The Importance of the First Pitch
By Coach Jack Dunn
I am sure our pitchers understand how important their first pitch is when attempting to impress a good-looking girl, but do our pitchers understand the importance of their first pitch to a hitter when they’re on the mound?
Bob Shaw, former big league pitcher with the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox and later pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers farm system, states in his book, Pitching, the importance of the first pitch. Shaw states in his chapter entitled, "Pitching Strategy",
“The first pitch to the hitter, no matter what specific pitch you throw, should be a strike.
I believe you can throw your fastball on the first pitch the first time you face any hitter and have the percentages in your favor. You are strong at the beginning of the game. The hitter may not be sure where you will release the ball. He doesn’t know how hard you are throwing. He doesn’t know how much the ball is moving. This doesn’t hold true after you have faced him two or three times. He has been able to study you and has gauged your fast ball; therefore the percentages are no longer in your favor.”
It has been my experience that the first time a hitter faces a pitcher, the hitter will take the first pitch thrown to him. If the hitter does swing at the first pitch and makes contact, the very best hitter will be out seven of ten times.
The exception to the hitter taking the first pitch his first time up would be if there are runners in scoring position… especially a runner on third base.
Paul Kirkland, Coach, Lugoff-Elgin High School in Lugoff, South Carolina, wrote a very definitive article entitled “Get That First Strike,” in Scholastic Coach concerning the importance of the first pitch. Coach Kirkland writes,
“There are twelve possible counts: 0-0, 0-1, 0-2, 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 2-0, 2-1, 2-2, 3-0, 3-1, and 3-2. We believe the pitcher has the advantage whenever the batter is behind in the count or has 2 strikes, regardless of count. This includes counts 0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2, and 3-2.
Of the 12 possible situations, only 5 (41.7%) directly benefit the pitcher. We believe the pitcher is disadvantaged whenever the batter is either even or ahead in the count. This includes counts 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, and 3-1.
So, 7 of 12 counts (58.3%) directly benefit the batter. That’s a difference of 16.6% in favor of the hitter, and our pitcher hasn’t even thrown a pitch yet. Pretty discouraging!
Most importantly, though is what happens on that first pitch. Count-wise, it can be a ball (1-0) or a strike (0-1). Let’s take a look at a first pitch that’s a ball. At 1-0, there remain 8 possible counts: 1-1, 1-2, 2-0, 2-1, 2-2, 3-0, 3-1, and 3-2. Of these 8 counts, only 3 favor the pitcher (1-2, 2-2 and 3-2). That’s a disturbing 37.5%
Now let’s take a look at the first pitch strike (0-1). There remain 7 possible counts, 4 of which now favor the pitcher (0-2, 1-2, 2-2, and 3-2). This is a whopping 57.1%. Compared to 37.5%, that’s a big difference!”
If the first pitch is a strike, Coach Kirkland goes onto say,
“Certain favorable conditions now occur:
1. The pitcher is now in a position to dictate the situation.
2. The batter’s chances of success fall dramatically.
3. The mental momentum, which is so very important in a pitcher-hitter duel, sways toward the mound.”
“Add to the fact that many high-school hitters watch the first pitch every time at bat. In fact, many coaches tell their players to wait for a strike. This is all the more reason for us to “get ahead early!” Boy, if there ever was a time to groove one, this is it.
Other factors to consider, of course—We chart opposing batters, looking for the ones to work around. Our pitchers must also be able to throw their curves for strikes because nobody wants to swing at a first-pitch curve.
All these are elements that the coach and pitcher will have to consider.
We realize that “percents and numbers” tell only part of the truth. If you are unsure of this philosophy, use it as food for thought. If you already subscribe to this philosophy, then use these numbers to convince your pitchers how important that first pitch really is.”
Coach Ron Squire, Mt. San Antonio CC, in his book, How To Develop The Successful Pitcher, wrote,
“We classify each ball and strike situation under one of four categories. These are termed the Vulnerable Situation, the Percentage Situation, the Fine Situation and the Extra-Fine Situation.
The Vulnerable Situation: The pitcher must throw a strike—2-0, 3-0, 3-1, and 3-2.
