MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Hitters becoming more aggressive

Batters are swinging early and often, how will pitchers respond?

Hitters becoming more aggressive

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Let the record show that Zack Greinke's first official pitch as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks was a breaking ball. A curve, to be exact -- an angry hammer directed to the attention of Mr. Billy Burns, c/o the Oakland A's. And though Greinke's deep arsenal lends itself to the art of surprise, this was pretty shocking, given the circumstances.

After all, this was the first pitch of a harmless Spring Training game, not traditionally a time when guys are scouring and applying scouting reports.

"It kind of threw me off," Burns admitted later. "Oh, OK, curveball, huh? Some guys were talking and telling me, 'It just goes to show you, guys know you and are going to make adjustments.'"

The ebbs and flows of baseball, the adjustments and counter-adjustments, are central to its strategy and, ergo, its soul. And right now, as the 2016 Major League season begins, there is a serious strategic battle taking place between pitcher and hitter.

What it boils down to is this: Hitters are swinging earlier and more often. And how pitchers adjust to this statistically significant development will be a fascinating subplot to the upcoming campaign.

Last season's league-wide percentage of pitches taken was 52.9 percent. That was the lowest such percentage since 2008. The rise in swing percentage -- from 46.7 percent to 47.4 percent -- was the largest such leap on record at FanGraphs, which tracks that data back to 2002.

"You look at the Yankee teams, the Boston teams, even the Cleveland teams I worked with in the 2000s, we were patient, and you had to throw the ball around the plate," Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "We used to talk about working up the pitch count of the starter so that you could get to the bullpen guys in the sixth, seventh inning. Now you can't do that."

Why?

"Because those guys [in the sixth and seventh innings] are nasty," said O's outfielder Adam Jones.

Yes, the modern-day bullpen -- as evidenced most famously and, well, nastily, by the World Series-champion Royals -- is not a beast worth rushing toward. And with pitching coaches preaching to their starters the value of establishing strike one, teams, by and large, are embracing the genius idea that, hey, perhaps we should be swinging at strike one.

"Why let [the pitcher] get ahead?" said Jones, whose O's are one of the more aggressive teams in baseball. "You don't just let him groove one there or throw you a get-me-over breaking ball. Being ready to hit is the philosophy our team takes. Once your name is announced and your music plays, step into that box and be ready to hit."

There's also this: Last year, pitchers allowed a .703 OPS the first time through the lineup, and that figure was .733 the second time through and .765 the third time. Fact is, you're better off facing an average starting pitcher a third time than facing almost any reliever the first time.

It would be silly to suggest a more aggressive approach would or could work for everybody. Joey Votto would not be Joey Votto if he didn't have the almost superhuman tunnel vision that allows him to discern balls from strikes and routinely grind out long at-bats. It works for him.

But even some of the greatest hitters of our time have totally altered their approach to the modern times.

"I changed," Giants catcher Buster Posey said.

Indeed, he did. Posey's average number of pitches per plate appearance declined 17 percent between his MVP year in 2012 and last season.

"I remember facing the Marlins two years ago," Posey said. "Carter Capps came out in the sixth jumping off the mound and throwing 100 mph. I thought, 'This is why we wanted to get to the bullpen?'"

Though Posey had achieved signature success with a more patient approach, he's willingly evolved out of a perceived necessity. But individual adaptation is one thing; getting an entire team to buy in to a new approach is quite another. And leave it to those risk-taking Rays to not only attempt such a shift in the middle of a Major League season, but to actually pull it off.

"We were struggling," Shelton said.

Yes, they were. The Rays were averaging 3.65 runs per game at the All-Star break last season, an embarrassing display, especially by AL standards. Somewhere around that point, Shelton, with the backing of manager Kevin Cash and the front office, asked his hitters to escape their comfort zone and change their mindset.

"It was kind of a case study on the fly," Shelton said.

The Rays were asked to walk that fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness. And Shelton will freely admit the program was first implemented at a point in the schedule when the Rays were lined up to face a string of starters prone toward tossing first-pitch strikes. So maybe the system was a little rigged in that regard. But the confidence instilled by the instant success off those arms gave the Rays momentum in a second half in which their runs average increased to 4.39.

"People externally hear it and say, 'OK, you're swinging at everything,'" Shelton said. "No, we're just not giving away free strikes. We used to be passive, trying to work counts. But now, with the power of guys' stuff and the power of back ends of bullpens, we need to swing at stuff we should be swinging at."

It's unprovable, but certainly arguable, that the increased aggression league-wide contributed to the game's first real rise in run production in a decade. Average runs per game went up from 4.07 in 2014 to 4.25 in '15 -- the largest jump since 2005-06. Given the importance of strike one, from the pitching perspective, it's worth noting that the percentage of plate appearances that featured an 0-1 count decreased from 9.3 to 9.1.

The problem for hitters, naturally, is that this data is available to everybody.

"All the pitching coaches in the league, they get the stats and they see who swings early in the count," said D-backs hitting coach Dave Magadan. "It's the cycle of baseball."

Said Jones: "That's what I'm trying to focus on, personally. If [the first pitch] is high, you know it's high. It's the ones that start moderately good that the pitcher is baiting you with and you take the bait and are down 0-1 instead of 1-0 -- those are the tough ones. If I get a first pitch fastball, cool. If I get a hanger, I'll be ready for that too. But I'm not going to expand myself on the first pitch, because I don't need to be on the defense first pitch."

Shelton approaches the pending counter-attack with an optimistic outlook.

"You may start to see pitchers throw more first pitch breaking balls," he said. "But then, can they command a first-pitch breaking ball? If it gets to be the perfect scenario, they throw a first-pitch breaking ball for a ball, and now we're in a hitters' count, 1-0."

That's actually precisely what happened for Burns in our little Spring Training case study, when Greinke threw him that 75-mph curve for ball one. But the at-bat, which resulted in a groundout, was still a lesson learned. Burns had a strong rookie year that revolved around the second-highest first-pitch swing percentage (49.9) in the Majors, and Greinke -- and every other pitcher armed with a scouting report -- was well-aware. And so the curve came.

"I wouldn't be surprised if that happened more often," Burns said.

Let the games begin.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.