn't want to take the pitch with the bat resting on his shoulder. The reason? It's really hard to reach base safely after falling in a 0-1 hole. During the offseason, we looked at the importance of the first pitch from the pitcher's perspective. Here's the graphic I put together for that post:

How_important_is_the_1st_pitch__infographic

It's just as important for the hitter to avoid an 0-1 count as it is for the pitcher to force one. And the benefit of going 1-0 for the batter adds another wrinkle. Batters want to be aggressive in the zone, but not chase a pitch that would have given them the leg up of a 1-0 count had they had not swung.

I'm going to focus on 2012 and 2013 because these are the most recent years and also represent Molina's ascendance as a batter. As Molina has evolved into a top-tier batter, he has adopted a plate approach that errs on the side of swinging when it comes to first pitches. In the last two seasons, Molina has had the two highest first-pitch swing rates of his career: 44.4% in 2012 and 44.5% in 2013. For MLB as a whole, the first-pitch swing rate was 28.8% in 2012 and 27.5% in 2013. So, for the last two seasons, Molina has been far more aggressive when it comes to hacking at the first offering from a pitcher than MLB batters were as a whole. Was he successful when swinging at the first pitch?

To answer this question, I put together some charts comparing the production for Molina to the MLB as a whole on PAs that ended on the first pitch. The charts contain Plate Appearances (PA), Batting Average (BA), On-Base Percentage (OBP), Slugging Percentage (SLG), Isolated Power (ISO), On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS), and two more obscure stats: tOPS+ and sOPS+.

  • tOPS+ is scaled to 100 and compares a player or league split to his or its overall production; above 100, and the production in the split is better than the league or player's overall production. Below, and it's worse.
  • sOPS+ is scaled the same way as tOPS+ and compares the batter or league's production in a given split to MLB's overall production in a given split. So, in our charts, the MLB sOPS+ in PAs ending on the first pitch is 100 because it's comparing the MLB production in this split to the MLB production in this split.

2012 PAs Ending on 1st Pitch Results: Molina vs. MLB

2012

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

tOPS+

sOPS+

MLB

20281

.333

.340

.545

.212

.885

141

100

Molina

112

.380

.382

.648

.268

1.030

132

131

2013 PAs Ending on 1st Pitch Results: Molina vs. MLB

2013

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

tOPS+

sOPS+

MLB

20500

.336

.341

.540

.204

.882

144

100

Molina

97

.347

.340

.505

.158

.845

101

93

2014 PAs Ending on 1st Pitch Results: Molina vs. MLB

2014

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

tOPS+

sOPS+

MLB

3338

.343

.349

.545

.202

.893

151

100

Molina

9

.333

.333

.667

.334

1.000

112

118

Molina enjoyed eye-popping success when swinging at the first pitch in 2012. But, last season, he was only slightly better than his overall production and below the MLB's overall batting numbers for PAs ending on the first pitch. Molina has only had nine PAs end on the first pitch so far in 2014, but in that tiny sample size he has once again enjoyed success when swinging at the initial offering from the pitcher.

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