A Tale of Two (Hypothetical) Rotations
- February 10, 2022
Let’s play a quick game. I’ll list two potential starting rotations, and you tell me which one you’d prefer. First contender:
This would be one of the top few rotations in baseball. Nola might be slightly short of the average “top starter on a playoff team,” but it’s close. Webb turned unhittable last year. You can take your pick between Urías and Eovaldi as your third starter; I’m significantly higher on Urías than our Depth Charts projections. Manaea is wildly overqualified as a fifth starter.
Okay, so the bar is pretty high. What about rotation number two?
Burnes is one of the best five starters in baseball; maybe three teams wouldn’t plug him in atop their rotation, though he has some volume concerns. Snell is a risk as well, but one with a tremendously high ceiling. McCullers and Valdez as your third and fourth starters is an appetizing proposition, and Manoah provides yet more upside. This one projects for less WAR than the first rotation, but in fewer innings; it might tax your bullpen more, but in exchange you’re getting some top-shelf arms. I’d prefer rotation number one, but I think it’s quite close, and I wouldn’t fault you for picking number two.
Is that it? Are we just playing “pick your favorite fantasy team” here at FanGraphs? Don’t rule it out if the lockout keeps going, but no, I picked these groups to illustrate a point. The first group of starters? They were all among the top 15 pitchers in the majors last year at one particular skill: throwing first-pitch strikes. The second group? They finished in the bottom 15.
“Throw a first pitch strike” is one of the oldest rules of thumb in pitching. The difference between starting with an 0–1 count and a 1–0 count is hard to overstate, but let’s state it anyway. Batters hit .216/.262/.353 after 0–1 counts last year — a .267 wOBA or 66 wRC+. After a 1–0 count, they hit .257/.379/.443 — a .356 wOBA or 125 wRC+. Would you rather face 2021 Elvis Andrus or 2021 José Abreu? It’s not even close to being close.
But we’re missing a step; throwing a pitch in the strike zone isn’t the same as getting to an 0–1 count. Matt Harvey, Michael Wacha, and Alec Mills all finished in the top 15 for first-pitch zone rate, and uh, they didn’t quite make the cut on my sample rotations up above. If you have Webb’s sinker or Nola’s curveball, you can run it up there and live with the results. If you’re Mills, saying “here it is, come hit it” might not pan out so well.
So, what can we learn from the pitchers who succeed by living in the zone on the first pitch? And what can we learn from their counterparts who live on (and largely off) the edge but still shove? It’s a matter of adapting your approach to your stuff, or in some cases, a triumph of stuff over location.
Three of the pitchers in the high-strike-throwing rotation do one thing quite well on the first pitch of at-bats: they throw pitches that batters don’t swing at often, but that they can command into the strike zone. For Webb, it’s his sinker, which has a plane-based ability to keep bats on shoulders and induces tons of grounders when batters do swing. For Nola, it’s his curveball, which he throws 27% of the time on 0–0, with 58% of those curveballs in the zone, which is an outrageous number for a breaking pitch; it’s 48.5% league-wide to start at-bats.
Urías goes even further. He throws his sweeping curveball a whopping 37% of the time on the first pitch and puts 66% of them in the strike zone. If batters swing, well, that’s okay too: they whiff or foul off nearly a third of the in-zone curveballs they swing at against both Urías and Nola and produce below-average results even when they do put the ball in play. If you have one of those three pitches, using them liberally to get ahead in the count is an easy decision.
Eovaldi executes a lesser version of the Nola/Urías plan, spinning in his slider and curveball a combined 40% of the time. He’s not as precise as either of those two at hitting the strike zone (53% zone rate on each pitch) but makes up for it by battering the zone with his fastball (two-thirds of them are in the zone, as compared to 55% for the league as a whole). That plan can go poorly — if you don’t have a four-seamer that sits 96–98 mph and tops 100, that is. Eovaldi’s fastball isn’t unhittable or anything, but it still gives him more margin for error when he misses his spot in the strike zone.
