Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Swinging at first pitch pays dividends

The Red Sox are not a first-pitch-swinging team.

No team in baseball swings at fewer first pitches -- 21 percent -- than the Red Sox. No player in bseball swings at fewer first pitches -- seven percent -- than Dustin Pedroia. Of the first 21 hitters to come to the plate for the Red Sox on Wednesday, only two swung at the first pitch.

One was Mike Lowell, and he immediately regretted his hack at a slider on the inner half of the plate. The result was an error on a long throw from Melvin Mora at third to Ty Wigginton at first, a throw Lowell beat out when Wigginton couldn't dig it out of the dirt.

"I didn't want to swing at that pitch," Lowell said. "But speed never takes a day off."

The other was Jason Varitek on the very next pitch, and the only reason he swung was because the Red Sox had called a hit and run. It didn't go quite the way it was drawn up, but it worked out regardless. Lowell, in fact, ended up with his first stolen base of the season.

As the not-so-fleet-footed third baseman pointed out after the game, he now has at least one stolen base in each of the last 10 seasons.

"I stopped halfway because I didn't think 'Tek swung, and then he swung after it hits his mitt," Lowell said. "What do you want me to do?"

Said Jason Bay, "Speed kills. A straight steal -- and without a throw. That's pretty impressive."

Fluke stolen bases aside, those two examples represented the only instances the Red Sox swung at the first pitch in the first 4 1/3 innings of the game. In a stroke of irony, when Bay swung and missed on the first pitch of his fifth-inning at-bat, he ended up striking out looking on a slider on the inside corner.

The Red Sox just don't swing at the first pitch.

"That’s one of the few pet peeves I have as a hitting coach: Unless you’re doing a lot of damage on the 0-0 count, I don’t want guys swinging at the first pitch," hitting coach Dave Magadan said a couple of weeks ago. "Now, I want guys up there ready to hit on the first pitch. If you get a good pitch to hit, I want you to hit it and drive it. But if you’re hitting .270 on the first pitch with a .500 OPS, you’re not doing a good job. If you’re hitting .270, that’s what your on-base percentage is because you’re putting the first pitch in play."

One guy who has done a lot of damage on the 0-0 count, however, is Victor Martinez. So far this season, entering play Wednesday, the catcher was hitting .341 and slugging .526 when he swings at the first pitch. Since his trade to the Red Sox, he was hitting .375.

But that's not the only reason he took a hack at the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the seventh inning. He was pinch-hitting for George Kottaras with the bases loaded and one out and a back-and-forth game tied at 4.

Sure, righty Danys Baez had just walked Mike Lowell on four pitches to load the bases. But that only gave Martinez more reason to swing away: If there ever was a time for a pitcher to groove a first pitch, this was the time.

"Pinch-hitting is not for everybody," Bay said. "I was once told by somebody who pitch-hit quite a bit: 'There's no working the count as a pinch-hitter. You've got to be ready right from the get-go. You've got to hit that first pitch because it might be the only one you get.'"

Martinez got a fastball on the outer half of the plate, and he stroked it right up the gap in left-center field to clear the bases and hand the back end of the Red Sox bullpen a three-run lead.

(The last time Martinez pinch-hit, he came up against Chicago's Matt Thornton on Aug. 25 with Nick Green at second base. He took a rip at the first pitch he saw from Thornton, another first-pitch fastball, and drilled a line-drive single to left field.)

“Mikey Lowell walked on four straight pitches,’’ Martinez said. “I told myself that he’s going to try to throw a strike right here and just look for the good pitch to hit."

The Red Sox aren't a team that likes to swing at the first pitch. When they do, though, they're dangerous: No team in the major leagues has an OPS higher than their 1.067.

On Wednesday, it won them the game.

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