First-Strike Capability Pitchers who launch their initial delivery over the plate more often win the battle with batters

June 03, 2001

The kid arrived at Cinergy Field on May 16, five hours before he
would throw his first major league pitch. His name was Brian
Reith. He was 23, but he looked 18. The Cincinnati Reds had
called him up from their Double A club in Chattanooga to make an
emergency start. He went first to the visitors' clubhouse and
was rerouted to the home clubhouse, and there he sat for several
hours, barely moving or talking, on an upholstered folding chair
in front of an empty locker, along the same wall as Barry
Larkin's and Ken Griffey Jr.'s cubicles. Just keep doin' what
you've been doin', he said to himself. When Brian was a
10-year-old in Fort Wayne, Ind., his father, Steve, had given
him the best advice any pitcher could get: The best pitch in
baseball is strike one.

In the other clubhouse some of the Arizona Diamondbacks--Jay Bell,
Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Mark Grace, Matt Williams--drifted
in: grown men, students of hitting. Steve Reith's fatherly advice
was correct, but the paradox of baseball is that for most
hitters, the best chance to drive the ball is on the first pitch
of an at bat, when a pitcher is especially determined to work in
the strike zone. All members of that Arizona fivesome have batted
better than .300 over the past five years when putting the first
pitch in play. They aren't unusual, either. Moises Alou of the
Houston Astros batted .495 last season when putting the first
pitch in play. (Through Sunday his average this year in that
situation was .484.) The San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds batted
.458 in 2000 when putting the first pitch in play. The average
for all of baseball last year was .336--compared with an overall
major league batting average of .270.

"A lot turns on a first pitch," Grace said in the Arizona
clubhouse. He took a final drag on a Winston, splashed Coke on
the butt to extinguish it and continued talking about a subject
that affects numerous aspects of a game: defensive readiness, fan
involvement, pitch totals, bullpen weariness, final score.
"Sometimes an entire game turns on the first pitch," Grace said.
"A guy's first throw gets whacked, he's like, Oh, f---. He gets
an easy pop-up off his first pitch, he's thinking, Wow, this is
easy."

One of the most important--and subtle--benefits of a first-pitch
strike is an alert defense. "When a pitcher is always behind in
the count, throwing a lot of pitches, the fielders are back on
their heels," said Grace. "With guys who throw a lot of
first-pitch strikes, those balls are put into play, and the
fielders are ready."

While Grace talked, righthander Curt Schilling, the Diamondbacks'
starter that night, sat at the buffet table, his left hand
massaging his forehead, his right hand working on a crossword
puzzle. Schilling is not only one of the game's best pitchers but
also is among the big league leaders in first-pitch strikes
(which are defined as first pitches that result in called
strikes, swinging strikes, foul balls and balls put into play).
At week's end Schilling had thrown first-pitch strikes to 72.4%
of the batters he'd faced. (That would be an FPS average of
.724.) The only starter ahead of Schilling was righthander Rick
Reed of the New York Mets (.730).

See a pattern there? Good pitchers, good FPS averages. As for
pitchers who throw first-pitch strikes to fewer than half the
batters they face--well, you probably don't need to ask about
their won-lost records or earned run averages.

The FPS average for all pitchers this year is .585. Anything over
.630 is very good--and usually a predictor of pitching success
(chart, above left). Through Sunday, Minnesota Twins righthander
Brad Radke was at .695 and boasted a 7-1 record with a 3.42 ERA.
St. Louis Cardinals righty Darryl Kile (7-3, 3.09) was at .655.
Los Angeles Dodgers rookie righthander Luke Prokopec (6-1, 3.33)
was at .652.

There are, of course, exceptions, like Houston righthander Jose
Lima, who sported a sterling .662 FPS average but was 1-2 with a
7.14 ERA, partly because many of his subsequent strikes resulted
in hits. A different kind of exception is the power pitcher for
whom a high FPS average isn't crucial, like righthander Roger
Clemens of the New York Yankees (.599) and lefty Randy Johnson of
the Diamondbacks (.542). When facing either of them, batters are
on the defensive simply because of their velocity.

In general, however, anything under .540 is a good indicator of a
struggling pitcher. At week's end righthander Britt Reames of the
Montreal Expos had an FPS average of .427; his record was 2-7
with a 5.27 ERA. Lefty Kirk Rueter of the Giants had an FPS
average of .527 and a 4-6 record with a 6.22 ERA. Lefty Tom
Glavine of the Braves was at .531; his record was 5-3, but his
ERA was 4.30. "It's not just throwing a first-pitch strike," says
Dodgers pitching coach Jim Colborn. "It's throwing it over the
meat of the plate with conviction."

