This season has been a season of ups and down for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But for the Pirates pitching staff, there is no bigger cause for their ups and downs then when they are up and when they are down.
At a young age, pitchers are taught to get ahead of the batter. That philosophy doesn’t stop being taught when you make it to the big leagues. In fact, Ray Searage specifically stated this his pitching philosophy is, “First-pitch strikes, having an aggressive mentality, control the running game, pitch in, stay aggressive out there and compete.”
Getting a first pitch strike is always a great idea. But not falling behind of the batter is equally as important. Getting a first pitch strike puts the pitcher in control. Want to throw a breaking ball off the plate? No problem. Want to throw a fastball wherever you want? No problem. But if the pitcher falls behind, do you want to risk falling behind 2-0? That breaking ball off the plate becomes much less appealing for not only the pitcher, but also for the batter. Since the batter is ahead, the batter can become more selective at the plate and really wait for a good pitch to hit.
The following chart shows the benefits of getting ahead of a batter with a first pitch strike, and also shows the challenges a pitcher is faced with when falling behind the batter.
This season following an 0-1 count, a batter has a .272 wOBA. However, if a pitcher falls behind a batter 1-0, a batter has a .364 wOBA. To help put that in perspective, Chris Stewart has a .272 wOBA over his entire career. Robinson Cano has a .364 wOBA over his entire career. Pitchers would love to face Chris Stewart. No pitcher wants to face Robinson Cano.
As you can tell, getting a first pitch strike is extremely important.
This season, the Pirates have the 11th best first pitch strike rate. They get a first pitch strike 60.7% of the time. The league average first pitch strike rate is 60.3%, so the Pirates are slightly above average in that department. Despite being above average as a team, some Pirates have struggled in getting first pitch strikes. But for some pitchers, getting a first pitch strike hasn’t been a problem. What happens when they don’t get a first pitch strike, however, has been a problem.
So as the chart above illustrates, the difference in wOBA between starting ahead 0-1 and behind 1-0 is .092. However the gap for the Pirates is much wider. When the Pirates get ahead 0-1, opposing batters manage just a .269 wOBA. When the Pirates fall behind 1-0, opposing batters manage a .381 wOBA. The difference in wOBA between the two scenarios is .112. Below is a chart of how the Pirates pitchers have performed this season:
|Name||0-1 wOBA||1-0 wOBA||Difference||F-Strike%|
Gerrit Cole is the guy that sticks out the most here. But first, I want to talk about Tyler Glasnow.
When Glasnow did manage to throw a first pitch strike, opposing batters had a .347 wOBA against him. Already, that is very high. But when he falls behind 1-0, opposing batters manage a staggering .507 wOBA against him! Babe Ruth’s career wOBA is .513. Hitters were pretty close to performing like Babe Ruth when Glasnow fell behind 1-0. Glasnow’s K% and BB% are both pretty good when he manages to get a first pitch strike, so it’s a little odd to see him have such a high wOBA. However, he is giving up a lot of home runs. That could be because of two reasons: bad luck, poor command. We all know by now that Glasnow has no command. But it’s possible that bad luck had at least something to do with his struggles. It doesn’t matter though, as the Pirates have seen Glasnow struggle long enough. Glasnow will need to work on his command in AAA, but after two starts he’s walking 17.4% of the batters he’s faced.
However the guy that inspired this article was Gerrit Cole. Gerrit has the worst wOBA in the league following a 1-0 count (min 20 IP). However, he has the 7th best wOBA in the league following a 0-1 count (min 40 IP). What has caused Cole to get so much worse when falling behind?
Gerrit is getting hit very hard when he falls behind 1-0. In fact, he is giving up a HR every 13.4 PA when he falls behind 1-0. Before this season, he was giving up just one HR every 69 PA when falling behind 1-0. Clearly, something has changed. Home run rates are up across the entire league, but that doesn’t explain that large of an increase. When Cole is ahead 0-1, he only gives up a HR once every 68 PA.
I think it’s possible that Cole is trying to attack the zone more often, just like Searage teaches. According to pitch f/x, Cole has thrown pitches in the zone 52.2% of the time which would be the highest mark over his career. But I think that has backfired some, possibly due to poor command.
First pitch strikes are great, but throwing pitches down the middle isn’t great. Maybe Cole has taken Ray’s teachings too literally. Maybe Cole needs to attack the zone less, and try and paint the corners more sacrificing some strikes in the process. He has the highest first pitch strike rate of his career, so getting ahead hasn’t been a problem. But when he does fall behind, he has performed horribly.
At the end of the day, first pitch strikes aren’t the only thing a pitcher needs to succeed. Heck, the Pirates pitcher with the lowest first pitch strike rate has been the most dominant (Felipe Rivero). I’m not at the point that I think the Pirates should be concerned. But I am at the point that I am intrigued. The Pirates have done much worse when falling behind in the count instead of getting ahead. Maybe that’s something that falls back on Ray Searage’s philosophy. If it is, then I have little doubt that there will be a fix in the near future.