Jeremy Guthrie & The Important First Pitch

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Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

For most pitchers, it’s important to get ahead of batters early. We often hear about how important getting that first-pitch strike can be, and the numbers bear that out. After an 0-1 count this year, AL batters had a .600 OPS, compared to .794 after 1-0. Those numbers are similar for the Orioles, who had a .601 OPS after 0-1, and an .842 OPS after 1-0. Like other teams, the Orioles prefer to be ahead in the count.

Typically, this kind of trend will result in pitchers making sure they throw a ball in the zone, and since the easiest pitch to control is a fastball, you’ll see a lot of them thrown on the first pitch. However, the Orioles are an aggressive team, and if they see a pitch in the zone, they’re going to be hacking. They also have a lot of power up and down the lineup, so leaving a first-pitch fastball in the middle of the zone can be extremely dangerous.

On the first pitch of a plate appearance, the Orioles had an OPS of .977, over 100 points better than the league average in an 0-0 count. The Orioles were also one of the league’s best teams against fastballs, with a Pitchf/x run value of 28.3 runs above average on fourseamers.

In other words, giving the Orioles fastballs in the zone on the first pitch may not be a great idea.

Enter Jeremy Guthrie, tonight’s starting pitcher for the Royals. Guthrie’s fastball rated out a little better this season than it had previously, but it still was far from a plus pitch. He throws it harder than some may think – averaging just a bit over 92 MPH – but there’s not a ton of movement, meaning he relies on spotting the pitch extremely well.

Because Guthrie doesn’t have electric stuff, he has to be fairly aggressive by trying to get ahead early in the count, shown by his first-pitch strike rate of 63.1%. He can’t risk falling into too many hitters’ counts, because he doesn’t have any swing-and-miss offerings to help him get a strike back, without coming back into the strike zone.

You may think this sounds like a recipe for disaster against the Orioles, but there are some things Guthrie does that could help his cause.

Against right-handed batters, Guthrie mixes his pitches very well on the first pitch, throwing a fourseam fastball, sinker, and slider all around 30% of the time. While none of those pitches grade out at an elite level, that kind of variety may keep the Orioles from gearing up for a first-pitch fastball every time up, and any alterations to their timing could induce the always-desirable weak contact.

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The Orioles’ main power threats are all right-handed, and Guthrie has done a fairly good job of keeping those bats down. Opposing righties had just a .270 wOBA against Guthrie this year, which was the the 4th-best mark in the league among qualified starters, and on par with Nationals’ starter Jordan Zimmermann. Some of that credit has to go to the Royals’ defense, but Guthrie also kept righties from squaring up too many pitches, with a line drive rate of only 16.3% and a home run per fly ball rate of 3.6%.

Combine that with a team that likes to swing the bat a lot, and Guthrie may be able to not only get weak contact, but he might do so in fewer pitches, which could make it easier to bridge the gap to the Royals’ Cerberus at the back of the bullpen. I still wouldn’t want to let Guthrie go too long, but anytime fewer pitching changes are needed, it’s a good thing.

Guthrie is a bit more reliant on his fastball on the first pitch when he’s facing a lefty, but he’ll also mix in a curveball and changeup on occasion, so even guys like Nick Markakis and Alejandro De Aza won’t be able to completely tee off. Guthrie’s much worse against left-handed batters, allowing a .364 wOBA, so he’ll need to be very careful facing the few lefties in that Orioles lineup.

There’s no question that this could be a difficult game for the Royals. They’ve got their 5th best starter going up against one of the better lineups in the league. Guthrie has a tendency to give up a lot of home runs, and the Orioles have a tendency to hit a lot of home runs. Guthrie likes to get ahead in the count, and the Orioles have done a lot of damage on the first pitch.

It’s still going to be important for him to get ahead early, but he’ll need to do so in creative ways. If he can keep the Orioles guessing by mixing his pitches well, and making sure he doesn’t leave anything over the heart of the plate, Guthrie could help put the Royals just one win away from the World Series.

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