A crippled first-pitch strike gets walloped, as almost any big
league hitter will acknowledge. In other words, if the first
pitch isn't the time to nibble, it's also not the time to hold
back. "We used to call it 'getting ahead in the count,'" says
Colborn, who from 1969 to '78 went 83-88 with a 3.80 ERA for four
big league teams. "Now everybody's talking about 'first-pitch
strikes.' It's definitely something [the Dodgers have] emphasized
this year, starting at spring training." Through Sunday, Los
Angeles had a staff FPS average of .618, the second best in
baseball, and the Dodgers, despite their seasonlong struggle to
score runs, were tied for the lead in the National League West.

You might think the last thing baseball needs is another way to
study the game's minutiae, but analyzing FPS averages is
revealing in a special way. Start examining the first pitch in
each at bat, and you'll become fascinated. You'll run from the
refrigerator back to the living room TV, hurdling the wife if
necessary, so you won't miss the first pitch to the next batter.
You'll realize that the outcome of many at bats is sealed by the
first pitch.

Baseball people have always known this intuitively, and over the
past decade first-pitch strikes have been widely charted. But
only now, it seems, are players and coaches talking about it.
"I've been concentrating on throwing strikes early in the count,
because I don't want to throw too many pitches early in the
game," says Chan Ho Park, a Dodgers righthander. He had a .565
FPS average in 2000, when he was 18-10 with a 3.27 ERA, and he's
improved to .611 this year. (At week's end he was 5-4 with a 2.95
ERA.) "It's helped me get batters out and stay out there longer,"
says Park.

"The strike-one count changes the complexion of an at bat
tremendously," adds Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
"It's only one pitch, but the hitter is behind in the count, and
you can do a lot more things with your second pitch. You can
expand the zone. When it's a ball and no strikes, you have to
take a little bit more of the plate, and the hitter becomes more
aggressive with pitches in the zone."

Chris Reitsma, a rookie righthander with the Reds, made his
third major league start on April 14, against the Mets. In 7 1/3
innings he faced 30 batters and threw 20 first-pitch strikes.
Cincinnati won 1-0. "If somebody's going to hit me, I'd rather
it be on the first pitch than the eighth," Reitsma says.

"We study first pitches very closely," said Bob Boone, the Reds'
manager, a few hours before that May 16 game against Arizona. He
thumbed through a black three-ring notebook prepared by a
scouting service called Inside Edge. "We're facing Schilling
tonight. We know he throws fastballs 70 percent of the time on
the first pitch of an at bat. He throws sliders 28 percent of the
time. Split-fingers, to righthanded hitters, three percent of the
time. If his first pitch is low and away and on the black, now
you're a .210 hitter. He's not just throwing first-pitch strikes.
He's hitting his spots with it. That's why he's Curt Schilling."

That night a wonderfully pitched game unfolded. It began at 7:06
when the newest Red, Reith, threw the first pitch of his big
league career, a fastball on the corner that Finley took for a
strike. A nice start. Two hours and six innings later, Reith had
faced 20 batters and retired 18 of them. He had walked Gonzalez
in the fourth and had given up a two-out single to Finley in the
sixth. He had thrown 13 first-pitch strikes. A very nice start.
The kid was in a duel with one of the game's premier pitchers.

In the Arizona dugout Schilling enjoyed watching Reith work. He
could see that Reith had pitching smarts, that he was using his
first pitch to set up his second one. Schilling thought back to
his own first start, with the Baltimore Orioles 13 years earlier,
also as a Double A call-up.

On May 16 Schilling, like Reith, was throwing first-pitch
strikes, getting outs. In the fifth, with the game scoreless,
Schilling faced Larkin, the most accomplished hitter in the
Cincinnati lineup, with two outs and runners on first and second.
Larkin fouled off the first pitch, away and on the black.
Schilling jammed him on the second one, and Larkin feebly fouled
the pitch off the handle for strike two. Even when Larkin worked
the count to 2 and 2, Schilling was still in control. According
to Colborn, if a pitcher starts ahead in the count and then the
batter evens it, the pitcher retains the psychological edge: The
batter still thinks he has to hit the pitcher's pitch. On the
fifth throw of this at bat, Larkin popped to the catcher to end
the inning.

In the bottom of the sixth Schilling lost his shutout when Dmitri
Young drew a one-out walk (after having fouled off the first
pitch for strike one) and scored on Sean Casey's double to
center. (Casey took a called first strike.) Getting an 0-and-1
count doesn't make a pitcher invincible; it only makes him feel
that way.

The Cincinnati lead was short-lived. In the top of the seventh,
the two sleepless nights Reith had spent before his first start
caught up with him. His pitches suddenly went dead--they were over
the plate or near it, but without any movement. Gonzalez led off
the inning with a full-count homer, despite a first-pitch strike.
Williams followed with a first-pitch homer. The Diamondbacks led
2-1. Three batters and one out later, Reith was pulled and
applauded warmly. The score never changed.

For the night Reith had faced 25 batters and thrown 16
first-pitch strikes. When Boone saw him in the clubhouse, he
said, "Good job, kid, good job." Yes, a .640 FPS average is a
good job, usually good enough to win, though not in this case.
Reith had bought himself another start.

