Swing Batter! Or Maybe Not…

Alyssa Hernandez, Staff Writer

Should Batters be Passive or Aggressive?

There is a major question concerning the baseball word; should hitters be first pitch swinging? Should someone be passive or aggressive? There are players like Reggie Willits, Barry Bonds, or Brett Garderner where it almost seemed like a crime to swing first pitch, in opposition to players like Alex Rios, Jose Altuve, or Ichiro Suzuki who only average about three pitches per plate appearance.

There is an argument that the first pitch is the best pitch a hitter will see in the entire at-bat. According to Jerry Weinstein, former Rockies manager, “If you throw a first pitch strike, you have an 80% chance of throwing two of the first three pitches for strikes, and if you throw a first pitch ball, your percentages fall to 30%.” He also found that, as of 2019, 92.7% of first pitch strikes led to an out or strike one, meaning that about eight percent of first pitch strikes result in hits, so although it may be the best pitch a hitter may see, the chances of the ball being put in play are slim. About 69% of strikeouts start with a first pitch strike, and 70% of walks start with first pitch balls in Major League Baseball. Pitchers in this modern era are trying to attack early to get ahead in the count.

Swinging at the first pitch may give a hitter the best advantage to get a big hit, particularly if they are not the kind of hitter that has trouble turning a 1-1 count into 2-1. There have been different examples of hitters who have benefited from putting what they see first in play. The 2015 Royals, who went on to beat the New York Mets in five games to win the World Series, put the first pitch in play. They hit .317 with an on-base percentage of .342 and a slugging percentage of .491, but if the Royals took the first pitch for a strike, those numbers were .236/.270/.354. In the 2022 season, National League leaders of swinging first pitch are Brendan Donovan (.280/.390/.370), Daniel Vogelbach (.236/.359/.432), and Seiya Suzuki (.263/.336/.433), and they are players who are not doing that bad themselves. Even Aaron Judge, while having a historic 2022 season, has a over a .500 batting average when putting the first pitch in play. A multitude of batters succeed as a result of being aggressive on the first pitch they see during an at-bat.

Being aggressive is not the best case for every hitter though. There are cases where passiveness is beneficial. This year so far, 55% of the time a hitter has taken the first pitch, the pitch has been called a ball, compared to just 45% called strikes, according to Baseball Savant. 92.7% of first pitch strikes lead to an out or strike one; meaning less than 8% of first pitch strikes become hits. 69% of strikeouts start with first pitch strikes and 70% of walks start with first pitch balls. Major league hitters hit .068 on first pitch strikes (total first pitch strikes which include foul balls, called strikes, and outs divided into hits). Due to this, being aggressive early also leads to fewer walks and more outs, making it more difficult to score runs.

Although first pitch strikes are prevalent in modern baseball, a line drive in a 0-0 count is just the same as a line drive on a 3-2 count. To many players, it is all situational. The right thing to do is not to just look at the outcomes of the first pitch, but split the outcomes of the entire plate appearance. It is hard to determine whether it is better to be passive or aggressive. “[Isolating] all those numbers on first pitches can be misleading,” Mike Scioscia, former Dodgers catcher, said. He went on to say that, “There are so many variables. They don’t tell you how many first pitches he missed or fouled back, how it impacted the rest of his at-bat when he didn’t put the first pitch in play.”

All around, swinging first pitch depends on the situation a batter is facing. Although the chances of first pitch strikes being thrown are high, there is not a high probability for batters. First pitch strikes often lead to strikeouts and only 8% of them turn into hits, but there are batters who are able to put the first pitch in play. Being passive or aggressive is subjective to each batter.