If I were to rank the complaints of Cubs fans this year on a scale of frequency and intensity of the rants, Ryan Theriot’s approach at the plate would probably rank somewhere around the 4th spot in between Zambrano’s tumult and John Grabow’s existence. Honestly, the objections of this fan base are so voluminous and varied, ranking them would be almost as difficult as addressing them.
Ordered lists of grievances aside, we can all agree that Ryan Theriot’s concept of patience has forced Cub fans to lose theirs. He swings at the ceremonial first pitch. He swings at bean balls. When the visiting team hits a home run, his biggest regret is not having a bat to swing when the bleacher bums throw the ball back. There’s no question what the perception is: Theriot loves to swing at the first pitch. I guess my only remaining questions are, Does he? and Should he?
Does Ryan Theriot love to swing at the first pitch?
First of all, I think what really bothers everyone (justifiably or not) isn’t that Theriot swings at the first pitch so much as that he puts the first pitch in play. You can see from Theriot’s plate discipline numbers that he swings at a smaller percentage of pitches out of the strike zone than the rest of the league, so it’s not a matter of Theriot swinging at bad pitches. So if he swings at a strike on the first pitch without putting it in play, the act of swinging really has no effect whatsoever other than maybe giving Theriot a better sense of timing. When Theriot swings, though, he makes contact 90.3% of the time (the 13th highest contact rate in the majors), so I really don’t think people are complaining about his first-pitch whiffs so much as his short at-bats.
So let’s just look at the plate appearances in which Theriot puts the first pitch into play, a pretty frequent occurrence. In 2010, just over 18% of Theriot’s PAs have lasted exactly one pitch. League average is about 11%. For his career, almost 16% of Riot’s plate appearances are one-pitch affairs, so he has definitely earned the reputation for hitting the first pitch more than the average player (and definitely more than the prototypical leadoff hitter). This year he’s been even more slap-happy than normal, but not much. A 2% increase represents about 14 PAs per season, and I highly doubt anyone has noticed that Theriot is hitting the first pitch an additional eight one-hundredths of a plate appearance per game.
That being said, yes, Ryan Theriot does seem to love that first pitch. Is that so wrong?
Should Ryan Theriot love to swing at the first pitch?
There are those who would say no regardless of evidence to the contrary. Since Theriot has been semi-regularly batting in the leadoff position, the unwritten (but oft spoken) rule dictates that he should take as many pitches as possible. It’s his job, I’m told, to work the count and get on base as often as possible. And in those cases when the pitcher just made the second out, he is required by law to take at least two strikes and foul off at least three pitches if necessary to give the pitcher at least a five-pitch time span in which to rest.
Forgive me for challenging the conventional wisdom, but I do think his main job is to reach base as frequently as possible and to advance as far along the basepaths as he can. I’d prefer to use wOBA, but without the split information for that particular stat I’ll look at OPS first. If Theriot’s on-base plus slugging numbers are better when swinging at the first pitch than in other situations, wouldn’t it be advisable (or at the very least forgivable) for him to continue in his relative impatience?
Well guess what: they are. For his career, Theriot’s AVG/OBP/SLG line is .349/.351/.453 when he hits (or gets hit by) the first pitch he sees, putting his 1st-pitch OPS at .803 (it’s .807 this year, so let’s just stick with the career numbers for better sample size). Now let’s look at those numbers in plate appearances he allows to go more than one pitch. After the count reaches 1-0, Theriot’s line is .287/.406/.387. Yes, his OBP goes up significantly, but his slugging plummets as well, yielding an OPS of .793. Keep in mind, that’s throughout Theriot’s career on all PAs that start with him taking a pitch and getting ahead in the count.
The difference is extremely slight, but Theriot’s ability to inflict damage on the opposition has been better when he hits the first pitch than when he gains the 1-0 advantage. What about after a first pitch strike? .266/.306/.309 with a .615 OPS. If you’d rather see Theriot take that first pitch for a strike, you must really put a lot of stock into the benefit of “showing his teammates what the pitcher has to offer,” because the difference between hitting and taking that first strike is pretty damaging to Theriot’s chances.
All told, here’s Theriot’s career line in plate appearances that last longer than one pitch: .275/.352/.343 (.695 OPS). Here’s the net difference in his line when a Ryan Theriot PA goes beyond the one-pitch mark: -.074/+.001/-.110. So, yeah, when Theriot lets an at-bat go any longer than the minimum, he actually decreases his OPS by .109.
Complain about Theriot leading off and I’ll agree with you. Demand his trade and I won’t bat an eye. But to those clamoring for longer Theriot at-bats, I beg of you to find a new tree up which to bark. Theriot’s love affair with pitch 1 is well founded. Don’t try to get in between those two. They will very likely both hit you.