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The St. Louis Cardinals and first-pitch strikes

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John Lackey led the starting rotation with a first-pitch strike percentage of 67.8% in 2014. After joining the Cardinals at the non-waiver trade deadline, this rose to a ridiculously high 74%. What about the rest of the pitching staff?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

As a pitcher in the big leagues, what is the importance of throwing a first-pitch strike? MLB.com senior writer Doug Miller, with some input from Eno Sarris of Fangraphs (one of my favorite baseball writers, by the way), broke this very question down back in May of 2013. In Miller's article, Sarris provided the following:

"So half the battle is getting strike one, and half the battle is having good control. Hitters are just not changing, as whole, their approach when it comes to swinging at the first pitch. In fact, they're swinging less and less while first-strike percentage from pitchers is going up."

Also in the article, Sarris reported that present hitters are swinging at the first pitch just 27% of the time, down from ~30% in in the mid-1990's—seemingly leaving an area for pitchers to exploit. According to the 2014 league splits (found on Baseball-Reference), hitters slashed .267/.373/.420 with a tOPS+ of 128 after a 1-0 count (first-pitch ball) last season. After an 0-1 count (first-pitch strike), hitters struggled their way to a .221/.261/.331 slash with a tOPS+ of 69. Another factor to keep in mind is the fact that hitters collectively slashed .336/.341/.526 (145 tOPS+) on the first pitch, so the first-pitch strike cannot just float over the middle of the zone like a beach ball.

So, how did members of the Cardinals do in terms of first-pitch strike percentage last season? Subsequently, how did they perform after 1-0 counts compared to after 0-1 counts? Finally, which pitchers could use some first-pitch strike improvement in 2015? Let's find out:

Starting pitchers

Pitcher After 1-0 After 0-1
Adam Wainwright .222/.307/.310 .211/.239/.278
Lance Lynn .264/.379/.396 .204/.248/.307
John Lackey .315/.403/.448 .217/.239/.378
Michael Wacha .264/.340/.357 .195/.265/.286
Marco Gonzales .311/.483/.444 .167/.241/.278
Jaime Garcia .274/.357/.532 .229/.247/.398
Tyler Lyons .245/.373/.367 .219/.247/.356

As you can see, each starting pitcher performed considerably better after a first-pitch strike (in all three categories of the slash line). This shouldn't come as much of a surprise after being provided with league average numbers above. The two pitchers that stand out most are Lackey and Gonzales, as hitters pounded them after a first-pitch ball, but were relatively harmless after a first-pitch strike. Gonzales's first-pitch strike percentage (61.20%) was just barely above league average (61.10%), and while this is not bad by any means, it still shows he has some room for improvement. As a second-year pitcher, it might be an unreasonable expectation, but if he can strive for somewhere near Lackey's 67.80%, even more success will follow. He has the secondary offerings (changeup, curveball) he can go to on the first pitch without having to resort to a get-me-over fastball.

While I am not necessarily going to complain, as they are the #1 and #2 pitchers on the staff, it would be nice if Wainwright (60.70%) and Lynn (60.20%) could increase their first-pitch strike percentage. Wainwright's repertoire is deep enough and Lynn's fastballs are good enough to keep hitters in check on the first pitch of an at bat. Again, I am not griping about 4.5 and 3.1 fWAR pitchers, but given how competitive the big leagues are, all players should capitalize on easy areas of improvement, and I believe both pitchers will in 2015.

Relievers

Pitcher After 1-0 After 0-1
Seth Maness .269/.320/.398 .196/.222/.320
Kevin Siegrist .263/.408/.289 .246/.329/.477
Randy Choate .160/.283/.220 .197/.280/.227
Nick Greenwood .224/.296/.306 .246/.257/.449
Sam Freeman .262/.418/.311 .185/.232/.277
Carlos Martinez .290/.426/.443 .259/.297/.327
Matt Belisle .311/.398/.459 .243/.278/.338
Jordan Walden .229/.372/.357 .163/.258/.186
Trevor Rosenthal .204/.396/.224 .176/.250/.267

Given the differing role of a relief pitcher (i.e. often facing free-swinging pinch hitters) and a smaller sample size (especially for specialty relievers), it's not all that surprising that these numbers are slightly more volatile—as Siegrist, Choate, and Greenwood all actually performed worse after a first-pitch strike than they did after a first-pitch ball. If Freeman ever wants to become a consistent reliever, his first-pitch strike percentage needs to be substantially higher than a mere coin flip. After a first-pitch ball, opponents have a frightening on-base percentage and slugging percentage against Martinez, so while I have proposed increased sinker usage and have raved about his changeup, step number one as a starting pitcher clearly should be focusing on executing a first-pitch strike.

Belisle pumps first-pitch fastballs (68.40%, highest on the team), and with good reason, as he is virtually ineffective after a first-pitch ball. Both Walden and Rosenthal struggled mightily with control last season—compiling walk rates of 13.2% and 13.6%, respectively. While just last week I concluded that Rosenthal needs to throw more changeups in the upcoming season (I still think this, by the way), getting a first-pitch strike should be both Rosenthal's and Walden's primary goal for the 2015 season. Even if they are only able to get to league average for relievers (59.80%), decreased walk rates and more consistent success will follow.

Credit to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference for the data used in this post. Also, hat tip to @stlsportsfan84 for helping me with the location of 2014 league splits on B-R.