Over in the visitors' clubhouse Bob Brenly, the Arizona manager,
knew the FPS numbers too. Minutes after the game he had a
pitching chart in front of him and was studying Schilling's
performance. The 34-year-old pitcher had faced 27 batters and
thrown 22 first-pitch strikes, for an .815 FPS average. In the
seventh he'd taken on three batters, thrown three first-pitch
strikes and rung up three strikeouts, all swinging, at which
point his work for the night was over.

Last year Schilling's FPS average was .638. He's up .086 this
year, as is righthander Kevin Brown of the Dodgers (chart, page
51). Reed of the Mets is up .081. The so-called new strike zone
may have something to do with that. So may an increased
appreciation for throwing a strike on the first pitch--at least in
Schilling's case. "I hear him talking to some of our veteran
hitters about what they're thinking on the first pitch," Brenly
says. "He's always learning."

Schilling has religion, all right. He said the most important
pitch he threw all night against the Reds was that first delivery
to Larkin--still dangerous at 37, still an excellent
opposite-field hitter--in the fifth inning with two outs and with
runners on first and second. Strike one, away, set up strike two,
tight, and that led to the inning-ending foul pop. "It's a
momentum situation," said Schilling, who improved his record to
6-1 and lowered his ERA to 3.12 that night. (Through Sunday he
was 8-1, 2.77.) "With two strikes I can throw him three straight
splitters. You can hold him underwater. A first strike sets up
every at bat."

For the winning pitcher the game came down to a single throw, a
first-pitch strike. It looked innocent enough, but it wasn't. The
pitcher hit the right spot at the right time, and it made all the
difference. How good is that?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON Hot starter The Dodgers' Brown, throwing a first-pitch strike to the Mets' Tsuyoshi Shinjo, has one of the top FPS averages. COLOR PHOTO: RICH PILLING/MLB PHOTOS COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE He's exceptional Lima is an anomaly: His FPS average is terrific, but his ERA stinks.

Striking Difference

Starters, such as Curt Schilling (right), who had thrown
first-pitch strikes most often in 2001 through Sunday. (Minimum
seven starts.)

PITCHER, TEAM (RECORD) FPS AVG.

Rick Reed, Mets (5-2) .730
Curt Schilling, Diamondbacks (8-1) .724
Brad Radke, Twins (7-1) .695
Kevin Brown, Dodgers (6-2) .692
Javier Vazquez, Expos (4-5) .681

Starters who had thrown first-pitch strikes least often in 2001
through Sunday. (Minimum seven starts.)

PITCHER, TEAM (RECORD) FPS AVG.

Britt Reames, Expos (2-7) .427
Tomokazu Ohka, Red Sox (2-2) .494
Dan Reichert, Royals (4-4) .494
Matt Clement, Marlins (2-4) .502
Doug Davis, Rangers (2-4) .511

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

For Better, for Worse

Here are the starters whose FPS averages through Sunday had
increased the most from 2000 to '01. (Minimum 20 starts in '00
and seven starts in '01.)

PITCHER, TEAM 2000 FPS AVG. 2001 FPS AVG. INCREASE

Jimmy Haynes, Brewers .492 .605 .113
Shawn Estes, Giants .522 .633 .111
Pete Harnisch, Reds .578 .680 .102
Darren Dreifort, Dodgers .540 .634 .094
Kevin Brown, Dodgers .606 .692 .086
Curt Schilling, Diamondbacks .638 .724 .086
Rick Reed, Mets .648 .730 .081
Omar Daal, Phillies .557 .638 .081
Chris Carpenter, Blue Jays .554 .631 .076
Kenny Rogers, Rangers .550 .626 .076

Here are the starting pitchers, including Denny Neagle (left),
whose FPS averages through Sunday had decreased the most from
2000 to '01. (Minimum 20 starts in '00 and seven starts in '01.)

PITCHER, TEAM 2000 FPS AVG. 2001 FPS AVG. DECREASE

Ryan Dempster, Marlins .581 .518 .063
Bryan Rekar, Devil Rays .601 .541 .059
Jamie Moyer, Mariners .580 .524 .056
David Wells, White Sox .667 .626 .040
Joe Mays, Twins .558 .521 .037
Glendon Rusch, Mets .631 .596 .036
Mark Gardner, Giants .643 .608 .035
Eric Milton, Twins .601 .566 .035
Dustin Hermanson, Cardinals .602 .567 .034
Denny Neagle, Rockies .580 .549 .031

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Eye-Openers

Here are this season's major league batting averages and on-base
percentages through Sunday for hitters with each of the three
possible first-pitch outcomes. For example, all batters who had
fallen behind 0 and 1 hit only .228 in those at bats and reached
base at a modest .273 rate.

FIRST PITCH BATTING AVG. ON-BASE PCT.

Strike .228 .273
Ball .275 .394
In play .341 .337

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)