Chipper, First Pitches and Saber-minded Reporting

A little over a week ago broadcaster Jon Sciambi wrote a great piece at Baseball Prospectus about a conversation he had with Chipper Jones. Scaimbi noted that Chipper saw the second fewest fraction of first-pitch strikes in the majors, but in spite of this Chipper has reputation as a first-pitch hitter and thus, maybe, he would be better off laying of some of those first-pitch offerings. Sciambi then recounts how Chipper took a fat 91-mph first-pitch fastball and then turned to the broadcast booth and scowled Scaimbi. Click over to the link and check out a great picture of the scowl and generally a very good article.

Sciambi, who notes that he got the numbers from FanGraphs, was quoting F-Strike%, which is the fraction of at-bats for a batter (or pitcher) that start 0-1 or have the ball put in play on the first pitch (i.e., at-bats in which the batter swung at the first pitch or it was called a strike).

A closely related number, which I think also addresses this question but that we do not have on the site is the fraction of first pitches that are in the strike zone (regardless of whether they are swung at or called a strike). Chipper sees the second fewest number of first pitches in the zone. Using the pitchf/x zone the average is 42%, and Chipper’s 32% is second only to Prince Fielder.

So what is Chipper doing to those first pitches compared to the rest of the league and compared to all pitches he sees. These numbers are from the pitchf/x data so they might differ slightly from the Plate Discipline numbers here, which are from BIS. The ranks are out of the just over 300 players who saw more than 1000 pitches last year.

                          Swing Rate
When           Where   Average     Chipper     Rank
All Pitches     Zone      0.65       0.73      43th from top
First Pitches   Zone      0.41       0.67       8th from top

All Pitches     Out       0.32       0.23      16th from bottom 
First Pitches   Out       0.16       0.14     108th from bottom 

First off, looking at all pitches, Chipper is in the great position of swinging at an above average of pitches in the zone while a below average number out of the zone. That shows his amazing plate discipline: the ability to tell the difference between a pitch in and out of the zone, and swing at the former and take the later.

On first pitches all batters swing less often, at both in-zone and out-of-zone pitches. Chipper does as well, but to a much smaller extent. So much so that Chipper enters the top ten swing rate on first pitches in the zone, and on first pitches out of the zone he swings at almost a league average rate, a big jump compared to his tiny out of zone swing rate on all pitches.

So yes, Chipper does swing at a lot of first pitches compared to all batters, and especially compared to his normal pitch rate. He explained why this is to ‘Duk at Big League Stew saying:

“[Sciambi] was just talking about me being overly aggressive, but yet I still drew 100 walks last year. They get mad at me because I don’t take enough pitches. But if I’m drawing 100 walks and hitting .300 … ”

Jones finished the sentence with a shoulder shrug and I asked him to explain why it wasn’t possible for him to take the first pitch on a more frequent basis.

His response echoed the same argument he used with Sciambi.

“There are certain pitchers, quite frankly, that you can’t get behind,” Jones said. “You want to be aggressive and the first hittable fastball that you get is the pitch you want to put in play. Because they’ll bury you if they get ahead of you. You can’t let them do that.

I really liked this exchange. A broadcaster who has the knowledge and curiosity to dig into stats that other might consider arcane and also access to players asks a very germane about those stats to a player. From there a well-connected blogger can ask the player further and get him to explain those numbers. I think it shows the future of sabermetric-based reporting.

Dave Allen's other baseball work can be found at Baseball Analysts.

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I wonder if ESPN will ever put Joe Morgan and Sciambi in the booth together. That would be interesting.