Josh Hamilton: The Sultan of Swinging at the First Pitch

I was playing in a collegiate summer league at the time when I had a teammate that was in a slump.  He said he was going to swing at the first pitch of his next at-bat no matter what.  Shortly after proclaiming his odd strategy, he went to the plate, swung at the first pitch, and got a hit.  Later on he confirmed that this was not a one-time thing.  This was an approach he had used many times.  I have heard other players say this or even thought it myself, only to step in the batter’s box and take the first pitch for a strike.  I felt like this could not be a successful strategy in the long run.  That teammate hit much better than I did that summer.

The toughest thing in all of sports is to hit a round ball squarely with a round bat.  Although there are a host of reasons it would be tough to hit major league pitching, deciding whether to swing might be the toughest part.  Hitters have a split second to decide what kind of pitch is being thrown, where it will end up, and whether to swing at the pitch or not.  My teammate that summer didn’t have to make that decision mid-pitch many times since he had already determined he was going to swing.

After watching Josh Hamilton for years now, I am convinced he does this in many of his at-bats.

It is no secret Josh Hamilton likes to swing at the first pitch, or that he can have lousy plate discipline. Let’s take a look at how he compares to the rest of the league when it comes to the first pitch of an at-bat.

We compiled the first pitches from Josh Hamilton’s plate appearances spanning the past two and a half seasons (2012, 2013, and through July 31 of 2014).  Below is a table showing how he has fared (he did not hit any triples).

Total PA AB Hits Doubles Home Runs AVG SLG
1526 220 78 16 16 .355 .645

Compared to his overall batting average of .270 and slugging percentage of .491 over the same time period, he mashes the first pitch.  He also does well on the first pitch compared to the league averages (AVG .335, SLG .539) on the first pitch over same time frame.

However, Hamilton swings at the first pitch…a lot.  The totals over the past two and a half seasons can be seen below compared to the rest of the MLB.

Plate Appearances Swing Rate Contact Rate
Josh Hamilton 1526 43.7% 70.1%
MLB 492090 26.9% 79.4%

As you can see, Hamilton swings at the first pitch much more frequently than his peers.  Also when he swings, he makes contact less frequently.  That trend is not simply the result of Hamilton swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone.  His contact rate is lower than the league average whether or not the pitch found the zone.

In Zone Plate Appearances Swing Rate Contact Rate
Josh Hamilton No 944 29.9% 57.8%
Yes 586 66.0% 79.1%
MLB No 257335 15.1% 64.0%
Yes 235799 39.8% 85.8%

Hamilton swings almost twice as often on first pitches outside of the strike zone compared to the rest of the league.  Although this shows he is rather undisciplined on the first pitch, it isn’t enough to prove my theory correct.  However, the league has definitely taken notice of Hamilton’s first pitch tendencies.  MLB players see 47.8 percent of first pitches in the zone compared to Hamilton who sees just 38.3 percent of first pitches in the zone.

Now let’s break it up even further by looking at different pitch types.

First Pitch Type(Out of Zone) Hamilton Swing Rate MLB Swing Rate Difference
Fastball 22.7% 14.1% 8.6%
Changeup 41.7% 22.0% 19.7%
Curveball 34.3% 10.9% 23.4%
Slider 32.8% 18.7% 14.1%
Cutter 36.8% 18.9% 17.9%

It should be noted that there are other pitch types that aren’t included in this table due to a lack of sample size.  For example knuckleballs, splitters, and screwballs aren’t thrown very often (especially first pitch) so it’s hard to draw conclusions.

It can be observed that Hamilton’s swing rate is higher than the MLB rates for every pitch type in the table.  However, Hamilton’s contact rate on fastballs out of the zone is right on league average (78.3 percent compared to 78.7 percent).  Hamilton seems to see fastballs better than the other pitches.  He swings at first pitch fastballs out of the zone a smaller percentage of the time than he does at other pitches.

Hamilton also sees a smaller percentage of first pitch fastballs compared to the rest of MLB.  The league sees 63.6 percent first pitch fastballs while Hamilton sees them at a 44.4 percent clip.  Why you may ask?  Because he lives for first pitch fastballs.

 Fastballs AB Hits AVG SLG
Not In Zone 23 8 .348 .435
In Zone 59 24 .407 .797
Total 82 32 .390 .695

I knew it was going to be pretty much impossible to prove Josh Hamilton decides to swing at the first pitch before he steps in the batter’s box.  After all, I only get that inclination during some of his at-bats and he might decide before the pitch.  He would never get away with that strategy if he did it all the time in the big leagues since the league has already made adjustments to him.  What we can conclude is that Josh Hamilton is a free-swinger on the first pitch over the past two and a half seasons.  He has been successful swinging at the first pitch, especially when it’s a fastball, and even more so when it’s in the zone.

It seems that nothing will stop Josh Hamilton at swinging at the first pitch.  Well, except a knuckleball that is.  He has not swung in three plate appearances.

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