by Mallet James
Early on in June, MLB writer Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) took note of the aggressive tendency of hitters swinging at the first pitch of an AB more than ever in this article.
Hitters are swinging at the first pitch more than ever for good reason, and it’s really twofold according to Petriello. With pitchers becoming more and more dominant the likelihood is higher that the best pitch you’ll see to hit in a AB is going to be the first one. Secondly, the mentality of teams to watch the first one to get the starter out of a game quicker just doesn’t exist anymore. If your name is not Adam Wainwright in 2021 you just don’t pitch deep into games, even if your stuff is that of an ace-level pitcher. Bullpen usage continues to grow and there are signs that show that attacking the first pitch in an AB can do a lot more damage in the long run than taking a look at it, risking an easy 0-1 start for the pitcher.
To revisit Petriello’s analysis and explore the idea a little further I took a look into the batters that have seen the most pitches in an AB on average along with the batters who have seen the least pitches in an AB on average. Has one group had more production than the other? What kind of batters do we see in each group? Yadier Molina is starting to attack the first pitch, Joey Votto is now taking a more aggressive approach, will Brett Gardner be next?
Gardner likely has no business being mentioned as a candidate for late career game improvement, especially with the likes of Votto and Molina. We do see above though, that Gardner leads the way for most pitches seen on average in an AB on the year with 4.54 pitches on average. David Fletcher is on the completely opposite end of the spectrum, leading the way in shortest ABs on average, he saw just 3.33 pitches per AB on average throughout the 2021 season.
Who would we rather have on our lineup card for a must win game this season, the batter with the longest ABs or batter with the shortest ABs in the league? If you asked me I think without much thought I would say the batter that makes the pitcher pitch the least, David Fletcher.
Fletcher’s put it in play, contact over everything else style is not flashy but it has allowed him to put himself on base quite often. When two of the best hitters in the game are in the lineup below you (plus Jared Walsh) this becomes quite valuable. What stands out for Fletcher though this year is a .262/.297/.324 BA/OBP/SLG line making for an OPS+ of 71. For a player like Fletcher whose job is to get on base by any means a .297 OBP just doesn’t cut it, it was the lowest of his career. His BB% which has always been low was also lowest of his career at 4.7%. As a grind it out leadoff batter, Fletcher and his team may have benefited from him seeing a few more pitches. I will delay my ruling from jumping on Fletcher as my pick for this year right away.
Now how about Brett Gardner, he is 38 years old and still has major league speed but did he offer anything at the plate? The answer to that is… not really. After posting career highs in HR (28) and SLG (.503) in 2019, Gardner really took a step back this year with only 10 homers in 461 PA (550 PA in 2019) and a SLG of only .362. Gardner’s OPS+ this year was 90.
Neither batter at the extremes of the longest/shortest ABs continuum is one that I would want to put out there in a must win game. If I had to choose the 2021 version of Fletcher or Gardner for my lineup though I would probably choose Gardner as surprising as it sounds. Gardner’s xSLG was actually a few ticks lower than Fletcher’s in 2021 but Gardner’s patience at the plate is quite valuable in this case. Gardner had a 13% BB% in 2021, good for 92nd percentile in the league. Neither Fletcher nor Gardner can be expected to do much damage on their own so I trust Gardner’s ability to get on base with the walk boost over Fletcher’s ability to get on base likely via a softly hit single.
Though I might enjoy it, this exercise of having to choose between the top guys, Fletcher and Gardner, proves very little about guys who see a lot of pitches and guys who don’t see as many. A major league hitter may want to avoid being at the complete extreme of either based on the production of these guys but a sample size of 2 is not much to go on, each of them could well be outlier data points, etc.
Let’s actually get into it and take a look at which group of 10 batters was most productive during the 2021 MLB regular season, batters who have seen the most pitches or batters who have seen the least number of pitches?
Top 10 Longest Batter ABs
|Batter||Pitches Per AB||AVG||OBP||SLG||OPS+|
Top 10 Shortest Batter ABs
|Batter||Pitches Per AB||AVG||OBP||SLG||OPS+|
The results are quite unsurprising and prove that the battle of Gardner vs. Fletcher is actually a microcosm of the bigger picture. The long AB group hits for a lesser average and higher SLG compared to the short AB group. The tradeoff between the two is almost exactly 30 points for each group (.234 v .264 AVG, .431 v .399 SLG).
