SI Vault
 
First-Strike Capability
Michael Bamberger
June 04, 2001
Pitchers who launch their initial delivery over the plate more often win the battle with batters
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 04, 2001

First-strike Capability

Pitchers who launch their initial delivery over the plate more often win the battle with batters

View CoverRead All Articles

Striking Difference

Starters, such as Curt Schilling (right), who had thrown first-pitch strikes most often in 2001 through Sunday. (Minimum seven starts.)

PITCHER, TEAM (RECORD)

FPS AVG.

Rick Reed, Mets (5-2)

.730

Curt Schilling, Diamondbacks (8-1)

.724

Brad Radke, Twins (7-1)

.695

Kevin Brown, Dodgers (6-2)

.692

Javier Vazquez, Expos (4-5)

.681

Starters who had thrown first-pitch strikes least often in 2001 through Sunday. (Minimum seven starts.)

PITCHER, TEAM (RECORD)

FPS AVG.

Britt Reames, Expos (2-7)

.427

Tomokazu Ohka, Red Sox (2-2)

.494

Dan Reichert, Royals (4-4)

.494

Matt Clement, Marlins (2-4)

.502

Doug Davis, Rangers (2-4)

.511

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

The kid arrived at Cinergy Field on May 16, five hours before he would throw his first major league pitch. His name was Brian Reith. He was 23, but he looked 18. The Cincinnati Reds had called him up from their Double A club in Chattanooga to make an emergency start. He went first to the visitors' clubhouse and was rerouted to the home clubhouse, and there he sat for several hours, barely moving or talking, on an upholstered folding chair in front of an empty locker, along the same wall as Barry Larkin's and Ken Griffey Jr.'s cubicles. Just keep doin' what you've been doin', he said to himself. When Brian was a 10-year-old in Fort Wayne, Ind., his father, Steve, had given him the best advice any pitcher could get: The best pitch in baseball is strike one.

In the other clubhouse some of the Arizona Diamondbacks—Jay Bell, Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Mark Grace, Matt Williams—drifted in: grown men, students of hitting. Steve Reith's fatherly advice was correct, but the paradox of baseball is that for most hitters, the best chance to drive the ball is on the first pitch of an at bat, when a pitcher is especially determined to work in the strike zone. All members of that Arizona fivesome have batted better than .300 over the past five years when putting the first pitch in play. They aren't unusual, either. Moises Alou of the Houston Astros batted .495 last season when putting the first pitch in play. (Through Sunday his average this year in that situation was .484.) The San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds batted .458 in 2000 when putting the first pitch in play. The average for all of baseball last year was .336—compared with an overall major league batting average of .270.

"A lot turns on a first pitch," Grace said in the Arizona clubhouse. He took a final drag on a Winston, splashed Coke on the butt to extinguish it and continued talking about a subject that affects numerous aspects of a game: defensive readiness, fan involvement, pitch totals, bullpen weariness, final score. "Sometimes an entire game turns on the first pitch," Grace said. "A guy's first throw gets whacked, he's like, Oh, f—-. He gets an easy pop-up off his first pitch, he's thinking, Wow, this is easy."

One of the most important—and subtle—benefits of a first-pitch strike is an alert defense. "When a pitcher is always behind in the count, throwing a lot of pitches, the fielders are back on their heels," said Grace. "With guys who throw a lot of first-pitch strikes, those balls are put into play, and the fielders are ready."

While Grace talked, righthander Curt Schilling, the Diamondbacks' starter that night, sat at the buffet table, his left hand massaging his forehead, his right hand working on a crossword puzzle. Schilling is not only one of the game's best pitchers but also is among the big league leaders in first-pitch strikes (which are defined as first pitches that result in called strikes, swinging strikes, foul balls and balls put into play). At week's end Schilling had thrown first-pitch strikes to 72.4% of the batters he'd faced. (That would be an FPS average of .724.) The only starter ahead of Schilling was righthander Rick Reed of the New York Mets (.730).

See a pattern there? Good pitchers, good FPS averages. As for pitchers who throw first-pitch strikes to fewer than half the batters they face—well, you probably don't need to ask about their won-lost records or earned run averages.

The FPS average for all pitchers this year is .585. Anything over .630 is very good—and usually a predictor of pitching success (chart, above left). Through Sunday, Minnesota Twins righthander Brad Radke was at .695 and boasted a 7-1 record with a 3.42 ERA. St. Louis Cardinals righty Darryl Kile (7-3, 3.09) was at .655. Los Angeles Dodgers rookie righthander Luke Prokopec (6-1, 3.33) was at .652.

There are, of course, exceptions, like Houston righthander Jose Lima, who sported a sterling .662 FPS average but was 1-2 with a 7.14 ERA, partly because many of his subsequent strikes resulted in hits. A different kind of exception is the power pitcher for whom a high FPS average isn't crucial, like righthander Roger Clemens of the New York Yankees (.599) and lefty Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks (.542). When facing either of them, batters are on the defensive simply because of their velocity.

In general, however, anything under .540 is a good indicator of a struggling pitcher. At week's end righthander Britt Reames of the Montreal Expos had an FPS average of .427; his record was 2-7 with a 5.27 ERA. Lefty Kirk Rueter of the Giants had an FPS average of .527 and a 4-6 record with a 6.22 ERA. Lefty Tom Glavine of the Braves was at .531; his record was 5-3, but his ERA was 4.30. "It's not just throwing a first-pitch strike," says Dodgers pitching coach Jim Col-born. "It's throwing it over the meat of the plate with conviction."

A crippled first-pitch strike gets walloped, as almost any big league hitter will acknowledge. In other words, if the first pitch isn't the time to nibble, it's also not the time to hold back. "We used to call it 'getting ahead in the count,' " says Colborn, who from 1969 to '78 went 83-88 with a 3.80 ERA for four big league teams. "Now everybody's talking about 'first-pitch strikes.' It's definitely something [the Dodgers have] emphasized this year, starting at spring training." Through Sunday, Los Angeles had a staff FPS average of .618, the second best in baseball, and the Dodgers, despite their seasonlong struggle to score runs, were tied for the lead in the National League West.

Continue Story
1 2 3