No One Can Ambush Quite Like the Braves by Jeff Sullivan August 15, 2018 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.