Swinging at the First Pitch

Jimmy Rollins is frequently maligned for hacking at the first pitch of his at bats. In fact, his Baseball Reference page even states that "[he] is often criticized for swinging at the first pitch, which normally leads to him flying out or grounding out."

However, recently, in the post "A Stroll Through Spring Stats", dajafi decided to look up the numbers. In the last 3 years, Rollins has put the first pitch into play 299 times with a line of:


At first glance, these numbers seem pretty impressive. He certainly does significantly better than he has hit cumulatively over the last 3 years:


So, should Rollins be swinging at more first pitches? Already, hitting the first pitch 299 seems like an awfully high percentage of times to put the ball into play on the first pitch. It doesn't even count swings and misses! To answer this question, let's compare Rollins to the rest of the league and the Phillies.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find the league average numbers for swinging at the first pitch. Fortunately, I am capable enough at hacking together some Perl code and like a good challenge. I parsed the three year splits on and tallied the stats of every player with 20 ABs or more on a 0-0 count*. The results:

Players analyzed: 507
Total ABs: 55218
AVG: 0.343
OBP: 0.349
SLG: 0.557

These numbers are far better than the league average line of .260/.330/.420. I believe the reason batters have such high averages when hitting the first pitch are twofold:

  • It is impossible to strike out on the first pitch, so swings and misses are excluded from these stats.
  • Batters are likely to only swing at the first pitch if it's a pitch they are expecting or "sitting on."
  • Despite being an above average hitter, Rollins is below the league average for swinging at the first pitch. While this analysis is somewhat rudimentary, it leads me to believe that the critics are right - Rollins should be swinging at fewer first pitches, not more. Fortunately, he has been. Here are Rollins' percentages at swinging at the first pitch over the last 3 years:

    2004 - 18.5%
    2005 - 15.8%
    2006 - 10.1%

    So far, in spring training, Rollins has shown some pretty impressive patience at the plate. Let's hope that trend continues. For reference, here are the rest of the Phillies lines with 75+ ABs swinging at the first pitch over 2004-2006:

    Wes Helms  90 ABs .356/.378/.544
    Rod Barajas  109 ABs .367/.364/.688
    Pat Burrell  186 ABs .403/.401/.737
    Jimmy Rollins  299 ABs .338/.341/.535
    Aaron Rowand  214 ABs .397/.414/.715
    Chase Utley  141 ABs .390/.424/.702
    Ryan Howard  124 ABs .427/.430/1.000

    Finally, if anyone is interested, I'll gladly send the code for parsing ESPN's splits. If a lot of people are interested, I'll even do a post on it.

    * stats pages are of the form where XXXX is a four digit number. I parsed the numbers 5000-8000. I don't believe there are active players outside of this range. Note that the player IDs shift from page to page and a player ID on a player's main page is not his number on his 3 year splits page. However, 507 players seems like it would be an accurate number of players to have accrued 20+ ABs with a 0-0 count (e.g. even Coste didn't have this many last year).

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