No One Can Ambush Quite Like the Braves

The Braves won again on Tuesday, extending their lead in the NL East to two games. And now, there’s nothing especially remarkable about beating the Marlins at home, but for me, it’s more about how the Marlins were defeated. Trevor Richards took the mound, after a scoreless top of the first. His first pitch was thrown to Ronald Acuna Jr.

Acuna hit a home run. He’s been doing a lot of that. Just after TV came back from instant replay, Richards threw his second pitch, to Charlie Culberson.

Culberson also hit a home run. Short of sustaining some kind of injury, Richards’ first two pitches couldn’t have gone any worse. They both turned into the worst possible outcome, and there was something symbolic in that. Not so much as far as Richards is concerned. It’s more about the Braves, and how they’ve been hitting. The Braves this year have been more than happy to jump on the first pitch. They ambushed Richards on Tuesday, and that wasn’t the end of it.

Over the course of eight innings, the Braves sent 41 hitters to the plate. Out of those plate appearances, the hitter swung at the first pitch 18 times. Those swings turned into a half-dozen hits. Acuna homered in the first. Culberson homered in the first. Ender Inciarte tripled in the third. Culberson singled in the fourth. Inciarte doubled in the seventh. And Acuna homered again minutes later.

The Braves’ aggressive hitting approach was on full display. This isn’t exactly something that’s new to them, and there’s a thin line between aggressive hitting and over-aggressive hitting. But to this point, there’s not really any questioning the Braves’ results. I suppose we might as well go from the top down.

As a team — excluding pitchers — the Braves have a wRC+ of 109. That ranks them sixth in baseball, between the Astros and the Indians. Only the Dodgers and Cubs look better in the National League. Now, the Braves are second in the majors in hits. They’re first in the majors in first-pitch hits. For that matter, they’re first by a healthy margin. Here’s that league-wide plot, with the Braves in yellow:

The Braves have a total of 214 hits on the first pitch. That means they’ve averaged roughly two a game, despite adding six to their total just yesterday. The team in second place is back at 195. The median number of first-pitch hits is 156. The Braves are blowing the competition out of the water, and it’s no accident. They have the most hits on the first pitch in large part because they’ve attempted the greatest rate of swings at the first pitch. Another plot of every team in baseball:

It’s clearly not a massive lead. Only about two percentage points separate the Braves from the runner-up Reds. But these teams are all pretty tightly bunched, and so the Braves stand out. Their combined first-pitch swing rate is two and a half standard deviations higher than the mean. With this kind of data sample, two percentage points means something. And you can see this as a trait shared by much of the Braves’ roster. Since the start of the year, a dozen players have batted at least 100 times in a Braves uniform. Here are all their first-pitch swing rates, and how those rates rank league-wide, in terms of percentiles:

Braves Hitters, 2018
Player 1st-Swing% Percentile%
Freddie Freeman 47% 99%
Ozzie Albies 45% 98%
Preston Tucker 37% 88%
Kurt Suzuki 37% 86%
Ronald Acuna Jr. 36% 84%
Ender Inciarte 35% 81%
Charlie Culberson 34% 76%
Ryan Flaherty 33% 71%
Dansby Swanson 32% 67%
Tyler Flowers 30% 61%
Johan Camargo 23% 25%
Nick Markakis 20% 14%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

We’re looking at, again, 12 players, including Tucker, who isn’t there anymore. Out of the sample, ten players have first-pitch swing rates that place them within the top 40%. Six players have first-pitch swing rates that place them within the top 20%. Freeman and Albies have two of the highest first-pitch swing rates out of anyone. Only Camargo and Markakis look patient. Neither of their rates is extreme. Consider, for example, Joe Mauer, who’s gone after the first pitch just 4% of the time. When Mauer chases early, there’s reason to be surprised. Markakis would do it almost once a ballgame.

