By Nick Shepkowski-
(CBS) Many of us were taught back in Little League that the first pitch was the best you would see and to be ready to attack when you stepped in the batter’s box.
Some big leaguers like Josh Hamilton and Starlin Castro have had great success by swinging early in at-bats, but it’s safe to say Theo Epstein won’t ever be the Little League dad who has his team use this approach.
Epstein cited “philosophical differences” that led to the firing of Rudy Jaramillo on Tuesday, and it’s obvious the lack of taking pitches and working counts was a major part of those differences. The Cubs currently sit 27th in all of baseball, seeing 3.72 pitches per plate appearance. As a result, the Cubs rank 27th in on-base percentage, while taking the fourth fewest walks this season.
Do pitch counts and drawing walks necessarily mean wins? Not exactly, as the 28-35 Oakland Athletics currently lead baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance. In terms of philosophy, however, there’s no debating how valuable this number is when Epstein is running a team.
A year ago, the Boston Red Sox saw more pitches per plate appearance than any other team in baseball at 3.95 per. Sure, that resulted in a third-place finish in the American League East, but it’s hard to blame the bats for Boston’s late-season collapse that saw them allow seven or more runs 13 times in their final 27 games.
Although pitches seen per plate appearance don’t always equal more wins, the importance that Epstein puts on the statistic can’t be debated. In his nine seasons as general manager of the Red Sox, the team led all of baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance six times. The only three times they didn’t lead the league they finished third, fifth and sixth.
With those numbers, it’s no surprise why Jaramillo was dismissed by the 27th-ranking Cubs.
By not swinging at the first pitch, many things are bound to happen. Obviously, you’re more likely to draw a walk which often times is just as good as a hit, but it’s more than that.
Running an opposing starting pitcher’s pitch count up leads to him not lasting as long as he or his manager would like in a game and allows your team to face more middle relievers – the worst pitchers on a staff. Furthermore, getting to a bullpen on the first day of a three- or four-day series can affect which middle relievers you may see later on in the series as well.
Detractors from the importance of pitch counts will cite the Texas Rangers, and specifically Josh Hamilton, as examples of attacking early in counts. The Rangers have scored more runs than anyone else in baseball and see more pitches per plate appearances than just ninw teams, while Hamilton has made a career by attacking first pitches, often putting them over the fence.
Despite there being cases both ways, it’s obvious which direction the Cubs offensive approach is heading. In the two games played since Rudy Jaramillo was fired the Cubs are averaging 3.93 pitches per plate appearance, up from the 3.72 they’ve averaged for the season. An extremely small sample size, but a step in the direction Epstein clearly wants to go.
Cubs fans, get ready for your teams games to start lasting longer. Even with much losing still to come before things get where they’re expected to be, it’s not a bad thing.
In addition to working as a columnist for 670TheScore.com, Nick Shepkowski acts as the associate producer for The McNeil and Speigel Show, heard Monday-Friday from 9am-1pm on 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @Shep670