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NLDS Game 1: John Lackey defeats Cubs in battle of the first pitch

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Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

In an excellent post at MLB.com that you should read (even if it's after the fact), Mike Petriello provided an excellent frame for NLDS Game 1 between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. Petriello pointed out that Cardinals starter John Lackey throws a lot of first-pitch strikes and that the league has adjusted, swinging at first pitches more often against him. He also notes that the Cubs were particularly productive when putting the bat on a first pitch.

I want to delve into Petrillo's post a bit deeper and use the frame of first-pitch strikes to analyze Lackey's NLDS Game 1 performance.

First Pitch Strike Effect

Longtime reads know that I'm a big fan of first-pitch strikes. It's the Duncanite in me. 2015 is another year that shows why. Thanks to the indispensable Baseball Reference, here is how hitters have performed in a plate appearance after a pitcher gets ahead 0-1 versus behind 1-0.

MLB 2015: After 0-1 vs. After 1-0

Split

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

tOPS+

sOPS+

After 0-1

28.4%

4.4%

.225

.265

.344

.119

.609

68

100

Overall

20.4%

7.7%

.254

.317

.405

.151

.721

100

100

After 1-0

16.2%

14.1%

.268

.374

.441

.173

.815

127

100

This chart illustrates why coaches, players, and broadcasters harp on the pitcher needing to get ahead in the count. It's quite advantageous for a pitcher to be working ahead. And the 0-0 pitch takes place in every plate appearance, making it perhaps the most important one a pitcher throws. The plate appearances often turns on the offering.

A pitcher is much more likely to strike out a batter after getting up in the count 0-1 and far less likely to walk him. Moreover, a batter is less likely to get a hit after falling behind 0-1 than getting ahead. And if the batsman does manage a hit, he tends to strike the ball with less oomph, meaning fewer extra-base hits.

tOPS+ takes a split and compares it to a league, team, or player's overall OPS rate to see how better or worse it or he hit in a certain situation as compared to itself or himself. 100 is average and each point above or below represents a percent above or below overall production. Here, we're comparing league hitting performance after an 0-1 count and after a 1-0 count to overall league hitting performance. Thus, tOPS+ helps us measure the gulf between an 0-1 and 1-0 count. 59 points separate the production. That's a large gap.

This MLB-wide reality was just as true in 2015 for Cubs hitters.

Cubs 2015:  After 0-1 vs. After 1-0

Split

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

tOPS+

sOPS+

After 0-1

33.5%

5.9%

.206

.263

.321

.115

.584

63

93

Overall

24.5%

9.1%

.244

.321

.398

.154

.719

100

100

After 1-0

19.8%

15.6%

.253

.376

.419

.166

.795

122

96

The Cubs' tOPS+ split is right in line with MLB overall. Let's note the difference between what tOPS+ and sOPS+ measure. Whereas the tOPS+ is measuring a league, team, or player's performance in a split against it or his overall performance, sOPS+ for a player or team is measuring that player or team's performance against MLB's overall performance in that specific split. Applying this to the Cubs, Chicago hit worse than MLB overall after falling behind 0-1 (93 sOPS+, which is seven percent worse than the MLB as a whole after falling behind 0-1) and after getting ahead 1-0 (96 sOPS+, which is four percentage worse).

Nonetheless, Chicago's batting performance relative to itself after falling behind 1-0 versus getting ahead 1-0 is on par with the MLB-wide trend. The Cubs posted an OPS 211 points higher after getting ahead 1-0 in the count than after falling behind 0-1. That's just a bit larger than the 206-point major-league OPS gulf.

However, batters had a smaller gulf against Lackey this year.

MLB vs. Lackey 2015:  After 0-1 vs. After 1-0

Split

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

sOPS+

After 0-1

29.3%

3.7%

.241

.270

.352

.111

.622

104

Overall

19.5%

5.9%

.256

.303

.376

.120

.679

88

After 1-0

12.7%

13.5%

.240

.342

.376

.136

.718

77

At 96 points, the OPS gap for hitters against Lackey after the first pitch is far smaller than it is for the Cubs or MLB. In fact, it's less than half. That's because batters have hit better against Lackey after falling behind 0-1 than MLB-wide and worse after getting ahead 1-0. It's an odd year's worth of results on batted balls.

While batting results against Lackey are atypical, his strikeout and walk totals are not. Lackey is a better pitcher when it comes to these stats after getting a first-pitch strike, just as one would expect.

First Pitch Swinging

Petriello frames the NLDS Game 1 matchup thusly:

What Lackey faces in the Cubs is a team that has learned the value of jumping on a good first pitch, increasing that first-pitch swing rate from 27.6 percent last year to 31.4 in Joe Maddon's first season as manager. Like most teams, the Cubs do well when swinging on the first pitch, with a particularly strong 1.060 OPS, as opposed to just .719 overall.

