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  • Justin Stombler

Anatomy of an Ambush: Home Runs on the Opening Pitch

Blink and you'll miss it.


Alternatively, just be late to your seat.


The first pitch of an MLB game serves, for all in attendance and on the field, as a chance to exhale and prepare.


Broadcasters list location, weather, and time; fans settle into their seats (and locate their cup holders); players begin finding their groove and focus for the 9 innings to come.


In many ways, and in many games, it feels more ceremonial than legitimate; as if the act is a mere formality.


Which is why no one expects it when...


crack


Guess we better get started.


 

And We Are Underway


On May 15th, 2024, Mike Tauchmann stepped into the batter's box at Truist Park ready to face Charlie Morton. Morton rocked and fired, and Tauchmann, with no regard for due process, calmly deposited the first pitch of the game beyond the field of play. This was the fourth instance of a first-pitch-of-the-game home run in the 2024 season, all having come in the span of 9 days.


That isn't to say this usually happens with such frequency. Since 2018, there have been only 111 home runs hit on the first pitch of the game. This is only ~0.7% of the 13,961 first pitches that have been thrown during this timeframe.


This comes in spite of the fact that the first pitch of the game, as it turns out, is a pretty lucrative one for hitters to swing at. When compared to the average plate appearance, or even to the average first plate appearance of the game, balls put in play off the first pitch of the game have very favorable numbers.


We can surmise a few reasons for this. Primarily, more so than really any other pitch in a ballgame, the first pitch of a game affords the hitter a chance to be very selective with what they swing at; taking a called strike or a ball has minimal impact on the rest of the game. As such, if a major league leadoff-caliber hitter chooses to swing at such a pitch, it's probably a pitch worth swinging at.


Further in the hitter's favor is that there is less guesswork with the first pitch of a game than there with any other. Why is that?


 

STOP


The first pitch of a baseball game is as telegraphed an event as exists in baseball.


Dear reader, allow me to let you in on a little secret.


Should you ever find yourself batting leadoff on the road to open a game in the MLB, sit on the fastball. If you're wrong, you can always take the pitch with almost absolutely no consequence. But you won't be wrong. At least, probably.


In fact, even when compared to the standard 3-0 count, seen as the archetypal "get one over" fastball count, fastballs still occur more frequently on the first pitch of the game.


Baseball Statistics Table

And yet, historically, the first pitch of the game has very little going on.



In short, the first pitch of the game is largely a known entity. We have a good idea of the pitch type, and a good idea of the event (or lack thereof) that will take place. As such, surely we can pinpoint some good reasons as to why first pitch home runs occur when they do, right?


...


Right?

 

An Exercise in Futility


Dear reader, allow me to let you in on a second little secret.


I'm lost.


You see, I've tried to look at this phenomenon from a few angles, with stunningly little results.


This isn't to say there aren't breadcrumbs; for instance, some data suggests pitchers throw first-pitch-of-the-game fastballs at slower speeds than their average.


Baseball Statistics Table

A good lead in theory, this falls apart under further examination. There is no evidence to suggest that, despite this decrease in velocity, HR% is any higher on the first pitch of the game than any other. This is due in part to the fact that pitchers are no more accurate despite said decrease. According to Baseball Savant, pitchers miss the plate at very similar rates with fastballs, first pitch of the game or not, giving hitters no reason to swing.


Disappointing.


If we can't fully understand what leads to these situations, perhaps we can still take a look at those who excel at manufacturing them.

 

Cherry Picking Season


Since 2018, a handful of players have stood above the rest in the home run department on the first pitch of the game.


Baseball Statistics Table

If we can't come to ONE good conclusion as to why these happen, the least we can do is pick some...uh...we'll call them "select" statistics to try and figure out the strengths each player exhibits that can factor in.


Jose Altuve - Creating Contact

Jose Altuve has swung at a lot of first pitches; 101 to be exact, the fourth most since 2018. Despite this, he's only swung and missed 8 times, less than half of any of the players with a comparable number of swings.


As a result, Altuve is one of only two players to put more than 50 balls in play on the first pitch of the game since 2018.


Combine that with situational slugging that's nothing to sneeze at (SLG of .940 on first pitches) and you get a hitter who makes significant contact, and makes it loud.


Ronald Acuña Jr. - Reckless Abandon

Ronald Acuña Jr. is, as it would happen, the OTHER player who has put more than 50 first pitches of the game in play in this timeframe.


If Altuve's inclusion is due to his proclivity to swing and connect, Acuña Jr's is on his proclivity to, well, swing. In fact, here's Acuña Jr. on the same graph from above.


Baseball Statistics Graph
Only players with at least 25 Swings included

A lot of swings, and a lot of whiffs.


Acuña Jr has been the first batter of the game 307 times in his career. Of these, he's swung at the first pitch a ridiculous 150 times; an almost 50% clip. For reference, the league average swing rate on the first pitch of the game is only 27%, and only three other players have even eclipsed 100 swings since Acuña made his debut.


He makes hard contact too, averaging 94.3mph exit velocity on first pitches that he puts in play. Of all players with over 50 swings that's good for third behind only Kyle Schwarber and Tim Anderson, who have 4 and 3 first pitch home runs to their names, respectively.


Shin-Soo Choo - Sheer Insanity

To be clear, Shin-Soo Choo was hitting leadoff bombs far before the scope of the data presented.


From 2011 to 2020, Shin-Soo Choo led off an MLB game 730 times, 36 of these PAs ended in home runs.


Despite this, it took him about 2 full years to hit his first first-pitch-of-game home run, and he would meander for awhile and it would take over 4 full seasons before he eclipsed his 4th instance of a first pitch ambush.


However, starting in late 2018, Choo decided it was a good idea to do it more often. And more often he did, hitting the remaining 5 of his total 9 first-pitch-of-game career home runs in under 2 calendar years, before ending his MLB career at the end of the 2020 season.


Screenshot of Baseball Savant

It's an impressive clip, not matched by any other player during this time frame. To do this at the tail end of a very productive career isn't something that should be understated.


But also.


Did you know Shin-Soo Choo was a first-pitch god?


On first-pitch-of-games he OPS'd 1.951, a number that would go up to 2.056 in the final years of his career. That's two-times the OPS of 2023 Aaron Judge, but only on the first pitch of the game. Selective brilliance.


Baseball Statistics Graph
Only players with at least 25 Swings included

Also, for the record, this underperforms the expected OPS he carries of 2.149 since Statcast's inception. Sheesh.

 

And so ends our discussion on the first pitch of the game home run. I hope you learned something; I'm not sure I did.


As is so often the end of much analysis in this silly game, turns out baseball is just baseball. You play enough games, naturally SOME of them will involve a home run on the very first pitch.


Now if only someone had told me that weeks ago.

 

Thanks for reading! If you liked this article, check me out on Twitter at @SevenYardsBack


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