If we had to choose the most productive group of 10 according to OPS+ it’s Gardner’s group of longer AB batters without question. They get on base more and SLG at a higher rate while working the pitcher - whatever that is worth these days - along with it.
The question though continues to be are we looking at enough batters? 10 batters from each side makes for a nice chart but I don’t think we can say much in general about the productivity of batters when looking at just the 10 batters with longest ABs and just the 10 batters with shortest ABs.
Before taking a look at larger groups of batters that saw many pitches and few pitches versus league average, a few quick notes on the individuals we see in each group of 10 in the visual and tables above:
Two of most productive hitters we see are teammates Corey Seager and AJ Pollock. Each find their way in the least patient batter conversation because of their propensity to swing at the first or second pitch they see. Corey Seager swung at the first pitch of an at-bat 53% of the time in 2021, good for third most in the league. You can see this reflected in his pitch distribution chart where there is a large bump at the 1 pitch AB. AJ Pollock does not swing at the first pitch as much as Seager but we also see a bump in ABs that lasted just 1 or 2 pitches for him.
Christian Yelich was a below league average hitter based on his OPS in 2021. Just two years ago in 2019 that statement would’ve been unfathomable for a guy that posted consecutive seasons with OPS at or above 1.000. I’m sure there are other factors at play here but it probably wouldn’t hurt if Yelich was a little bit more aggressive early in the count. He has only swung at the first pitch of his AB 23% of the time this year.
Just because you see a lot of pitches in an AB does not necessarily mean you are a patient hitter and that is exactly the case with Patrick Wisdom. After bursting onto the scene earlier this year, homering in what seemed like just about every game he played, Wisdom cooled off considerably. He saw 4.36 pitches per AB this year and a whole lot of them were swung at, with a Whiff% of 41.3% (2nd highest in the league among batters with 200 PA) Wisdom got his money’s worth at the plate, hit some home runs, and also struck out, a ton.
Much has been said about Yasmani Grandal this year and his unique ability to draw walks and hit for power. When he started the year with a batting average below the Mendoza line and an above league average OPS there were many fun stats that showed just how unique of a start he was getting off to. Now looking back at the year, it’s not so much that his season at the plate was unique, it was just really good. The highest OPS of any batter in this group of 20, Grandal raised his batting average to .240 while walking a league best 23% of the time and still hitting a ton of extra base hits. As catchers go Salvador Perez broke the league record for home runs hit by a backstop but Grandal’s 2021 was not far behind.
Petriello mentioned Yadi Molina going after the first pitch of his AB at an almost career high rate early on in the season, at the time his bat was much hotter but he still ends up in the top 10 shortest AB batters of the season. Molina embracing a newly found aggressive approach was nice to see from such a great player late in his career.
Now when it comes to deciding which group had greater success at the plate in 2021, we’ll expand our scope to include the top 50 shortest AB on average batters v the top 50 longest AB on average batters, if we continue to allow OPS to determine our winner the award goes to… the guys who spent the longest at the plate. This is how it shakes out:
Top 50 Longest Batter AB Lines
AVG: .245 OBP: .343 SLG: .448
Top 50 Shortest Batter AB Lines
AVG: .264 OBP: .319 SLG: .408
Turns out that when it comes to OPS it’s not that close, the average long AB batter does a lot more damage than the average short AB batter.
Some of the notables not in the top 10 from each group (rank pitches seen per AB in group):
Bryce Harper (50) Shohei Ohtani (37) Kyle Schwarber (23)
Nick Castellanos (38) Salvador Perez (16) Tim Anderson (25)
Top 50 long and short AB batters chosen from 225 qualified batters (Min 300 PA)
Just because the long AB batters win the OPS battle doesn’t mean that being aggressive on the first pitch of an AB is a bad major league batter tactic. Even the long AB batters swing at the first pitch of an at-bat from time to time. I think it is something that should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and of course according to the pitcher matchup. Short AB batters found their way to more base hits but the long AB batters provided more value with a combination of power and patience.
Data used for the average pitch AB ridgeline plot and tables in this post retrieved from statcast using the pybaseball package
Statistics and other metrics from Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Reference