Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Should you swing at the first pitch?

July 31, 2012 by  
Filed under Hitting

In yesterday’s post, I gave some statistics that, in my mind at least, add to the importance of throwing a first pitch strike even more.  Today’s post concerns a question that is still debated at every level today.  Should a batter swing at the first pitch?  Apparently, Ted Williams believed that there were a lot of benefits to taking the first pitch.  More recent statisticians have crunched the numbers and most conclude that a batter should absolutely be willing to hit the first pitch they see.  So, who is correct?  The greatest hitter of all time or science?

Like everything else in baseball, it depends.  Personally, I did a lot of taking on the first pitch for a variety of reasons.  Below are some random comments, strategy elements, and how to’s about taking the first pitch from my perspective.  You can add these to your thoughts on the subject and then decide for yourself what you think is best.

  • What does a strike look like?.  There is only so much you can see in the on-deck circle.  If I saw a pitcher for the first time, I wanted to see what a strike looked like from him.  Did the ball come out of his hand as a ball and tail, sink, run, etc. into the strike zone?  Is it flat?  How fast is it?  Can you see the ball out of his hand well or does he hide it?  Taking the first pitch/strike can help you gather that information for your first at-bat and those afterwards.
  • From the stretch.  Even if I’ve had a couple at-bats off a pitcher, I may have never seen him pitch from the stretch before.  Does he slide step?  Does he lose velocity or movement on the ball?  Are his breaking pitches as sharp or do they flatten out?  Taking a pitch in this situation helps a batter see some of this.
  • Give a runner a chance. If a base stealer is on first base at the time of your at-bat, it’s not a bad idea to take the first pitch.  You gather information as stated above but you also allow the base runner to get a read on the pitcher in terms of his delivery ( and times) to home plate.  If he steals second on the pitch, you now have the chance to bat with a runner in scoring position.
  • Keep the catcher back.  If a good runner is on first base who is likely to steal and you are taking the pitch, move to the farthest spot in the back of the batter’s box before the pitch to keep the catcher back as long as possible.
  • What do you do in batting practice?  Many hitters will take the first pitch in batting practice to get a look at the ball and the timing of things before starting.  This is routine if you’ve ever watched a Home Run Derby before the MLB All-Star Game.  If hitter’s do not take the first pitch, they often bunt the first one.  It isn’t just to work on their bunting.  It’s a chance to see a pitch.  If it’s good in batting practice on a straight BP fastball, why would it not be good in a game too?
  • Don’t let anyone know.  When you are taking pitches, whether by choice or forced to by a coach, don’t let anyone in the ballpark know you are taking.  Do your same pre-pitch routine as always. If you tip off what you are doing, the catcher or pitcher will lay an easy fastball in for strike one.  I often would do a pretend check-swing to get them to think I was ready to hit when I wasn’t.  You know it’s working when you or your players are still getting first pitch breaking pitches later in the game.
  • Bait the pitcher/catcher. This is going to sound contradictory to what I just mentioned above but I’ve seen guys do this with some success.  I’ve done it occasionally also.  The first couple at-bats the hitter obviously takes the first pitch.  No practice swings or nothing.  Just gets in the box, stands straight up and down, and leaves the bat on his shoulder.  Strike one.  Later in the game (especially with runners on base), he gets in the box the same way but this time when they lay a pitch in there thinking he is taking he comes out of his shoes with a good swing.
  • Wear the pitcher down.  There is a general rule than if you get to the other teams’ bullpen early, you’ll probably win the game.  This is especially true in high school on down because of the lack of quality pitching beyond the starters.  Of course, making their pitcher throw more pitches can help get to their bullpen earlier.  Taking pitches can lengthen at-bats and help to wear down pitchers.
  • Be ready to hit with some pitchers.  When a pitcher has nasty out-pitches and gets a ton of strikeouts, hitters should be more willing to attack the first good pitch they get, even on the first pitch.  It may be the only good pitch they see that at-bat or even that entire game.
  • Be ready to hit with runners in scoring position.  Although I often took the first pitch, I rarely decided to take the first pitch if there were runners in scoring position.  There aren’t many things more frustrating than having multiple runners on base and watch a batter take a first pitch fastball right down the middle.  It’s a clear indication the batter was not ready to hit and in that situation, you need to be!
  • Have a plan.  A batter should know before he steps into the box whether or not he is taking the first pitch.  You never want to be caught between swinging and not swinging.  That’s when a check swing grounder or pop-up occurs.  Trust me.  Nothing screams “wasted at-bat” more than an out on a first pitch check swing.

With the tips mentioned above, you’ll see that taking the first pitch, in some situations, has benefits.  An all or nothing approach – always swinging at the first pitch or never swinging at the first pitch – usually is not a good idea for any hitter or team.



3 Responses to “Should you swing at the first pitch?”
  1. jason reynolds says:

    Excellent post!
    Ted williams advocated taking the first pitch of his first at bat
    Of the game. In subsequent at bats, it was green light.

    His approach in his first at bat of a game was to see as many pitches as possible. The science of hitting is a must read for everyone.

    • jason reynolds says:

      Williams also claimed to sometimes bait the pitcher and catcher during games, hoping to jump on a first pitch fat pitch later on in the game with runners on!

  2. Bill says:

    Pitchers love to get ahead in the count. If you get a first pitch fastball right down the middle, I think you have to be swinging.

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