The stat Petriello cites is when the Cubs swing and make contact with a first pitch. He pairs it with the percentage share of first pitches the Cubs swung at this year. In doing so, he conflates their tendency to swing at the first pitch with the results when they swing at and put the first pitch into play. It's important to recognize the distinction. Swinging at a first pitch doesn't always result in a ball in play. Baseball Reference tracks both results. There are far fewer plate appearances that end with a first pitch swung at and put in play than those in which the first pitch is swung at.

MLB 2015:  First Pitch Swinging

Split

PA

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

tOPS+

sOPS+

1st Pitch Contact

53109

0%

0%

.340

.347

.553

.113

.900

146

100

Overall

183628

20.4%

7.7%

.254

.317

.405

.151

.721

100

100

After 1st Pitch Swing

21002

18.3%

2.7%

.270

.292

.434

.164

.726

99

100

Cubs 2015:  First Pitch Swinging

Split

PA

K%

BB%

BA

OBP

SLG

ISO

OPS

tOPS+

sOPS+

1st Pitch Contact

667

0%

0%

.385

.389

.671

.286

1.060

190

133

Overall

6200

24.5%

9.1%

.244

.321

.398

.154

.719

100

100

After 1st Pitch Swing

1946

23.7%

3.8%

.269

.304

.446

.177

.750

107

107

The Cubs have hit very well against first pitches, as Petriello notes. In particular, they've hit for a ton of power on them. Isolated Power (ISO) is a stat similar to slugging percentage (SLG) except that it excludes singles (which SLG includes) and focuses only on extra-base hits. Chicago's .286 ISO when making contact on the first pitch is absurd.

While the Cubs swing at a lot of first pitches, as Petriello points out, they put a low rate of initial pitcher offerings in play. Chicago ranked seventh in MLB in first pitches swung at and 20th in the number of plate appearances that end with a first pitch put in play.

All this does is add nuance to the Cubs' first-pitch performance. They've been successful no matter how we cut the cake. Their 133 sOPS+ on first-pitch contact places them first in MLB. Their 107 sOPS+ in plate appearances in which they swing at the first pitch ranks fifth in MLB. To throw the Cubbies a first pitch in the zone is to play with fire.

Enter the O.G.

NLDS Game 1:  Lackey First Pitches

In Petriello's MLB.com post, he notes that Lackey posted the second-highest first-pitch strike rate in MLB among qualified starters at 70.8%. Lackey trailed only Washington ace Max Scherzer in the stat. So NLDS Game 1 pitted one of the most aggressive pitchers in the game when it comes to firing first-pitch strikes against one of more aggressive lineups when it comes to swinging at first pitches. Petriello:

Baseball is always a game of adjustments, or so they say. On Friday, the 36-year-old Lackey, a veteran of 13 seasons and two World Series titles, faces one of baseball's youngest offenses. They've both made adjustments to get to this point. They'll both make even more to try to overmatch the other. It's the endless chess game that never stops making moves and counter-moves, except this one has century-old rivals meeting in October for the first time. Lackey gets the first move. You're up, Cubs.

Lackey won the battle of the first pitch in NLDS Game 1 and perhaps in unexpected fashion. Consider my hand-tallied chart of Lackey first-pitch results and keep in mind that, when I keep track of first-pitch strikes, I include balls in play as a strike.

Lackey First Pitches: NLDS Game 1

TBF

Balls

Strikes

Whiffs

Fouls

BIP

Hits

XBH

Groundouts

Air Outs

23

11

12

1

3

4

0

0

3

2

Lackey was efficient in NLDS Game 1, but not because of a high first-pitch strike rate, like one might expect. Lackey fired a bare majority of first offerings for strikes. The Cubs took 11 of his 23 first pitches for balls. Of the eight first pitches Chicago took a hack at, five went into the field of play. The Cardinals fielders turned all five into outs. The Cubs batted .000/.000/.000 on first pitches. Chicago's OPS on first pitches in NLDS Game 1 was 1,060 points lower than during the regular season.

Lackey didn't blindly fire first-pitch strikes to Chicago on Friday night. He refused to give the Cubs fat pitches, often attacking the strike zone's border and regularly missing. This meant the Cubs swung at fewer first pitches and didn't put many in play. Of the first pitches Chicago batsmen put into play, only one probably qualifies as particularly well struck.(That batted ball is Kris Bryant's line out to left in the first inning, but I'm more than willing to consider advocacy that includes more batted balls.) The result is that Lackey won the battle of the first pitch, so to speak, and helped give St. Louis a 1-0 series lead.