Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ian Desmond and Swinging Away

Ian Desmond hacks. I mean that in a good way. Patience is not always a virtue for Desmond. In a post-Moneyball world where on base percentage is valued so highly, watching Desmond pound a first pitch curveball into the ground for an easy 5-3 put out can be oh so frustrating. We all know how good a hitter Desmond can be, so those types of one pitch at bats seem like such a waste. Of course, when we watch sports we all tend to remember when a player fails to live up to expectations and lose sight of the times when he or she performs exactly as expected. With that in mind, I headed over to baseballsavant.comto figure out exactly how bad Desmond’s first pitch swinging habits are.

I pulled every at bat from Desmond’s 2014 season that started with a swing at the first pitch. Desmond had 648 plate appearances in his 2014 regular season. Of those appearances, he swung at the first pitch a full 35% of the time, or 229 at bats. Not that surprising to me after watching Desmond hit for all these seasons. What was surprising to me, though, was that he actually hit .420 when he connected on the first pitch. Only 47 times during 2014 did Desmond swing at the first pitch and did that swing result in an out.

Desmond wasn’t a slap hitting singles hitter on his first pitch swings. No, he’s still going up there and swinging out of his cleats. Sure, he hit 21 singles off of his first pitch swings, but he also clubbed 9 doubles, 1 triple, and 3 homeruns off of first pitches. While it is partially a function of luck and batting order, I’ll still give Desmond credit for driving in at least one run 13 times with his first pitch swings.

Outside of tracking play results based on count, Baseball Savant also records where pitches are thrown. They break down the strike zone into 14 different zones and keep track of where each pitch thrown ends up. Looking at Desmond in these 0-0 counts specifically, he swung at pitches out of the zone on 36% of these at bats. Desmond still gets fooled, but somehow, even when he’s getting fooled one third of the time, he’s hitting well.

Hitting a major league pitcher is difficult, and it is even more difficult when the hitter is behind in the count. Maybe, I thought, Desmond hits well when he makes contact on that first pitch. But how does he do when you factor in all those at bats where it doesn’t end on one pitch? Does falling behind 0-1 due to a swing and miss on the first pitch put Desmond in a dangerous hole? Turns out to not be the case. Desmond hit .301 in all at bats when he swung at the first pitch, including 8 of his 24 homeruns. He even managed to work 5 walks, battling back from that 0-1 hole.

So it turns out my initial theory was way off base. Desmond keeps pitchers honest. They know he swings at a lot of first pitches, but he is very successful swinging at a lot of first pitches. It’s a bit of a two edged sword. Yes, he will chase some pitches out of the zone so you can try to fool him for a quick strike. On the other hand, you can’t throw a get me over curve or groove a fastball, so Desmond applies pressure on the pitcher just by stepping in the batters box.

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