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Some Old Coaching Adages, Analyzed

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Making sense of a few coaching tenets

Rick Ostentoski/USA TODAY Sports

Finally, baseball is back! That is, unless the Miami Marlins manage to melt down the entire league, baseball is back. The Twins have come back in true Twins fashion, belting a whole pile of homers, as they seem to be picking up right where they left off in 2020. As the Twins begin their second season of the Rocco Baldelli era, they have seemingly been influenced across the board by analytics, as traditional lineups and baserunning tactics are a thing of the past. This made me reflect on my brief baseball career, as I mostly watched my teammates in the field, and heard many common coaching tactics among multiple coaches. This made me wonder, which one of these are actually true? We will dig into a few of them below.

“The first strike is the most important pitch”

Most pitching coaches will preach getting ahead in the count, and that is certainly with merit. The numbers certainly will show that getting ahead in the count is advantageous for the pitcher, but simply throwing a strike does not protect the pitcher from allowing damage. As Lucas Giolito found out on his first pitch of the season against Max Kepler, simply pouring a fastball into the strike zone is not an effective approach. With that being said, if a pitcher is able to throw an effective pitch in order to obtain a strike, the numbers are certainly beneficial. As it shows below, it is not only important to get ahead in the count, it is vital to throw a first pitch that is effective.

Batters’ OPS By Count (2019)

  • First Pitch: .994
  • 1-0 Count: .990
  • 0-1 Count: .882

As you can see, batters are actually slightly more effective attacking the first pitch than they are in a 1-0 count. As the count gets deeper, however, the first strike becomes more and more essential.

  • 2-0 Count: 1.067
  • 1-1 Count: .915

If a pitcher is able to get to two strikes, that’s when the severe drop off happens for the batter.

  • 1-2 Count: .425
  • 0-2 Count: .392

Just based upon drop off in OPS, the most impactful strike may actually be the second strike. Of course, as most mathematicians will tell you, you are unable to reach two strikes without getting the first strike.

In this case, the first strike is certainly vital, but coaches may have to emphasize that the first pitch should be an effective one, not just a lollipop in order to get ahead in the count.

Another coaching adage that can be tacked onto the one above is the “don’t swing at the first pitch” theory that is floated around by some coaches. As you can see above, hitters posted an OPS (.994) that can be considered borderline-MVP-caliber on the first pitch. This all but throws out that theory, although some batters (Joe Mauer!) are more comfortable working counts. Bottom line: if you see a pitch you like, smash it.

“Play for the tie at home, play for the win on the road.”

This one has always been a head-scratcher for me. In my view, when one enters a contest with specific guidelines that lead to a victor and loser, one should do everything that he/she can to complete said guidelines in a better fashion than the opponent. Leaving the generalities aside, I believe this adage is meant more for a situation in which a team is down by one run in the ninth inning, and the team is able to get a runner on first base to start the inning. The question becomes, do you bunt the runner over to second in order to get him in scoring position (hypothetically playing for the tie), or do you have the batter swing away in order to try and score multiple runs?

First and foremost, the decision is altered greatly by the pitcher and batter. If you have Mike Trout, he’s probably swinging away. If you have the now-defunct National League pitcher batting, you will probably try and bunt. Let’s assume the batter is somewhere in between, and use a broader scope to decide.

Using the run-expectancy matrix from Tango Tiger (2010-2015), we can at least take a look at how often runs are scored in certain situations, and how many runs can be expected on average.

Frequency of 1+ run scoring, by situation:

  • Runner on first, 0 outs: 41.6%
  • Runner on second, 1 out: 39.7%
  • Runners on first and second, 0 outs: 61.0%

As you can see, in general, the chances of scoring a run actually decrease by bunting the runner into scoring position. Giving a batter a chance to either draw a walk or get a base hit increases the odds of significantly.

Average runs scored, by situation:

  • Runner on first, 0 outs: .859 runs
  • Runner on second, 1 out: .664 runs
  • Runners on first and second, 0 outs: 1.437 runs

Once again, as you can see above, giving an out away on a bunt represents a significant decrease in the average runs scored. The situation is completely dependent on who is batting and who is pitching, but in general, you might as well let the batter take his hacks and try to break the inning open. In other words, make the great Herm Edwards happy, and play to win the game!

“Never make the first or third out at third base.”

This is another one I never could completely wrap my head around, although I solved that by generally just not getting on base. When a runner makes an out on the bases, it’s among the inefficient things on a baseball field, as the pitcher doesn’t even have to use a pitch to record an out. Outs are precious, as in general, you only get 27 of those to use. In 2016, I wrote about how a base-stealer needs to be successful at a rate of about 70%, or he is actually doing negative damage to his team on the bases. This also pertains to running the bases in general, as giving away outs on the bases is extremely damaging. Once again, using the run-expectancy matrix, we can put some numbers to this one. Let’s start with assuming the runner is the only one on base.

Frequency of scoring 1+ run, by situation:

  • Runner on second, 0 outs: 61.4%
  • No runners on, one out: 15.5% (-45.9%)

  • Runner on second, one out: 39.7%
  • No runners on, two outs: 6.7% (-33%)

  • Runner on second, two outs: 21.6%
  • Three outs, inning over: 0.0% (-21.6%)

As you can see above, a runner taking himself off the bases is giant hindrance to his team, regardless of the situation. At the end of the day, it may be easiest for a baserunner to live by this adage: “if you’re going to go, MAKE IT.” Making the second out at third isn’t less damaging than any other time, so just don’t do it.

Are there any adages that I have left off the list? Obviously, I have only covered three, so if there are some that I’m missing, I would love to do a Part 2! Let me know in the comments!