Manaea executes a lower-octane version of Webb’s approach. He sticks with his normal pitch mix — mostly sinkers with curves and changeups for spice — and lets his groundball tendencies bail him out against aggressive opposing hitters. He doesn’t match Webb’s ability to deceive batters out of swinging; few do. But throwing a sinker at the bottom of the zone to start an at-bat is a good way to get a strike, and it’s also a good way to set up his lethal changeup, so you can see why he sticks with what’s working.
So, step one to throwing a lot of first-pitch strikes: have great command of either a nasty breaking pitch, a tough sinker, or both. Easy, right? Frankly, I think more pitchers should take this approach: just be great at pitching, and then pitching is easy.
If you have a flimsy fastball or breaking ball, attacking the zone is a dangerous proposition. If you have Webb’s sinker, pounding the zone is a no-brainer. If you’re trying to do the same with Harvey’s mix of low-90s fastballs, you’re going to have a bad time. There are happy mediums to be found — Wacha, for example, has started using his cutter liberally to start at-bats to avoid showing too much of his four-seamer and curve — but pairing approach with tools is the name of the game.
Take Jon Gray, a pitcher I considered listing in the high-volume-strike-throwers rotation. He has a nasty slider and a slow curve, and he’s not afraid to throw either on 0–0. The only problem? He’s so-so at hitting the zone with them. To make up for it, he throws his fastball in the zone aggressively. That’s not necessarily a bad plan if you have a great heater, but Gray’s fastball is nondescript, and challenging batters in the zone at Coors Field is not my idea of a good time. The plan might work better in Texas, but overall, trying to attack the zone on the first pitch of an at-bat without a plus pitch to use is a risky proposition.
On the other side of the coin, a low zone rate on the first pitch of an at-bat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed to struggle. The pitchers in our low-first-strike rotation have one thing in common: a vicious secondary pitch. This is as much for me as for you, but let’s run through those secondaries and see how they inform a first-pitch approach.
It’s good to be Corbin Burnes. His cutter, which he throws more than half the time, is a fastball that misses bats like a slider. His slider misses bats like a really good slider, and his curveball actually graded out as his best pitch last year. What does he do on the first pitch of an at-bat? Throw his pitches like normal, more or less. His only concession to the count is that he throws the curveball for a strike more often, but he mostly just sticks with what works in all counts.
His pitches are so hard to resist that despite a low first-pitch zone rate, he still reaches 0–1 counts more frequently than average. Sure, a batter might think they can avoid swinging at balls, but when you’re facing a Burnes cutter, lots of what you think stops being true. Not only that, but if there’s a best approach against Burnes, it’s probably to avoid getting into a two-strike count, where he’ll tear you to bits. Against a pitcher with such overpowering stuff, hitters are looking for an early pitch to hit. Sticking with his normal mix is a reasonable counter-approach.
The other four pitchers in my cherry-picked rotation can’t match that approach, because no one this side of Jacob deGrom has a fastball they can use like that superlative cutter. Nonetheless, they all stick to their strengths on the first pitch, and other than Manoah, they all achieved positive results by doing so.
Valdez and McCullers have similar arsenals: sinkers paired with plus curveballs (McCullers also has a burgeoning slider). Both of them approach the first pitch in a similar fashion: they just throw their normal pitch mix, without a particular emphasis on hitting the strike zone or flipping a breaking ball in for a strike or anything fancy like that. In fact, both have a lower fastball zone rate on the first pitch of plate appearances than they do overall.
I’m not sure I agree with that approach if it’s a conscious choice, but I think the more likely case is that this is just who they are. You can succeed with your normal pitch mix, so long as it’s good overall, even if you aren’t maxing out on first-pitch strikes. Would they lower their walk rates (both walked more than 10% of opposing batters in 2021) if they could flood the zone with their sinkers while otherwise leaving everything unchanged? Sure! Lots of pitchers would be better if they could improve their command without sacrificing stuff.
