Old, grizzled, baseball men in West Tampa will take a break from their game of dominoes to tell you that the best pitch in baseball is strike one. It is one of those maxims of the game that we learned when we were kids and blindly accept. But, unlike some other cliches-turned-conventional-wisdom (how many outs are there? can I go from first to third?), strike one stands up to some scrutiny.
I know what you are thinking. Dude, Game 5 is tonight, this is no time to be spouting baseball maxims. I am with you. Strike one is not only the best pitch in baseball, it is Cliff Lee’s silver bullet.
In Game 1, the Rays put 22 balls into play, resulting in five hits. More importantly, the Rays struck out 10 times and, 8 of the 10 hitters that struck out started their at bat down 0-1 (Amazingly, 5 of the 8 that started down 0-1 took strike 1. How many strike ones do you need to watch before realizing that Lee is not inclined to nibble). Also, all five of the Rays hits came on the first or second pitch of the at bat.
That is an admittedly small sample. But it looks consistent with Lee’s 2010 splits. In 2010, hitters that put the first pitch from Cliff Lee in play had a .348 OBP, a .342 BABIP, and a tOPS of 175 (candidly, I know very little about tOPS but I am told a score over 100 means the hitter did better than expected). However, when hitters fell behind Lee 0-1, those numbers sank to a .226 OBP, .301 BABIP, and 81 tOPS (again, a number under 100 means the hitter did worse than expected). Lee also struck out 31% of the hitters that were down 0-1 (144 out of 469) and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 48.o0 after strike one.
In case you are interested, here is a quick table from Baseball Reference with Lee’s 2010 splits.
The good news is, the Rays know how to take advantage of Lee’s strike one tendencies. Back on August 17, 2010 I recapped the Rays win over Lee by writing:
Lee gave up five hits to the eight Tampa Bay hitters he faced in the 8th inning. Of the five Rays that connected against Texas’s ace, only Ben Zobrist, Lee’s final hitter, saw more than three pitches. The other four — B.J. Upton, Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria, and Carlos Pena — were hitting aggressively early in the count. (For good measure, you can add Kelly Schoppach into this group. He flew out on the first pitch of the inning). Based on my informal observation, those hits came on Lee’s fastball.
That tells me that either through scouting or video analysis, Shelton discovered that Lee likes to use his fastball early in the count when he gets tired in an effort to stay ahead of hitters. The Rays ability to exploit that tendency led to one of the more bizarre innings in recent memory.
Does that mean the Rays will advance to the ALCS simply by being more aggressive at the plate? Of course not. Nothing in this game is that easy. But, it certainly does mean that, if the Rays want to have a chance in tonight’s Game 5, they cannot be as passive as they were in Game 1.