What’s one of the advantages of swinging early on? Really, for the Braves, this reflects a broader, general aggressiveness. One way to understand this is by observing that the Braves have baseball’s highest rate of swings at pitches in the strike zone. Related to that, the Braves have taken baseball’s lowest rate of called strikes:

The Braves’ whole plan is to not give a strike away. It begins with the first pitch, where the Braves’ strategy most stands out from the pack. The Braves want to get to the pitcher early, and they’re mostly prepared to swing early, because these days, deeper counts are getting increasingly difficult. Pitchers have better stuff than they ever have, and they’re more capable of striking batters out. With the Braves being ready to swing at strike one, it gives them the best chance of turning a given plate appearance into a ball in play. Obviously, this plan can go awry if hitters just go up there chasing anything and everything. But the Braves so far have found the right balance between selectivity and aggressiveness. They’ve chased, because sometimes you just can’t help it, but the first-pitch results have driven the offense toward the top of the leaderboards.

We’ve heard the Red Sox talk about this. We’ve heard it before from the Rays, and we’ve heard it before from the Diamondbacks. Those teams, surely among others, have voiced an interest in seeing their hitters become more aggressive. There’s no more taking pitches off, now; no pitcher should ever be conceded a free strike. Pitchers just have so many weapons these days, and hitters need to be ready to attack whatever opportunities might be provided to them. Maybe ten or 15 years ago, there was interest in seeing batters take more first pitches. Yet pitchers now are too good. Hitters need to be selective, but less patient. The Braves, as a team, are the least patient. Collectively, they go up there the most ready to hit, and as the Marlins were just reminded Tuesday evening, that means that things can snowball on a pitcher in a hurry, if he isn’t sufficiently careful.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

You alluded to this, but being aggressive on first pitch strikes has a chance to shift the meta if it becomes a copycat process. How do pitchers respond? Throw chase pitches for the first pitch? Ideally you paint on the black, but I feel like either of these two responses could easily put you in a 1-0 count, and we know how wOBA shifts based on counts.

5 years ago
Reply to  DuPu

That’s exactly how you’d expect pitchers to respond. It will then be on the Braves to adjust back and not expand for the sake of their aggressive philosophy. Might be easier said than done, but if they’re able to make the adjustment, to your point, they’ll be in that much of a stronger position.

I think it would be helpful to see some of the o-swing % data to understand if this is something opposing pitchers are doing already, and, if so, if Braves hitters are recognizing when Ball 1 is coming.

Mark Davidson
5 years ago
Reply to  DuPu

More backwards pitching, I’d assume, which, upon checking, could be how the league has handled the Braves.

The Braves have been thrown the 11th most 1st pitch breaking balls and the 7th most 1st pitch off-speed pitches, while ranking 24th in 1st pitch fastballs seen.

Whether this is truly a product of their first-pitch swing tendencies or is being driven by a team’s talent-level is a bit murky. While eight of the top 15 team’s in “First Pitch Swing%” also appear in the top 15 of the most first-pitch-non-fastballs seen (ATL, TBR, CHC, KCR, BAL, WSH, PIT, HOU) the majority of the 15 teams who have seen the most first-pitch-non-fastballs are teams in the top 15 by wRC+; 12 to be exact.

Ideally, I would’ve divied up this information by percentage of first pitches seen, but I only went with totals (a quick glance doesn’t change the information much – the Braves go from 24th most first pitch fastballs seen to 22nd by percentage). Of course, we’d get better idea of these first pitch tendencies the more we broke it down; we could sparse this out player by player, but I’m at work, so this is what it is.

Where the Braves have excelled, however, is choosing the right first pitches to swing at. They’ve selected more in-the-zone first pitches to swing at relative to the league (perhaps that was redundant):

League wide first pitches in the zone: 52.8%
League wide first pitch in-zone swing%: 41.3%

Braves first pitches seen in the zone: 52.0%
Braves first pitches in-zone swing%: 51.3%

If that’s confusing, they’ve seen less pitches in the zone, but swung at a larger number of them, percentage wise.

To your point, however, they have seen less pitches in the zone than league average. They rank 19th in most in-zone pitches seen, which is obviously in the bottom half, though just below average.

5 years ago
Reply to  Mark Davidson

Where do you get data by pitch sequence? Thanks.

Mark Davidson
5 years ago
Reply to  jayman4

5 years ago
Reply to  Mark Davidson