How many times have you seen the Pirate hitters take the first pitch, often a fat heater down the middle, before they get serious at the dish? We've often heard pitching coaches preach the value of starting off with a strike; conversely, we've heard the batting coaches mantra of being ready to hit as soon as you dig into the box.
We took a look at the first pitch results, charted on the splits page at Baseball Reference, just to see how much difference it makes if it's strike one or ball one on the outcome of the at-bat.
And hey, both coaches were right. Being ahead or behind from the get-go has a huge influence on the result.
When the Pirates fall behind 0-1, the resulting at-bat results in a line of .183/.236/.284. In the 722 plate appearances where the first pitch was a strike, Bucco batters have struck out 227 times (31%) and walked 45 times (6%). It even has an effect on the batted ball in play average, which is just .252. We'd posit that's a combination of defensive hitting and the hurler having the luxury of throwing his pitch while ahead in the count.
It's an entirely different tale when they get ahead 1-0. The line jumps to .278/.402/.416, and the K/W ratio takes a whole new turn. In 579 plate appearances where they started ahead in the count, the Bucs have whiffed 93 times (16%) and actually drawn more walks than K's, getting a free pass 97 times (17%). With the batter in control of the count and the pitcher on the defensive, the BABIP dramatically increases to .320.
And if you're wondering what happens when the hitter puts the first pitch in play, the BA is .307; they've done that 137 times (minus bunts and plunks).
The moral of the story is that no matter what the count, whoever is ahead is the boss. When hitting while behind in the count, the overall Bucco BA is .169, a number even Mario Mendoza would cringe at compiling. When the pitcher falls behind, the average is .287 with an OBP of .491 (this includes every walk they've drawn). Pittsburgh hits .251 when putting an even count ball between the lines.
The stats will come as no surprise to pitchers; counting first pitch balls in play, they've started off the Buc batters with a strike 869 times in 1,448 plate appearances, or 60% of the time. And to make matters worse, 269 times the count has gone to 0-2, or 18.5% of the total plate appearances. That line is really dismal - .135/.156/.203. with nearly a 50% K rate.
For the puppy Pirates - they are the second youngest team in the NL - a large part of their learning curve is developing a hitter's edge; the root of their woes is falling into pitchers' counts. And that's not always patience and taking a strike; a more aggressive approach when they step into the box is part of the answer.