1st pitch strikes - why so few swings?

I know why pitchers are motivated to throw first-pitch strikes - to get ahead of the batter.

So why don’t batters assume the first pitch will be a strike and swing at it more often? If you tell me because they need to see a first pitch to “calibrate” the batter from a head-on view, I suppose I can accept that for the first at-bat. But why for later at-bats?

What’s the “inside baseball” on this?

There are some batters who like to swing at the first pitch, but I think more often they’re told to be patient, make the pitcher work (which benefits everybody else on the team as well), and look for their pitch.

You definitely want to wait for a pitch that’s favorable to you. You also want to see how hard a guy is throwing, whether or not he has movement on his pitches. Pitchers have different deliveries so its not a bad idea to take one and get a look for yourself. Besides as much as pitchers are told to get that first strike, many pitchers still don’t do a very good job of it.

Also, if a person is on base, taking on the first pitch can give him a chance to steal.

And to time the pitcher’s motion and so on.

Whether or not a pitch is favourable to swing at is dependent upon the count. The number of strikes determines the risk to the batter of allowing the pitch to go by; the number of balls determines the potential reward.

You have to bear in mind that not all strikes are created equal in terms of their hittableness. Depending on the batter, one pitch in the strike zone may be easy to hit well, and another may be hard. Furthermore, the more the batter can anticipate a particular kind of pitch, the better he can hit it.

Therefore, what most disciplined batters will do on a first pitch is select a particular kind of pitch they want, in a particular location - for instance, a fastball in the hitter’s preferred hitting area. If he gets that perfect pitch, he takes a cut; if not, why not let it go by?

Generally speaking, most pitches are not good to hit, even most strikes. the key is to remember that the batter’s optimal strategy is not to swing at strikes and not swing at balls; it is to swing at hittable strikes. The batter is basically playing a betting game; trying to survive long enough to see that one hittable pitch. Sometimes you’ll never get one if the pitcher’s on his game, but it’s certain that you are likelier to get one if you prolong the at bat and forego swining at nastier pitches. Swinging at the first pitch all the time means you would usually be swinging at a hard-to-hit pitch, and would rarely see a really hittable pitch. You’ll strike out less, perhaps, but you’ll also hit a lot more weak grounders and popups, because you’ll be hacking at so many pitches that you won’t get good contact on.

With more strikes the hitter must necessarily become more aggressive, as the end of the at-bat gets closer and the number of pitches he can expect to see goes down. No strikes, you can afford to wait, and only swing at the perfect pitch; one strike, you can still wait a little, and swing only at something reasonably hittable; two strikes, you have to take a cut if it’s probably going to be a strike.

Very true. And since you’ll be in the hole 0-1 most of the time, you’re even less likely to get a hittable pitch after that.

My husband, the Babe Ruth League baseball coach of 18 years, says RickJay is right. Ideally, you want to hit the right pitch in the right location, depending on your abilities as a hitter and the situation. He also says that if you need to see a pitch as a batter to time the pitcher, you haven’t been doing your job. The time to get the timing down and read the pitcher is when you’re in the dug-out and in the on-deck circle.

That said, he also says that there are coaches in his league that tell their kids to look at every first pitch without swinging, with the idea that it will cause the pitchers to throw more as well as timing the pitcher.

"Taking the first pitch, works the count
The Power hitters on the Team will sit, “Dead Red” for a first-pitch fastball in a certain location. (inside-half of the plate)

 Working the count, forces the pitcher to throw more pitches. There is nothing more non-productive and demoralizing than, after getting the 3rd out of an inning and returning to the dugout to hit, having your first two batters making easy-outs on the first pitch thrown.

I’ve heard many hitters say that the worst seat in the ballpark in which to judge a pitcher’s stuff is the dugout. The older dugouts were below field level which increased the difficulty of seeing the pitcher’s motion clearly. That still seems to be the case despite the field level dugouts now in most ballparks. As great a hitter as Edgar Martinez often spent his first at bat trying to see as many pitches as possible.

In minor league parks, because of the mediocre to abysmal lighting, home plate was probably the only place with enough light to see the pitches and the motion on the ball. Being able to see the spin on the ball is as essential a part of figuring out a pitcher as location. Even if you’d seen this pitcher before, that wouldn’t tell you what he had working tonight.

Channelling Jim again:
You might not be able to see the breaks on pitches or the location from the dugout or on-deck circle, but you should be able to time velocity. You can also see arm angle, and paying attention to the pitcher, you might see something that is tipping off what he is going to throw. In other words, your job in the dugout is watching the pitcher, not sitting there picking your nose and screwing around with your buddies.

I believe the philosophy of Pete Rose (all-time hit leader) was to not only take the first pitch, but to take the first STRIKE, as well. He must’ve been onto something.

(As myself, but I think Jim would agree) - the average Joe playing slo-pitch ain’t no Pete Rose.

Failing to study the pitcher and hacking away at the first pitch may be part of the reason why.

Interesting and helpful - thanks, All.

{Channelling Jim again}
WordMan, are we talking Major League hitters here, or just the average guy playing ball? Cause those are two different games, basically. The average guy going up to bat can’t afford to just take a strike each at bat. If you’re a freak of nature like Pete Rose, Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn you might have the luxury of taking a strike each at bat and still get yourself on base, but us mere mortals need all three chances to get it done.

Sorry, but no, that’s not right. At any level of baseball, plate discipline is the key to successful hitting. There are no exceptions. I mean, you don’t want to deliberately stand there and turn down great, hittable pitches until you have a strike against you - Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn et al simply did not do such a thing - but you are going to take a LOT of first strikes if you’re hitting properly, and more than a few second strikes, too.

In fact, this applies just as well to slo-pitch, fastball, baseball; if it’s a game about hitting baseballs or softballs and you get three strikes or four balls, whichever comes first, you should not be swinging at the first pitch unless it’s an ideal hitting pitch. The fundamental strategy is always the same; your preferred hitting zone expands the more strikes you have, and contracts the more balls (ha ha) you have.

Of course, Pete Rose did not literally always take the first strike; that’s just silly. He got many, many hits on first pitches or no-strike counts, just like any good hitter. But he didn’t swing at an 0-0 pitch unless it was a meatball.

Good post, RickJay.

A related point is that any pitcher worth his salt will pay close attention to what a batter is doing and has done in previous at-bats. A batter that shows he’ll willingly hack away at bad pitches is not likely to see many hittable ones.

{Channelling Jim yet again}
RickJay, while I agree that looking for a good pitch to hit is a critical aspect of good hitting, regardless of the level of ball, the fact of the matter is that many, if not most, hitters are not good at it. These weaker hitters struggle even with pitches right down the chute, usually because of a mechanical problem, but also frequently because they don’t see the ball well. In either event they usually lack confidence. For these hitters, letting a strike go by, any strike, puts them in a hole that they probably won’t climb out of. These hitters, in my experience, need to be more aggressive, to look merely for a pitch they can make contact with because, quite frankly, they lack the talent or experience to discern what is a good pitch to hit and what is a so-so pitch. Once a player has a feel for making consistent contact, then I start working on things like plate discipline, working the count, hitting behind runners, etc.

I think a better question is why do so many batters take a called THIRD strike. In little league I was taught to swing at anything close with two strikes and at least try to foul it off. I see so many pro batters see a pitch reasonably close to the strike zone and just stare at it. I know that batters are “looking for a pitch” but you gotta swing with 2 strikes.