CarGo, Tulo not afraid to let it rip
Silver Sluggers have had success swinging at the first pitch
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Standing in the batter's box against Giants pitching genius Tim Lincecum isn't fun, so Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez decided Monday he didn't want to do it any longer than necessary.
"He threw me a first-pitch sinker away, and all I needed was a groundball to bring the run home from third," Gonzalez said. "That was a successful at-bat, and I got an infield hit that got the run home for the team."
Last year, Gonzalez's aggressiveness on first pitches paid off in a .443 average and nine home runs, second only to the initial-offering homers by the Rangers' Vladimir Guerrero, according to STATS Inc. It's the same philosophy as that followed by the Rockies' other key offensive player, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki who has a career .388 average with 23 homers on the first pitch.
But if any of Gonzalez's early hacking had occurred a few years ago, when he was a prospect in the D-backs' system, even if it had earned him a hit, it also would have earned him punishment.
"I remember A.J. Hinch was the Minor League director and our manager was Brett Butler, and our rule was for everybody in the lineup the first at-bat was to take a strike," Gonzalez said. "I got in trouble a few times, and they took me out of the game. I remember hitting doubles on the first pitch of the first at-bat, and them taking me out of the game right there. I was 1-for-1."
There is a place for taking first pitches, but aggressive and successful hitters like Gonzalez and Tulowtizki believe it can be overrated.
"Just watch around the league and when a lot of good hitters get a strike, they let go and swing," Tulowitzki said. "I don't see any reason to be timid or taking pitches. I want to get my swings in. I have three strikes to work with, so why give them one?"
Tulowitzki also experienced a highly publicized push-back over his first-pitch philosophy in 2009. Tulowitzki grounded into a double play on the first pitch in a game in Atlanta. Then-manager Clint Hurdle, acknowledging Tulowitzki's at-bat wasn't the first one in a rough offensive stretch, issued a punitive benching as a message to the team. At the time, though, Tulowitzki was hitting .471 on first pitches.
The Rockies replaced Hurdle with Jim Tracy days later.
Tulowitzki understands there are risks, but he stands by his philosophy. Part of it is based on the fact he's facing the best pitchers in the world, who need to be punished for attacking the zone with strikes.
"Any good pitcher, if you ask him what the most important pitch in the game is, it's strike one," Tulowitzki said. "If you hear that as a hitter, it's obvious he's trying to get ahead of you. You don't want him to get ahead of you."
Tulowitzki and Gonzalez are able to unapologetically swing at first pitches, yet work counts. Tulowitzki finished 11th in the Majors last season with a .381 on-base percentage. Gonzalez was 13th at .376.
The key is swinging at strikes that the hitter can do something with -- something Tulowitzki and Gonzalez did quite well last season. According to STATS Inc., Tulowitzki put 20.8 percent of first pitches in play and Gonzalez put 20.2 percent in play, to rank 26th and 33rd in baseball, respectively.
Of course, putting the first pitch in play didn't work for every Rockies hitter. Other Rockies who ranked in baseball's top 100 in the category were Clint Barmes (30th), Seth Smith (49th), Miguel Olivo (64th), Dexter Fowler (76th), Ian Stewart (90th) and Todd Helton (97th), and all had their struggles.
Over his career, Helton has succeeded with a balance of patience and aggression. He has a .397 career first-pitch average, and has put it in play 14 percent of the time. And his .4235 career on-base percentage in any situation is second among active players to the .4258 of the Cardinals' Albert Pujols.
New hitting coach Carney Lansford said he believes in making pitchers pay for attacking the strike zone on the first pitch. However, swinging at bad first pitches is a no-no. Lansford called a meeting around the midpoint of Spring Training about selectivity, or lack thereof, on the initial offering.
"As long as it's a quality pitch you're swinging at, I don't have a problem with guys doing it, but swinging at a pitch in the dirt on the first pitch is not good," Lansford said. "Plus, it sends a message to the pitcher, 'We're ready to swing.'"
In defense of the then-D-backs' policy that Gonzalez ran afoul of, one Lansford doesn't believe is necessary, many organizations have placed restrictions on hitters early in counts to teach strike zone discipline, to varying degrees of success.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, Major League hitters posted a .334 average with 769 home runs when putting the first pitch in play, numbers that speak for themselves.
According to player development diector Marc Gustafson, the Rockies "highly emphasize" on-base percentage, leading off the inning by getting on base and walk-strikeout ratio, but have never had a policy requiring players to take first pitches. To do so, some of their prized prospects, Tulowitzki included, have hit in the leadoff spot at Double-A to teach pitch selection. At the big-league level, Lansford believes in aggressiveness, but to a point.
"I will say if the first two hitters swing early in the count, then there's a pretty good chance our guy is going to have to take a strike," Lansford said. "Or if Dexter [Fowler] swings at the first pitch to lead off the game, the No. 2 hitter is going to have to take a strike. Somebody's got to see some pitches. We've got to use our heads with common sense."
There is a tradition of first-pitch swinging for the Rockies. Larry Walker, during his illustrious career, put the ball in play on the first pitch 21 percent of the time. When Matt Holliday, now with the Cardinals, lifted the 2007 Rockies to the World Series, he hit .470 with 13 home runs and 36 RBIs on the first pitch, which he put in play 18 percent of the time.
"Holliday stands out, getting a chance to watch how he hits," Tulowitzki said. "Ryan Braun [of the Brewers] is another one. We talk a lot about hitting. If you get a strike over the plate, you can't be afraid because it's the first pitch."
There are hitters who can confidently let early pitches go by. Gonzalez mentioned a fellow Venezuelan, the Angels' Bobby Abreu. But the freer-swinging approach works for him.
"I'm always going to be aggressive," Gonzalez said. "I always remember there are going to be three strikes. I don't like giving up one."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.