In era of patience, first-pitch swingers doing damage
Puig, Cabrera among sluggers having great success with first offerings
LOS ANGELES -- Yasiel Puig, the talk of Tinseltown, is too busy attacking the game to think about working counts and drawing walks. No one in Dodgers Nation is complaining.
Puig, the 22-year-old Cuban sensation, came out swinging and flinging in an astonishing first week in the Major Leagues, batting .464 and slugging .966 through seven games while evoking images of the great Roberto Clemente with his cannon-fire arm from right field.
Bashing home runs in four of your first five games, including a grand slam, and driving in 10 runs is a brilliant way to endear yourself to the populace.
"What I love about this kid," Darryl Strawberry said during Saturday's Old-Timers Day celebration at Dodger Stadium, "is that he's fearless."
"He's just out there doing it, having fun," Dwight Gooden, Strawberry's teammate during the Mets' glory days, said. "He doesn't care about stats. He's just playing the game the way it's meant to be played."
Puig's four homers have come on a total of six pitches. Twice, he crushed the first one he saw out of Dodger Stadium. He also went deep on 1-0 and 0-1 counts.
"There's some Vladimir Guerrero in Yasiel," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Puig, who also has a single in the four first-pitch swings he's put in play -- or out of sight.
The most notorious free swinger of his era, Guerrero was a .363 lifetime hitter on first pitches, with a .660 slugging percentage.
Puig also is right in step with Miguel Cabrera, the new gold standard for hitters. The Triple Crown king carries no mental clutter to the plate.
"I'm looking to be aggressive," Cabrera, the Tigers' third baseman and 2012 American League Most Valuable Player, recently said. "I'm up there to hit. If I like the first one, I'm after it."
Early-count hitting is not as fashionable as it once was, but Cabrera is a throwback. He's a .407 career hitter with a .747 slugging percentage when he puts the first pitch in play. In 901 swings, he has 74 homers and 272 RBIs.
Leading the AL in hitting again at .363 entering play Monday, Cabrera is swinging at 41.4 percent of first pitches, 10th in the Majors. The leader, at 49.6 percent, is the Brewers' Carlos Gomez. Gomez hitting .410 and slugging .800 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 39 first-pitch connections.
The Reds' Joey Votto rarely leaves his hitting zone, but is lethal with first pitches when he does, hitting .430 and slugging .732 for his career with 27 homers and 88 RBIs in 405 swings. In ambush mode this year, Votto is hitting .412 and slugging .706.
Votto has company among first baseman crushing first pitches. Chris Davis of the Orioles is hitting .464 and slugging 1.036 with four home runs, while the D-backs' Paul Goldschmidt is at .429 and .714. The Angels' Mark Trumbo has five homers and 14 RBIs in 40 first-pitch assaults, hitting .375 and slugging .800.
Jean Segura, the Brewers' breakout star at shortstop, swings at only 27.6 percent of first pitches, but is hitting .367 and slugging .733 when he puts them between the lines.
Those in the statistical community are busy sorting it all out. They swear by BABIP (batting average on balls in play), home runs excluded. The average BABIP in the Majors is .295. For his career, Cabrera's BABIP on first pitches in play is .350.
"Isolating all those numbers on first pitches can be misleading," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, playing devil's advocate. "There are so many variables. They don't tell you how many first pitches he missed or fouled back, how it impacted the rest of his at-bat when he didn't put the first pitch in play."
Fair enough. Here are Cabrera's career numbers when he puts an 0-1 pitch in play: .401 batting average, .681 slugging percentage, 44 homers, 161 RBIs in 678 swings.
Any way you slice it, Cabrera is most dangerous early in counts. When he gets to 2-2 and puts it in play, Cabrera is not the same game-changer, posting a .248 average and .427 slugging percentage. In full counts, he's at .240 and .455, respectively.
Angels right fielder Josh Hamilton is struggling across the board this season, but his career average on first pitches put in play is .401, with a .744 slugging percentage and 46 homers in 539 at-bats. His BABIP is .338. Down 0-1 in the count, he hits .357 and slugs .609 when he puts the ball in play.
Looking for his groove in his new environment, Hamilton is hitting .239 on first pitches this season.
Managers and fans love him when he's crushing those early-count deliveries. When he's struggling, they urge him to be more disciplined. Hamilton keeps smiling -- and swinging.
"The way I look at it," Hamilton said, "pitchers like to get ahead. If they know you're a first-pitch hitter, they're going to go at the corners. When you're going good, those are pitches you can do damage with. If you're going bad, you won't do much with them.
"I've had people tell me I should be less aggressive up there. But they don't say that when I'm going good."
Emerging superstars Bryce Harper of the Nationals and the Angels' Mike Trout have totally different approaches.
Before a painful meeting with a Dodger Stadium wall and a knee injury sidelined him, Harper was hitting .519 with five homers in 27 first pitches put in play.
Like Ichiro Suzuki and Joe Mauer, Trout rarely chases the first delivery -- 14 percent this year, 9.4 percent last season -- but hits .362 with a .681 slugging percentage when he does.
"Without a doubt, you're going to be more aggressive throwing strikes to Trout with the first pitch than to Hamilton, even though they're equally dangerous," the Dodgers' Zack Greinke said. "It's just a matter of what a hitter is comfortable with, the approach that got him here."
In spite of evidence supporting aggressive approaches, selectivity is at an all-time high. Only five times in history -- the past five seasons -- has the average for pitches seen per at-bat reached 3.8. This year's 3.86 is the high-water mark.
Hitters are swinging at 64.4 percent of strikes, 4.1 percent fewer than 10 years ago, according to FanGraphs' data. The first-pitch swing percentage has dropped two points.
With strikeout rates escalating, it stands to reason that making contact early in counts is one way to avoid whiffing.
Puig has been in a three-ball count only three times in his first 29 plate appearances. His lone walk was intentional.
Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, a defender without equal, has climbed to the top of the NL batting race in part because of his success with first pitches. He's hitting .444 this year in 45 swings, lifting his overall average to .352.
A leadoff man with power in his day, Dodgers coach Davey Lopes took an aggressive approach.
"The first pitch to me is like a 3-0 pitch," Lopes said. "You're looking for a certain pitch in a certain area to try to drive. If you get it, you try to do some damage with it. If you don't, you let it go.
"Some hitters are comfortable getting deep in counts, but it can be a detriment to a lot of hitters. You can go out of the zone, chase the offspeed stuff. A guy who's a good fastball hitter, he's going to go after the first good one he sees."
Managers now, Mattingly and Robin Ventura of the White Sox were known to punish pitchers early in counts. Mattingly hit .363, Ventura .359 against first pitches.
"I wasn't much for swinging at the first pitch early in a game," Mattingly said. "I liked to get an idea what a guy had, see his fastball, breaking ball, change. That way, I'd have a better idea if a big situation came up later in the game."
Ventura believes "all the information available to guys now" accounts for more calculated approaches at the plate. "We used to go up looking for something to drill," he said.
That old-school approach certainly is working for Puig, who is living a dream that finds himself in fine company with the likes of Cabrera, Votto and Guerrero.