The Giants Capitalize on the First Pitch

With just under a week to go in the regular season, the Giants are still in prime position to capture the National League West. Hitting the century win-total mark on Friday, San Francisco’s meteoric rise from unlikely postseason contender to best team in the sport has been well-documented across baseball’s corner of the internet. The combination of the unlikely resurgence of seemingly past-their-prime franchise mainstays, near-100th-percentile outcomes from additions like Darin Ruf and LaMonte Wade Jr., and some successful tinkering with players’ tendencies to help them maximize their potential has all added up to one of the more remarkable surprise contender stories in recent memory.

Improve your player development, play the percentages better, enjoy some good fortune — the Giants have done it all. And as we march towards October, they deserve praise for it. But there’s one other thing that has piqued my interest, and though its relative importance may seem small, it’s a strategic decision that has added significant value at the margins: Giants pitchers are throwing a ton of first-pitch strikes. Just as Justin Choi praised the Blue Jays’ offense earlier this season for swinging in early counts, the Giants’ pitching staff deserves kudos for throwing pitches in the zone on the first pitch. They’ve done so more than any other team in baseball, though the other leaders here may surprise you:

Highest Team Zone% On First Pitch
Team In-Zone Pitches Zone%
San Francisco Giants 3176 5779 55.0%
Los Angeles Dodgers 3126 5709 54.8%
Tampa Bay Rays 3130 5787 54.1%
Detroit Tigers 3162 5911 53.5%
Baltimore Orioles 3219 6034 53.3%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Any time you see the Dodgers and the Rays near the top of a leaderboard like this — especially for something that can be as strategy-driven as zone rate — it feels like you’ve uncovered something notable. But then there are the Tigers and Orioles. Detroit has played well since May, and while the Orioles are bad, there may be some method to that madness given the attention their front office pays to analytics. Still, this doesn’t tell you exactly why first-pitch zone rate matters, though the reason is perhaps unsurprising: You always want the hitter to start down 0-1 rather than up 1-0:

Stat Lines for Non-Pitchers
Average Hitter .247 .321 .417 8.8% 22.6% .319 100
Through 0-1 .220 .267 .361 5.0% 30.7% .272 69
Through 1-0 .259 .383 .449 15.9% 18.6% .360 128

After reaching an 0-1 count, the league-average non-pitcher posts a 69 wRC+, which is what Jason Heyward has done over the course of the 2021 season. On the flip side, when reaching 1-0, the league-average non-pitcher produces at the same rate as José Abreu. And that’s just from a single pitch.

First-pitch strikes matter a lot. The easiest way to get those first-pitch strikes? Throw your 0-0 pitches in the strike zone. It works extremely well, for many of the reasons Justin outlined in his piece on the Jays’ offense. The league-average hitter probably doesn’t swing enough in 0-0 counts, and until they do, it makes sense to try to get one over to steal a strike. Look at the league-average zone and swing rates by count, as well as the percentage of total pitches that come in each count. Since an 0-0 pitch has to be thrown to every batter, this count is by far the most prevalent of the 12:

League Zone% And Swing% By Count
Count Zone% Swing% Delta Pitch%
3-0 60.5% 11.0% 0.495 1.1%
0-0 52.0% 29.8% 0.222 25.6%
2-0 57.1% 42.3% 0.148 3.4%
1-0 53.6% 42.3% 0.113 10.0%
3-1 60.5% 54.5% 0.060 2.2%
2-1 55.1% 57.6% -0.025 5.2%
0-1 45.0% 48.8% -0.038 12.8%
1-1 49.6% 53.5% -0.039 10.1%
3-2 57.6% 71.1% -0.135 5.0%
2-2 46.8% 64.5% -0.177 8.3%
0-2 33.5% 51.6% -0.181 6.8%
1-2 38.4% 57.3% -0.189 9.6%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

More than half of all first pitches are in the strike zone, but hitters still swing at less than 30% of them. While hitters shouldn’t be swinging at every strike they get, especially when they could be getting a better strike later in the at-bat, it’s pretty obvious that they’re leaving value on the table when not swinging. Not all pitchers capture this value equally, though. Some can pour first-pitch strikes in the zone and still get crushed. This how the Giants and Dodgers differentiate themselves from the Orioles, for example:

There you have it. Giants pitchers have accumulated nearly 30 runs of value in 0-0 counts this season, which is roughly equal to three wins. Orioles pitchers, on the other hand, have lost about 20 runs of value in 0-0 counts. The big difference that explains this is what happens when the hitters do put the ball in play. Giants pitchers have allowed just a .331 wOBA in 0-0 counts, while Orioles pitchers have allowed a .408 wOBA. Throwing your first pitch in the zone helps, but the quality of those pitches — and the quality of your pitchers more broadly — matters too. Even when the hitter gets a strike, there’s still a huge difference between San Francisco and Baltimore. Giants and Orioles pitchers have reached an 0-1 count roughly the same number of times this season, but Giants pitchers perform near the top of the league after getting there (a 2.17 FIP after 0-1, third in baseball), while the Orioles find themselves near the bottom (3.55 FIP, 29th). Pretty much every pitcher improves after getting to 0-1, but they do not all improve equally.

The Giants are still doing something unlike most other teams. Because the opponent numbers are so good when putting the first pitch in play, it does not actually appear to be better to swing more often against their first pitch. There are actually only five teams in baseball that allow a higher wOBA after falling behind 1-0 than they do on the first pitch itself: Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland, Arizona, and San Francisco. This means that against these teams, taking more often may be considered more advantageous than swinging. But the Giants have reached an interesting equilibrium in their first pitch approach. If we call this metric “count upside” — that is, the difference between a team’s wOBA allowed after reaching 1-0 and their wOBA allowed in 0-0 counts — you can see how they stack up:

Theoretically, for teams above the line, hitters are better off trying to get to 1-0 than they are swinging on the first pitch. For teams below the line, it’s the opposite: Swinging on 0-0 yields a better result than reaching 1-0, which is the best a hitter can possibly do if they’re taking. It goes back to the point above: hitters should probably increase their swing rates on the first pitch league-wide. But when facing the Giants’ pitching staff, they find themselves in a very unique bind. Swinging doesn’t do them much good, and taking can only really hurt them, given the team’s zone rate and their pitching success even when falling behind 1-0.

This still doesn’t deviate from the thesis: Hitters should probably still swing more often on the first pitch, even against the Giants, since it will shield them from falling behind 0-1, where the downside is extremely high. But because the 0-0 numbers aren’t great, the recommendation isn’t as clear-cut here, which can create headaches for opposing teams when game-planning against this staff. Take the first pitch? It’s likely to be a strike, so you’re probably going to be down 0–1, a spot where you’re in real trouble. Swing at the first pitch? The results aren’t great there either. Pray for a ball? Even though it does help you slightly, 1-0 doesn’t even help you that much; wOBAs here only improve by seven points. Giants pitchers have put batters in a bind, and it’s one of the reasons they’ve been one of the most valuable pitching staffs in baseball this season.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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1 year ago

What’s up with Boston on those charts?

1 year ago
Reply to  knelsen

yeah, it hurts. Sox are number 2 in HRs allowed 0-0 (Twins) and number 1 in batting average allowed (O’s are 6 and 11). And it hurts most to see it in action, like Sale serving up Mountcastle Monday eve ….. I know you’re looking for a deeper answer but as a Sox fan I couldn’t but lament