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First-pitch strikes make a difference in a pitcher's success

| Sunday, March 20, 2011

BRADENTON, Fla. — The plea has echoed in Charlie Morton's ears from the first time he stepped on a Little League field. It is a two-word demand that is familiar to every pitcher.

"If you're on the mound, you hear it: 'Throw strikes,' " Morton said. "Ever since I was 7 years old, I've heard my parents and the fans yell, 'Throw strikes.' "

Morton rolled his eyes and sighed.

"I mean ... you already know that."

Throw strikes• If only it was that simple. As a pitcher gets older and his level of competition increases, command also changes. Throw strikes, yes, but now he must throw first-pitch strikes. And the more often the better.

An average major league pitching staff will get an 0-1 count 59 percent of the time. Last season, the Pirates did it at a 58 percent clip.

If the Pirates had nudged their rate up just two percentage points, they would have matched the Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres, two fine pitching staffs. But pitching coach Ray Searage is aiming even higher.

"I don't want us to be 60 (percent)," Searage said. "Sixty is average. I want us to be above average."

Searage was not smiling as he spoke. So far in spring training, the Pirates are hovering around 58 percent with first-pitch strikes.

When a ball was put in play on a pitcher's count (0-1, 0-2 or 1-2), batters hit .206 last year. When the ball was struck on a hitter's count (1-0, 2-1, 2-0, 3-0, 3-2), batters hit .302.

"You figure maybe only 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 batters are first-pitch swingers," Morton said. "So if you get a strike on the first one, you're really upping your chances."

Of course, there's more to effective pitching that just firing first-pitch strikes. Other factors include command, control, location, velocity, movement, deception and just flat-out good stuff. But the tone for the battle is set when the batter settles into the box and the pitcher rears back and lets that first one fly.

"The most important pitch in baseball is strike one," reliever Chris Resop said. "It's not the fastball. It's not the curveball. No matter what pitch you use to get you there, it's strike one.

Last year, major league hitters had a .227 batting average and a .260 on-base percentage after a first-pitch strike. After a first-pitch ball, the average was .273 and OBP was .387.

When a first-pitch strike is followed by another strike, the pitcher becomes bulletproof. On 0-2 counts, batters had a .156 average and .165 OBP.

"If you're constantly going 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, you'll see how hitters react," Resop said. "All of the sudden, they're like, 'Ha! Right here, pal. I know what this is going to be.' But if you're attacking the zone and always 0-1, the hitter is off balance. It's important."

When a pitcher goes 0-1, he can test the corners more and expand the strike zone. A pitcher who keeps falling behind must throw more fastballs and keep the ball toward the center of the plate.

"What we're really trying to emphasize right now is getting first-pitch strikes — quality first-pitch strikes — either down and away on the outside or inside half or first-pitch breaking ball," Searage said. "If you can do that, you can slice and dice with quality stuff."

First-pitch strikes lead to quicker outs, which means the pitcher is controlling the pace of the game.

"When we're falling behind in counts, we're getting a little bit more deliberate out there," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're spending a little bit more time before unloading pitches. We want to stay aggressive, keep things moving forward and not over-think. Focus on pounding the zone."

On the Pirates' pitching staff, usually nobody does that better than left-hander Paul Maholm. Over his six-year career, he has thrown first-pitch strikes 60 percent of the time.

Jeff Karstens led the team last season, throwing first-pitch strikes 66 percent of the time — Maholm was at 61 percent — but Karstens threw far fewer innings than Maholm.

In 2008, Maholm reached 62 percent first-pitch strikes. He went 9-9 with a career-best 3.71 ERA.

"Strike one is huge," Maholm said. "But you've got to understand who you're facing, whether they're a free-swinging team or a patient team you can take a little bit more of the plate on the first pitch."

That's especially true for a pitcher such as Maholm, who doesn't have the gas to simply overpower hitters. A sinkerball pitcher, Maholm likes to run his first offering off the plate a bit, trying to induce a weak ground ball.

When he comes out of game, the first stat Maholm usually checks is his first-strike percentage.

"A guy like me, I need to be above that 60 percent league average," Maholm said. "I'd rather get it closer to 70 percent. That's going to reduce my walks, reduce the number of guys who get on base and allow me to attack hitters better. The biggest thing — always — is to get ahead."

Additional Information:

Strike one

Here are the first-strike pitch percentages for Pirates starters last season:

Jeff Karstens: 26 games, 122.2 innings pitched, 66 percent first-pitch strikes

Paul Maholm: 32, 185.1, 61

Ross Ohlendorf: 21, 108.1, 60

Zach Duke: 29, 159.0, 58

Charlie Morton: 17, 79.2, 56

Brian Burres: 20, 79.1, 53

Here are the pitchers who led MLB in first-strike pitch percentages last season:

Cliff Lee: 28 games, 212.1 innings pitched, 70 percent first-pitch strikes

Carl Pavano: 32, 221.0, 68

Roy Halladay: 33, 250.2, 67

Jeff Karstens: 26, 122.2, 66

Ricky Nolasco: 26, 157.2, 66

Johan Santana: 29, 199, 66

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