A question that we get asked a lot this time of year is "Should I take the first pitch of the at-bat?" Today I want to discuss our philosophy on this topic and the reasons behind why we believe what we believe.
(If you would like a video version of this article better here is a short YouTube video)
So, should I take the first pitch?
The short answer is no.
The first question we ask a hitter when they tell us that they like to take the first pitch is why? As most people know, we stress hitters being able to answer this question on anything from approach to mechanics. Most of the time, the answer is: "So I can time up the fastball." Fair enough but here is my response: "what if they throw you a curve ball?" or "what if they throw a get me over fastball at 80 but they can get their fastball up to 85?" How about they groove a fastball and get ahead, and you only see off-speed the rest of the at-bat? Why not wait and take until you see a breaking pitch? (After all, you don't know what shape their breaking ball has until you see it). The questions and hypotheticals can go on and on.
Many times, especially in high school and lower levels, pitchers begin at bats with fastballs. This is simply because they generally have the best control of that pitch and are looking to get ahead in the count. This desire to get ahead has 2 main purposes. First, it allows them to open up their arsenal of pitches and throw whatever they want on the subsequent pitches. Second, and most importantly, when pitchers get ahead in the count, it shifts the balance of success into their favor. Take a look at the chart below. It highlights the fact that hitters have way more success when the count is in their favor. In particular, they have the highest batting averages when they have no strikes.
While a hitter should never be afraid to fall behind in a count and shouldn't swing at pitches for the sake of swinging, good hitters are looking to do damage, not take pitches. I say it all the time during the season: hitters who have more success are generally more aggressive than hitters who are not. The job of a hitter is to hit. Not to walk, but to hit. Nothing against a walk, it is a productive plate appearance, but the first objective of good hitters is to hit. Many times, hitters will take the first pitch in an effort to get closer to walking.
The main objective of a good hitter is to do damage and hit the ball. Meanwhile, many players and coaches want to take the first pitch. These 2 ideas are not compatible. While taking the first pitch may benefit the hitter from time to time, overall, the perceived positives do not outweigh the potential negatives. The main reason given to take the first pitch is mostly timing related. Even if a hitter got a slight edge in seeing the velocity on the fastball, the ability of a pitcher to get ahead in the count far outweighs that advantage. To finish, check out this video of hitting a HR on the first pitch of his first at bat of the first game of the season.