“Get ahead in the count.”
“First-pitch strike percentage is key.”
“You gotta throw strikes.”
For years, conventional wisdom (re: nearly every announcer of Sunday Night Baseball) purported the first pitch strike is the most important pitch in baseball. Since then, others (most famously Pail DePodesta in Moneyball and since) have come out and argued the third pitch is more important, as the difference in performance by hitters in a 2-1 and a 1-2 count is huge. However, this overlooks a critical detail. While that swing between hitter performance (as measured by AVG and OPS) on 2-1 and 1-2 counts holds, the third pitch is not always the charm because hitter performance after 1-2 counts looks eerily similar to 0-2. From 2000 through 2016 according to baseball reference, MLB slash lines were .185/.234/.498 vs. .174/.204/.454.
Ohh – so the dok is all about #1? In the words of Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend!”
If I were a pitching coach, I’d be telling my pitchers to lock it down on the second pitch of the at-bat. Why? A quick look at the splits below reveals that both the batting average and OPS move more after the second pitch (whether it occurs in an 0-1 or a 1-0 count) than after the first.
Okay okay – I must concede this does not control for swings, baserunners, or balls put in play on that pitch. Maybe balls thrown in the strike zone on the second pitch are much more likely to result in an HR than those thrown in the strike zone on the first. So what’s up, dok? What does this all mean?
At the end of the day, all pitches are important, and arguing any one pitch is more important than another seems a fool’s errand. After all, baseball is a game of inches, so prioritize command. Having the ability to put the ball where intended when you want is far more important than deciding when you most want to do that.
2000-2016 MLB Splits By Count