Back in 2015, when Dale Sveum was the Royals’ hitting coach, he turned his hitters loose.
Sveum thought hitting in the big leagues was hard enough without letting hittable pitches go by. So if a Royals hitter got a good pitch to hit, he was free to hack away, even if it was the first pitch of the at-bat.
Fans of sabermetrics didn’t like that approach.
Those fans believed it was good for a hitter to see a lot of pitches. After all, walks are good, and you can’t walk unless you see at least four pitches. (For now, we’ll ignore the fact that the intentional-walk rule has changed.)
Hitters taking pitches, while boring to watch, also had another benefit: It forces the opposing team’s starting pitcher to throw more pitches, and if he throws enough of them, he might come out of the game early.
The Boston Red Sox were one of the teams that advocated that approach.
The Red Sox wanted to get the other team’s starting pitcher out of the game after five innings. That would give them a shot at the opposing team’s middle relievers, the weakest part of any pitching staff, where they take their chances.
Because they saw more pitches per plate appearance than the average team, the Red Sox played a lot of long, boring games. But over the years they also won a bunch of them.
Some fans loved Boston’s approach — as long as they didn’t actually have to watch their games — and thought the Royals should emulate what the Red Sox were doing. Couldn’t the Royals understand the virtue of taking pitches?
But after they won the 2015 World Series, it became clear there was a method to the Royals’ madness.
Ambushing first-pitch fastballs
Taking pitches is a good strategy as long as the pitcher doesn’t throw strikes.
But everybody has scouting reports, and if hitters are going to be passive and take pitches, pitchers are going to be aggressive and get ahead in the count. And because it’s the easiest pitch to control, a lot of those early strikes are fastballs.
Hitters like to hit fastballs.
When the 2015 Royals put the first pitch in play, they hit .317 with an on-base percentage of .342 and a slugging percentage of .491. But if the Royals took the first pitch for a strike, after that those numbers were .236/.270/.354.
Taking even one strike could put the pitcher in charge of the at-bat, and that’s why Sveum was letting his hitters be so aggressive early in the count.
But that was then and this is now.
We could look at the 2018 Royals’ numbers and see the same pattern, but the Royals aren’t very good right now and it would be easy to dismiss the numbers they generate. So let’s look at the team that currently has the best offense in baseball: the Red Sox.
No team has scored more runs than Boston this season, but the same pattern still exists: according to Baseball Reference, when the Red Sox put the first pitch in play, their current numbers are .335/.349/.564.
If the Red Sox take the first pitch for a strike, after that those numbers are .247/.243/.413. And if the Red Sox are even more patient and get into a two-strike count, their numbers are .200/.265/.330.
Some people think the Red Sox had gone from being selective to passive; in the past they were letting hittable pitches go by and in the big leagues you might be lucky to get even one of those per at-bat.
Last season, Boston was second-to-last in the American League when it came to slugging percentage, and this season new manager Alex Cora wanted to change that. Cora talked about “hunting pitches you can do damage with,” even if those pitches come early in the count.
And getting a starting pitcher out of the game early isn’t the bargain it used to be. If a team has loaded up on dominant relievers, you might be in worse shape after you knock the starter out of the game.
So the Red Sox manager is now advocating the approach that got the Royals criticized in 2015.
The game continues to evolve
Every once in a while, someone will get lyrical and talk about the timeless, unchanging game of baseball ... which sounds nice, but isn’t very accurate.
If runners steal 100 bases, some pitcher will develop the slide-step. If hitters decide to change their launch angle to get under the ball, pitchers will start throwing high fastballs to take advantage of loopy swings.
And if hitters are passive early in the count, pitchers will be aggressive until someone takes advantage of those first-pitch fastballs down the pipe.
These days, some teams are willing to put poor defenders on the field as long as those poor defenders hit enough home runs. But hitters are striking out at a record-breaking pace, and if the ball is not put in play, those poor defenders won’t get exposed.
So don’t be surprised if some smart team decides to focus on getting the ball in play and pressuring those poor defenders to play the game. And the best way to avoid striking out is to get the ball in play before you have two-strikes.
The game is always changing, and always will.
Across baseball, pitches per plate appearance are up this season and the 2018 Red Sox still see more pitches than average. But the gap isn’t nearly as wide as it has been at times in the past.
The Red Sox are starting to see the virtues of impatience.