Making quality contact in certain parts of the zone can be tough for some hitters.
One of the main goals for any hitter at any level when stepping to the plate is to get into a hitter’s count. The best start to reaching that of course is starting the at bat with a ball.
Using data from 2018, if a hitter started a plate appearance off with a ball, the chances of striking out went down 4.3 percent. The chance of walking climbed 6.7 percent. Overall, the player became a hitter that was 25 percent better than league-average for the rest of the plate appearance.
On the other hand, if a hitter started a plate appearance off with a strike, the chance of striking out climbed eight percent, while the chance of taking a walk were nearly cut in half. A batter with an 0-1 count essentially becomes a hitter 34 percent worse than league-average for the rest of the plate appearance.
So why would anyone in the right mind prefer to take a called strike over any other outcome for the first pitch of the plate appearance? Maybe comfort with an approach? Strategy?
Other hitters may prefer to swing at the first pitch of the plate appearance if it’s anywhere near the zone for the same aforementioned reasons, typically contact hitters. For an example, here are the top 25 rates of balls put into play an 0-0 counts in 2018.
But when does taking the first pitch of a plate appearance become appropriate?
The answer may be dependent on what type of ‘stuff’ the pitcher has in his repertoire.
Looking deeper though, there are hitters that can struggle with pitches at a certain area in or around the zone. Some may have trouble putting a good swing on strikes low in the zone, some may have trouble making good contact in the upper-third. Theoretically, if a hitter swings at a pitch that is difficult to make good contact, he should opt to take the strike. The direct premise of this can be viewed from the expected league outcome on plate appearances that start with an 0-1 count and it’s offensive value (66 wRC+, or .269 wOBA) compared to offensive production on balls put in play from a certain are of the zone (high, low, etc).
For the sake of this analysis, I’ll look at two areas of the strike-zone, the upper-third and the lower-third. The goal will be to find hitters that should opt for the first-pitch strike over putting a ball in play on a pitch they can’t handle well. In simpler terms, if [insert player] has a .150 wOBA on pitches in the lower-third of the zone, he should opt for called first-pitch strike (expected .269 wOBA).
By narrowing and filtering things out, I came up with four good examples of this line of thinking. These four players have a lower wOBA (and xwOBA) than the expected offensive value of plate appearances with first-pitch strikes (.262).
Picturing a scenario where a plate appearance starts off with a pitch heading towards bottom or top of the strike-zone, these hitters above would gain offensive production in each plate appearance (the amount remains unclear) if they take the presumed strike and go down in the count 0-1. Now of course, this can also be said about any non-two strike count for these hitters, but explaining in the scenario of an 0-0 count might have been the best way to get this point across.