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."
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 ESPN.com 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
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:
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.
*ESPN.com stats pages are of the form http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/players/splits?statsId=XXXX&type=batting3 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).