Baseball coaches have stressed the importance of first pitch strikes to pitchers ever since the age of youth baseball. First pitch strikes allow pitchers to get ahead in the count and control the at-bat. This has always been an important aspect of pitching, but what relation is there between first pitch strikes and deeper statistics such as fielding independent pitching or strikeout percentage? Of course, there is a lot more that goes into an at-bat than first pitch strikes. Still, they can be directly tied to a large portion of success for pitchers and can give us solid insight on different statistics.
Looking at the best first pitch strike rates since 2017
Here, we will focus on first pitch strikes on a team-wide basis. There are certain pitchers in baseball such as the Kershaws and Klubers that would defy normal statistics on a case-by-case basis. Looking at first pitch strikes throughout teams as a whole gives a much more universal appearance.
Top five teams in first pitch strike percentage
- Los Angeles Dodgers (63.6%).
- Cleveland Indians (62.7%).
- Boston Red Sox (62.1%)
- San Francisco Giants (62.0%)
- Kansas City Royals (61.8%).
Bottom five teams in first pitch strike percentage
- Baltimore Orioles (56.5%).
- Oakland Athletics (58.2%).
- Texas Rangers (58.5%).
- Cincinnati Reds (58.5%).
- Milwaukee Brewers (58.7%).
Comparing those teams to strikeout percentage
The top three teams in first pitch strikeout percentage since 2017 also landed in the top five for strikeout percentage. The other two teams in the top five, the Astros and Yankees, fall in at sixth and eight respectively in first pitch strike percentage. The Kansas City Royals are an outlier with falling in the bottom ten in strikeout percentage.
On the flip side, three of the worst five teams in first pitch strike percentage also fall in the bottom five in strikeout percentage. The Cincinnati Reds come in as eighth worst, and the Brewers are an outlier in the top fifteen.
Fielding independent pitching
Perhaps the best metric for evaluating pitchers, let’s now compare the best first pitch strike teams to their FIP.
Cleveland, Los Angeles and Boston run first, second and third in fielding independent pitching. Note that those are also the top three teams in first pitch strike percentage. The San Francisco Giants are also in the top ten in FIP, and the Royals are the outlier at 18th. Again, the rest of the top ten matches up incredibly well with the top ten teams in first pitch strike percentage.
Of the five worst teams in first pitch strike percentage, three fall in the bottom five in fielding independent pitching. The Reds, Rangers and Orioles all are among the five worst, while the Athletics fall in the bottom ten. Again, the Milwaukee Brewers are the outlier. The worst pitching team since 2017, the Chicago White Sox, also are in the bottom ten in first pitch strike percentage.
Stressing the importance of first pitch strikes
At the end of the day, are first pitch strikes everything when it comes to pitching? Of course not. Elite pitchers find a way to work around the count, even if they generally have a high first pitch strike percentage. However, for the pitchers that are not Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber or Chris Sale, first pitch strikes are crucial for success. There is a reason that there is so much correlation between first pitch strikes and deeper, more evaluative pitching statistics. These early leads in the count allow pitchers to gain control over a count and the batter. So many times, the focus on pitchers is how fast they throw or how much their pitches break. Perhaps a more reliable feature would be their accuracy out of the gate on an at-bat.
Statistics from fangraphs.com.