Big data has quickly changed baseball. The wisdom learned from defining probabilities is killing off sacrifice bunts (last season saw the lowest rate in recorded history, since 1884), intentional walks (lowest in recorded history, since 1955), stolen bases (lowest since 1973) pitchouts (all but extinct) and the eight position players defending from traditional spots. But sometimes the truths we long have held as self-evident are confirmed by big data—and I mean really, really, really big data.
What if you could analyze the data from 7 million games that involved one billion pitches? Don't worry about canceling your weekend plans; GameChanger already did it for you.
GameChanger is a service that allows coaches and fans to store and analyze statistics for their team—in this case we are talking about 100,000 teams involving baseball and softball players from ages eight through 18. The folks at GameChanger collected and analyzed all that data, and what they found runs from the esoteric (who knew Montana high school baseball players hit home runs more often than other state?) to the prosaic (leadoff walks score 46% of the time).
But one of GameChanger’s key findings is a truth so old that it’s hard to know who said it first: The best pitch in baseball is the first-pitch strike. That truth is eerily as important in high school baseball as it is in the major leagues.
I asked GameChanger to separate the high school baseball numbers to remove it from any noise from Little League baseball or softball. The data revealed that pitchers throw a first-pitch strike 56.9% of the time. If the first pitch is a strike, the batter’s on-base percentage is .320; if it’s a ball, the OBP shoots up to .432.
How do such numbers compare to first-pitch numbers in MLB? Here you go:
OBP after 0–1 count
OBP after 1–0 count
Walk rate after first-pitch ball
Walk rate after first-pitch strike
While ERA is lower in high school, it’s easier to get on base because of walks (and easier to score because of unearned runs), so the OBPs are higher in high school. But when you examine how the first pitch influences the outcome of the at-bat, the two brands of baseball that otherwise are a world apart look very similar. A first-pitch ball in high school yields an extra .112 in OBP, or a 35% increase. A first-pitch ball in the majors yields an extra .109 in OBP, or a 41% increase. And major league baseball pitchers aren’t that much better than high school pitchers at throwing first-pitch strikes—only one extra strike for every three times around the batting order, or one strike every 27 batters. The game appears to have a kind of innate equilibrium.
The importance of first-pitch strikes is one of several conclusions GameChanger took from the data. Among its recommendations to players, coaches and parents:
• Emphasize first-pitch strikes over strikeouts.
• Hard-hit ball percentages should be emphasized over batting averages.
• The number of quality at-bats has a direct correlation to wins (a quality at-bat is defined as an at-bat that includes three pitches after two strikes, at-bats lasting at least six pitches, or an extra-base hit, walk, sacrifice or sacrifice fly).
As long as we’re having fun with billions of recorded pitches, check out these oddities culled from high school baseball stats, which I will sprinkle with some apropos MLB trivia found within baseball-reference.com:
• High School: Big Sky country is Big Fly country. Montana players hit home runs at the rate of one every 98.3 at-bats, tops in the country. West Virginia is second at 101.5.
MLB: The all-time MLB home run leader from Montana is John Lowenstein (116), who was born in the Treasure State but went to high school in California before spending 16 years in the majors from 1970 to '85 with the Indians, Rangers and Orioles.
• High school: The top six states as ranked by highest batting average are all Western states: Colorado and Nevada (.330), followed by Utah, Arizona, Wyoming and New Mexico (.320).
MLB: Milestone alert: Yankees third baseman Chase Headley of Fountain, Colo., needs 74 hits to break the 100-year-old record for most major league hits by a Coloradan: 1,146 of Golden’s Roy Hartzell.
• High School: In what should not be a surprise, the states with the four worst ERAs also are Western states: Wyoming (5.34), Colorado (5.06), Alaska (5.00) and Nevada (4.82).
MLB: Only nine Wyoming-born players ever pitched in the big leagues, none better than Casper’s Tom Browning (123–90) and none since Jeremy Horst (2–2 from 2011 to '13).
• High School: Hitters in Washington, D.C. produce the most quality at-bats (47.2%), followed by Colorado (46.1) and Rhode Island (45.7).
MLB: The all-time D.C.-born MLB hits list: 1. Maury Wills. 2. Lu Blue. 3. Don Money.
• High School: The smallest state packs the biggest punch. Rhode Island leads the country in hard-hit ball percentage (21%), followed by D.C. (20.6) and Arizona (19.8).
MLB: The second-best slugging percentage by a Rhode Island-born player belongs to former White Sox slugger Paul Konerko, who trails one Hall of Famer (Gabby Hartnett) and leads two others (Nap Lajoie and Hugh Duffy).