Depending on how you watch a baseball game these days, you may or may not be consuming instant reaction while you watch a baseball game. Like most people, at least I think like most people, I tend to peruse Twitter while watching games and the instant success of recent young prospects has had an unfortunate effect for the expectations that we bestow on the uber-prospects that come to the Show these days. The most recent of which is that of Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant.
Bryant humbled competition at every level before reaching the Show on the first day he was eligible with the Cubs not forfeiting a 7th year of control. There was hullabaloo and hype for that first game against the Padres and Bryant, not surprisingly, struggled against a very good pitcher in James Shields. Since that game he’s gone on to a more than modest level of success, but is still without his first homer after crushing 43 in the minors last year and 9 in the Cactus League this spring. But, to be critical of Bryant through 19 games because his slugging percentage is over 50 points less than his on-base percentage seems counterproductive.
The value of patience, and the value of strike one for pitchers, was recently put into greater focus for me by a piece at the Hardball Times that further illustrates just how important strike one can be for pitchers. It’s been commonly accepted that this is a fairly obvious strategy (throw strikes, not balls… weird how that works) but it makes a great deal of difference in the course of an at-bat, and furthermore, in a game. I’d recommend reading the piece, but I’m going to go into how that first strike is affecting Kris Bryant specifically.
Bryant has 85 plate appearances this year. He’s started 23 of those by taking a called strike one, 12 of them by swinging at strike one and 9 of them by fouling off the first pitch. In those 44 at-bats that have started with a strike, Bryant has created 29 outs. So, roughly two-thirds of those at-bats are ending with the Cubs giving up one of the twenty seven outs they have to work with in a game. On the other hand, there’s 27 at-bats that have started with ball one. Bryant has reached base safely in just under half of those at-bats (13). Let’s get a bit more granular in those at-bats that start with ball one.
Results aren’t always indicative of how well a plate appearance went for a batter. Just ask Bryant’s teammates after their most recent series in St. Louis. Instead, we’re starting to look at hard contact and batted ball velocity as it tells us when a hitter is squaring up a ball and driving it. Bryant has hit 12 balls in excess of 95 MPH off the bat, eight of which have allowed him to reach safely. Six of those scorchers came after Bryant took ball one, later forcing the pitcher to come into an area where he wanted the ball to be.
It goes beyond strike one and ball one, too. Of the 371 pitches Bryant has seen this year, he’s been ahead in the count for 81 of them. Below is a heat map of where the following pitch ends up when Bryant is ahead in the count.
Lots of middle-middle, middle-away and even away-upper third. For a hitter like Kris Bryant, those are pitches he can get extended on and clobber; using his long limbs and full body to drive the ball. You probably want proof of this fact, and, lucky for you dear reader I have just that.
Now the above displays the location of pitches that have resulted in a line drive off the bat of Kris Bryant this year. Yes, two of those resulted in outs, but the other eight were hits. Three of those eight went for extra bases. All ten of them left the bat in excess of 95 MPH. Those pitches ended up in the locations that Kris Bryant tends to see a ball while he’s ahead in the count. It would appear that the young man has a bit of a plan when he goes up there.
Now that we’ve given some value to Bryant’s patience at the plate, I’d like to explore the idea that Bryant has been wasting first pitch fastballs that he could do something with. Over the course of these first three weeks in the big leagues Bryant has seen a fastball on the first pitch 46 times. 30 of them have not been strikes with Bryant swinging at 8 of them. In 7 of those 8 occasions, the at-bat resulted in an out. Of the 16 that were actually strikes, he swung at 7 of them. One was put in play for a double (exit velocity of 95 MPH), two were fouled off (note that the linked chart counts the foul tip as a whiff), two were in play resulting in outs with respective batted ball velocities of 105 & 107 MPH, and he swung and missed at just two of them. Those other nine that he took for strike one? I probably would’ve taken most of them, too, based on the below locations.
Yeah. So, he missed one cookie. Want to know what ended up happening when he took that 91.5 MPH middle-middle pitch? He walked eight pitches later. Maybe it’s because six of those nine pitches have come in the last week that there’s a bit of recency bias on Bryant taking first pitch fastballs in the zone? Maybe? Otherwise that’s nine total pitches that he’s let go by as first pitch heaters in the zone. In those at-bats that he’s fallen behind taking a first pitch fastball for a strike Bryant is 1 for 6 with 3 walks and 3 strikeouts. Not half bad for when the wOBA dropped 0.48 points across the league in 2014 from .310 to .262 because of that first strike.
I like dingers. I’m sure you like dingers, too. But I like not making outs, putting more guys on base and making those dingers even more valuable. Bryant’s doing just that with this approach, and if his small sample size illustrated above is any indicator, he’s going to be seeing more pitches which he can put in the seats by continuing to utilize the approach that got him to the Show.