The Percentage Situation: The pitcher is trying to even the count of or to keep from throwing a ball and thus getting in to a “Vulnerable Situation”—0-0, 1-0, 2-1, and 2-2.
The Fine Situation: The pitcher can put something extra on the pitch without fear of it being a ball—0-1, 1-1, and 1-2.
The Extra-Fine Situation: This situation only occurs with a no balls and two strikes count… make batter swing at bad pitch—0-2.
Coach Squire’s plan is referred to as Rule Pitching with the objective of having the pitcher striving to be in the “Fine” or the “Extra-Fine Situation!”
Jerry Delford, in his article, "Utilizing The Variables Of Pitching", in American Baseball Coaches Association Quarterly Digest, writes,
“I charted the hitters of our opposition and found out that if the count on any hitter reached the two balls, no strikes, the hitter had an OBA (on base percentage) of .456. If the count had been 1-1, the OBA would have dropped to .300. If the count went 0-2, the OBA would have dropped to just .191. If the first pitch would have been a strike, the OBA becomes .264 but if the first pitch was a ball, the OBA becomes .423. If that does not convince you of the need to throw strikes, then realize that only twenty-three percent of the runs scored against us come without the aid of a walk. The message is clear—throw strikes!”
Craig Burley wrote a two-part article that he entitled, The Importance Of Strike One. Burley stated,
“That’s just shocking 92.7% of the time, if you throw a strike to the opposing hitter (on his first pitch) you get either a 0-1 count or an out.”
Burley goes on to say,
“But more than three quarters of the time, that first strike from the pitcher is taken, swing through or fouled off. So, looked at carefully, the pitcher still retains a massive advantage when that first pitch is in the strike zone. Why? Because once a pitcher gets to 0-1, hitters hit just .239 / .283 OBP / .372 Slug % against him from there on out.”
“0-0 is the predominant count in baseball. The first strike is the soul of every pitcher’s success, and pitchers who don’t throw first-pitch strikes get killed. Consistently, even the most hittable pitchers in the majors give up base hits on fewer than 10% of their first-pitch strikes. Certainly, the old saw that the pitcher’s most important pitch is a strike, rings true. But another popular piece of myth, that the 1-1 count is the big one, should probably be put out to pasture.”
We all seem to agree that first-strike pitchers are a real asset. It has been proved not only from an empirical standpoint but statistically as well.
Our responsibility as coaches is to pass this information on to our pitchers. They must realize that:
1. The first time they face a hitter, the majority of hitters will take the first pitch.
2. If the hitter swings at the 0-0 pitch and makes contact, he will be out at least 7 of 10 times.
3. If the 0-0 pitch is a strike, the hitters batting average plummets to .239.
4. The pitcher must be aggressive and not afraid to throw a first-pitch strike to the hitter the first time he faces him.
5. Relief pitchers must exercise more caution if they enter the game with runners in scoring position. The majority of hitters tend to become more aggressive in these situations (throwing a curveball strike on the first pitch here can be an excellent choice.)
6. Theoretically, throwing a first-pitch strike to every hitter could reduce a team’s batting average to a dismal .191.
7. Brian Oakchunas, in The Importance Of Throwing First Pitch Strikes, says, “the most successful major-league pitchers throw an average of 62.8% first-pitch strikes.”
8. Hall-of-Famer, Johnny Sain said, “the best pitch in baseball is the one pitch out!”
9. Remember! Getting the first strike, 0-1, on a hitter significantly decreases his chance of success.
• Pitching: The Basic Fundamentals and Mechanics of Successful Pitching. Bob Shaw - Viking Press - 1972
• Kirkland, Paul. “Get That First Strike”. Scholastic Coach. Web.
• How To Develop The Successful Pitcher. Ron Squire - Prentice-Hall - 1965
• Delford, Jerry. “Utilizing the Variables of Pitching.” American Baseball Coaches Association Quarterly Digest. Web.
• Burley, Craig. “The Importance of Strike One.” The Hardball Times. Web.
• Oakchunas, Brian. “The Importance of Throwing First Pitch Strikes.” Baseball Prospectus. Web.