Swinging At The First Pitch Isn’t Yasiel Puig’s Problem

Unsurprisingly, Yasiel Puig‘s massive slump is a big topic of concern these days, and not unfairly so. If you can dig through a lot of the garbage comments around why it is — I won’t repeat them here, but you can probably guess — one of the repeated theories is frustration that he’s not being selective, and swinging at the first pitch too much, and that’s interesting. It makes sense, on the surface: Puig, frustrated at his failures, has lost the patience that he had been improving, and has been jumping to swing at anything, in the process helping the pitcher get him out.

It’s not a bad theory, as far as theories go. It’s also not necessarily true. Since Aug. 1, Puig has swung at about 3.5 percent more first pitches than he had from the start of the season through July 31. That’s a bit of an increase, though not a huge one, but more importantly, swinging at first pitches isn’t as bad a thing as people believe.

First, let’s talk briefly about swinging at the first pitch. For the last 20 years or so, it’s become a common baseball strategy to show patience and take a lot of pitches, partially because the value of a walk is more appreciated now than ever, but also with the idea being that you want to make the starter throw a lot of pitches early and get into the supposedly weaker bullpen. That made a lot of sense — who wouldn’t want to face Chris Perez instead of Clayton Kershaw? — and it worked. The Yankees and Red Sox built championship teams around that idea, and it’s one of the less-discussed reasons why length of game has increased, simply because eight-pitch plate appearances are going to take longer than one-pitch plate appearances.

As the years went on, however, the value in that has decreased, and fans and media have been slow to catch on to that. Pitchers aren’t stupid, and when they realized that hitters were likely to let the first pitch go by, they started pumping in more first-pitch strikes. We have reliable data on this going back to 2002, and wouldn’t you know it, the top seasons for first-pitch strikes have been 2012, 2013 and 2014. Batters have been willfully watching hittable pitches go by, and the difference between an 0-1 count and a 1-0 count is huge. I’m hardly the first to notice this, of course. Among several to note it, Dave Cameron, writing at FOX, had a piece about it in June:

Over the last few years, the first-pitch take has all but lost its advantage over the first-pitch swing, and an overly passive approach to attacking hittable 0-0 pitches could be part of the culprit.

Being selective shouldn’t be equated with standing there watching a centered, elevated fastball get called for strike one, but maybe major-league hitters have indeed become a little too willing to take a good first pitch, only to strike out before ever seeing another meatball again.

Not to mention the fact that now that every team seems to have an endless stream of young flame-throwing relievers, which somewhat decreases the “get the starter out of the game” approach. Kershaw to Perez is an extreme example, but in a lot of cases, you’d rather have the tiring starter than the fresh reliever. Patience still works for A.J. Ellis, but for the game as a whole, it’s becoming less appealing to watch a hittable 0-0 pitch go by only to find yourself having to swing at a 1-2 slider in the dirt. It’s the opposite of being selective.

Anyway! This has taken us off the topic of Puig. Let’s get back to Puig.

 Puig On first-pitch swing
Year L/Str S/Str AS/Pit 1stS BA OBP SLG
2013 15.1% 29.4% 53.5% 43.2% .551 .569 1.072
2014 21.3% 21.7% 46.7% 40.7% .353 .353 .539

There’s a lot happening there, so let’s explain it, but first, the right side of that chart. That’s Puig’s success rate against 0-0 pitches, and, wow. The man destroys them, but really, so does all of baseball. The 2014 MLB average OPS against 0-0 pitches is .871. If the pitcher thinks you’re giving him a free strike, and you jump on a pitch that is intended merely to get over the plate, good things can happen.

Back to the chart, here’s the legend for those unfamiliar columns:

L/Str — Strikes looking percentage. Puig looks at fewer strikes overall than the rest of MLB, considerably so, but it’s also jumped up a lot for him this year, a side effect of his improved patience.

S/Str — Swinging strike percentage. Unsurprisingly, he swings and misses more than the majority of baseball, but he’s made a huge improvement from last year to this year.

AS/Pit — Percentage of pitches swung at. Puig has offered much less than last year, and he’s now almost entirely league-average.

1stS — First-pitch swinging percentage, which is down from last year, though as noted above, hasn’t seen that big of a difference in-season within 2014.

Puig, like most hitters, struggles with two strikes, hitting a mere .174/.273/.260 in his career. With zero strikes, he’s insane, hitting .444/.500/.749. You tell me which situation you’d rather have him hitting in?

The point, really, is this: Whatever is ailing Puig isn’t related to swinging at the first pitch. No one’s saying he or anyone else should go nuts to swing at a first pitch that’s a poor one, of course, because having a 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 advantage is hugely beneficial, and overall he’s been more patient. He’s swinging at 10% fewer balls outside the zone, which is great, and making more contact overall, which is also great. But there’s also no point in letting a hittable first pitch go by just because that’s what’s been happening for years. If it’s a good pitch, then he should be swinging at it, because that’s worked out very, very well for him.

Puig hasn’t been watching more first pitches go by. He’s also slumping terribly. That doesn’t make the two related, and swinging at the best pitch you’re going to see — even if it’s the first one — isn’t a bad approach to breaking out of a rough patch.

About Mike Petriello

Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.