Taylor Rogers and the Value of the First Pitch
Image courtesy of © David Berding-USA TODAY SportsPitching philosophies have evolved over the years as coaches and players have attempted to develop the best way to terrorize hitters. The modern way of doing things on the mound is almost universally now focused on strikeouts. “Pitch-to-contact” might as well be Latin phrase with how little it is said nowadays. Pitchers are squarely focused on missing bats and forcing hitters to walk back to the dugout without ever leaving the batter’s box.
One of the best stats for understanding pitching dominance in the modern era is swinging strike %. Where strikeouts only count, swinging strike % records any instance where a batter swung and missed a pitch regardless of the count. Looking at the leader board in swinging strike rate for relievers gives you a predictable cast of characters like Ken Giles, Nick Anderson, Ryan Pressly, Roberto Osuna, and Josh Hader. These relievers have all made names for themselves as high-stuff and high-impact arms out of the bullpen. But way, way, way down the list at 106th among qualified relievers by swinging strike rate is Taylor Rogers.
Rogers was elite last season by basically every other metric. He was fifth in all of baseball for relievers by fWAR, 22nd in ERA, and 12th in K-BB%. But names like Ryne Harper, Yimi Garcia, Sam Gaviglio, and Colton Brewer sit ahead of him in netting swings and misses. If Rogers wasn’t getting the whiffs, how else was he getting his strikeouts?
The issue with strictly using swinging strike % is that it completely ignores the other major way to get strikes-by getting called strikes. Only four qualified relievers were better at throwing pitches in the zone than Rogers last season and only 10 relievers had hitters swing less at pitches thrown by the pitcher that were in the strike zone. That sounds like a lot of information but it basically boils down to the fact that Rogers typically was throwing pitches in the zone and hitters were typically not swinging at those pitches.
One way to get ahead of hitters quickly is to just throw first pitch strikes (what a concept). Rogers was elite in that as well as just 10 relievers had a higher first pitch strike % than him last season. In looking at his heat map in 0-0 counts, it’s unsurprising that he got into so many 0-1 counts.
That heat map is more red than a fire truck. Rogers was serving strikes consistently to start at-bats and hitters were almost always at a disadvantage the rest of the way. Getting that first pitch strike is crucial as hitters in 2019 held a wRC+ of just 64 in counts that started 0-1 but hit for a 126 wRC+ in counts that started 1-0. In Twins player terms, that’s like going from Denny Hocking (career 69 wRC+) to Kent Hrbek (career126 wRC+).
No matter how much pitching philosophy changes, getting a first pitch strike has been a perennial goal for pitchers. While most can’t simply just lay it in on the first pitch, Rogers did exactly that to great success last season. Perhaps his movement proves to be tricky for hitters or maybe his arm motion makes it difficult for the batter to focus on the ball. Either way, Rogers has no problem getting strikes and that should continue to frighten hitters for years to come.
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