Snell is a great example of how pitchers end up with low first-pitch zone rates. The book on him has always been that getting to two strikes is a disaster because of his two breaking balls. There are two ways to avoid that as a hitter: get ahead in the count, or hunt an early fastball and put it into play. That makes the obvious strategy — pump fastballs on the first pitch to get ahead in the count — dangerous. His fastball is best when it’s elevated, too; it’s hardly a pitch that he normally uses to pound the strike zone.
The optimal approach for Snell would be the Nola/Urías route: use your plus secondaries aggressively in the zone to put hitters in a bind. But he doesn’t command his breaking pitches like that; they’re both wipeout pitches, starting as strikes before tumbling out of harm’s way. He throws them to keep batters from sitting on first-pitch fastballs, but he misses the zone quite a lot with them. It’s a pick-your-poison situation: increasing his zone rate would likely mean throwing more fastballs, which isn’t necessarily a tradeoff he’s willing to make. The current first-pitch situation isn’t great, but there’s no easy solution for Snell’s particular mix of stuff and command. If I were him, I’d probably risk it and throw more fastballs, but I see why he ended up where he did.
That just leaves Manoah, and he’s still a work in progress. He’s taken some lessons from our high-zone pitchers: he throws his sinker frequently to start at-bats, and when he does use his excellent slider, he throws it in the zone more frequently than his overall rate in an attempt to get ahead in the count. There’s just one problem: He isn’t commanding his fastballs consistently enough to make things work. He’s in the zone with them less than half the time to start at-bats, and batters almost never chase fastballs on the first pitch of an at-bat. It’s all well and good to use the Webb approach, but throwing sinkers for called strikes only works if you throw them in the strike zone. Manoah just doesn’t have that, though if he discovers it in his second major league season, he’d take a giant leap forward.
The rotation of low-first-pitch-strike pitchers is a mixture of stuff monsters who purposefully go against the grain and stuff monsters with spotty command. But that’s not the only way you can succeed despite avoiding the strike zone on the first pitch. Kyle Gibson had the lowest first-pitch zone rate of any starter in baseball last year and accrued the second-most run value on first pitches. He did so by playing batters’ tendencies against them. If you face Gibson, you’re going up there looking to pulverize a baseball; he’s not a huge strikeout or swinging-strike guy, so batters tend to look for something to drive, because if you knock his sinkers into the ground, you’re playing his game. How does he counter? By giving them absolutely nothing to hit, aiming for the corners and accepting that he’ll miss sometimes. Only 20% of his first pitches were in the heart of the zone, which meant that swing-happy opponents were making contact with borderline pitches. And if he missed, so what? He could come back and aim for the corners again on 1–0. If you have his mix of command (superlative) and stuff (below major league average), the right play is probably to do exactly what Gibson does: avoid giving batters what they want first, and let the outs work themselves out.
What’s the takeaway from this anecdotal study of some pitchers who succeed by throwing first-pitch strikes and some who succeed without doing so? Mostly, I think it’s that first-pitch strike rate can mean a lot of things, and that using it to decide whether you think a pitcher is good or not doesn’t really work. The correlation between first-pitch zone rate and first-pitch run value isn’t particularly strong, and the correlation to overall pitcher performance is even smaller (0.02 r-squared, if you insist on a not-particularly-meaningful quantification).
Instead, I think it’s mostly a useful reminder of how pitchers try to operate in light of their own talents and limitations. Most pitchers would love to develop Nola’s ability to spin breaking balls for hard-to-hit strikes, but most pitchers would love to have Burnes’s cutter or Valdez’s curveball, too. Making your first-pitch approach work isn’t just a matter of thinking smarter; a lot of it comes down to just getting better at pitching, which is what every pitcher is trying to do anyways.