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first for everything

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weird series in tampa bay. the cardinals had 29 singles, 3 doubles, and a homer on the weekend; also coaxed 15 walks, stole three bags (without a cs) and laid down two bunts. in other words, they played small ball in an american league park . . . and won all three games anyway. the weekend's hitting stars were abe nunez (6 for 9), scott seabol (4 for 10), and so taguchi (5 for 15); mabry chipped in with a 4-rbi day.

something else about this series (the kind of thing only i would notice): in all three games, the tying and/or go-ahead run scored when a batter swung at the first pitch. friday it was larry walker's single in the top of the fifth -- the one that skipped past huff while reggie sanders skipped past 2d base and had to go back and touch up, but still puffed around to score when the relay squirted out of somebody's glove. that play . . . . on saturday taguchi tied it with a first-pitch single up the middle to score yadi. and yesterday it was larry's 1st inning forceout-cum-error. so taguchi was first-pitch swinging again later that inning, with two outs and the sacks jammed -- he fouled the pitch off, ultimately struck out.

all of which is prelude to something incredible about this team and first-pitch swinging -- they are murdering their opponents on the first pitch. data first, then pronouncements:

ab h 2b 3b hr rbi avg obp slg ops
stl 1st pitch 353 125 30 2 13 77 .354 .358 .561 .919
stl overall 2334 637 117 11 72 330 .273 .344 .425 .769
stl diff + 81 + 14 +136 +150
oppo 1st pitch 308 86 19 1 5 30 .279 .299 .396 .695
oppo overall 2276 588 119 9 57 252 .258 .321 .394 .715
oppo diff + 21 - 22 + 2 - 20

this table shows you the difference between impatient hacking and disciplined, selective 1st-pitch swinging. the cards' opponents are impatient hackers; the 1st pitches they choose to swing at are not significantly juicier than the rest of the pitches they see, viz the nearly identical slugging pcts on 1st pitch vs overall. opposing batters do hit 20 points higher on the 1st pitch, but since they pre-empt bases on balls by swinging early their overall on-base pct is 20 points lower. on balance, they are hurting themselves when they swing at the first pitch.

contrast that with the cardinals' numbers. obviously, they aren't just going up there swinging at anything; they're swinging at pitches they can handle. my guess is these pitches fall into one of two categories: a) lazy get-me-over fastballs, and b) pitches thrown to a zone the batter is anticipating -- ie, the hitter's looking low and away and gets a low-away pitch. i think that's why the cards are +81 ba on the first pitch and have a +60 isolated power. they're 1st-pitch swinging with a purpose.

the stat line for the cards' opposition put me in mind of something dyar miller told me about his coaching philosophy at memphis: "I want [my pitchers] to get ahead with a fastball, even if they give up a hit. If it's down in the zone, it's a single -- and then you still got another chance to throw another fastball and get a double play. That's the way we approach it." that's exactly how it seems to be working for stl's pitchers so far this year -- they give up a few more singles on the 0-0 pitch, but not so many that it really hurts them. altho dyar miller never worked with any of the cards' current starters, the philosophy is an organizational standard, from dave duncan on down. read 3 nights if ya don't believe me.

of course, the philosophy's only as good as the execution of the players. and let's not pretend it's a sophisticated philosophy; on the contrary, we've all heard much the same thing since little league: strike one is the most important pitch. hoary though it may be, that maxim is backed up by some sabermetric research. it's a clich?, but it's largely true.

i doubt you'll find any split between the cards and their opponents that is as dramatic as this one. the cardinals own that oh-so-important first pitch, and that's a large reason why they own the opposition.

related VEB/curveblog links:
one-hit wonders
game 63 open thread
it ain't got that swing
Sir VLCIV's eckstein diary
eckstein called to a count
eckstein called to a count II