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JJ Hardy vs. Chase Utley, A Waiting Game

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What do Brewers shortstop JJ Hardy and Phillies second baseman Chase Utley have in common? Well, they're both middle infielders, they both grew up in the Southwest, they both made their major league debuts on April 4, and both have only played for one major league franchise, but I'm not looking for any of those.

Instead, I want to point out their shared patience. Specifically, their shared patience on 0-0 counts. Take a look at the major league leaders in this category, courtesy of the STATS.com leaderboards (through last night - any errors counting today's plate appearances are my own):

Lowest Percentage of Times Swung at the First Pitch

  • Chase Utley, 3.73 (5/134)
  • JJ Hardy, 3.79 (5/132)
  • Adam Lind, 9.62 (15/156)
  • Chris Getz, 9.80 (10/102)
  • Franklin Gutierrez, 9.83 (12/122)
  • David Eckstein, 9.86 (14/142)
  • Kevin Youkilis, 10.91 (12/110)
  • Dustin Pedroia, 11.32 (18/159)
  • Bobby Abreu, 11.35 (16/141)
  • Endy Chavez, 11.57 (14/121)

The difference between Utley and Hardy and the rest of the league is pretty jarring. Utley flew out on the first pitch in the 8th inning of today's game. That was the first time he'd swung at the first pitch in a plate appearance since he fouled off a Seth McClung offering...on April 21. That was 80 plate appearances before today's fly out. His only other first pitch put in play was a single off Shairon Martis on April 16.

What about Hardy? He batted four times today and took the first pitch each time. Maybe he's got the right idea, as he hasn't found success swinging at pitch #1 this year. His five such swings:
  • April 18 vs. Johan Santana: Groundout to SS
  • April 21 vs. Jamie Moyer: Groundout to SS
  • April 30 vs. Jon Rauch: Flyout to LF
  • May 3 vs. Yusmeiro Petit: Strike swinging
  • May 9 vs. Ryan Dempster: Strike swinging
Lest you think Hardy is having a fluky year, know he's always been hesitant to swing at the first pitch. Over 1965 career plate appearances, he's swung at the first pitch 9% of the time, compared to the MLB average of 26%. His most hacktastic year was his rookie season in 2005, when he swung at 12% of first pitches. In his injury-abbreviated 2006 season, he swung at only 3% of first pitches faced.

Hardy's competition at the top this year hasn't always been quite so tentative. Utley has swung at 18% of first pitches faced over his career, with a high of 24% in 2004 and low of 15% in 2008. I wonder what has made him so patient this year. If Utley reverts to form, Hardy will soon end up being far ahead of the pack in first pitch patience.

So if pitchers know Utley and Hardy aren't swinging at the first pitch this year, are they pounding the zone to get ahead 0-1? Looking at each player's splits by count (specifically the After 0-1 and After 1-0 splits), it would seem not. Hardy has seen 70 balls and 57 called strikes on the first pitch. Utley is a bit more complicated since he's taken 4 first pitch HBP's and fouled off three first pitches, but he has seen 66 balls and 62 called strikes (STATS says Utley has one more PA than Baseball-Reference does). It certainly doesn't seem like pitchers are taking advantage of a "free" strike.

Finally, a word about the Brewers' other first pitch taker. Light-hitting catcher Jason Kendall has swung at 16 of 121 first pitches this year, or 13.22%. He has also been pretty patient over his career, swinging at only 12% of pitches to start an AB. His low was 3% in his final year with the Pirates and his career high is 18%, done in 1998 and 2008. If you ever see Hardy and Kendall swinging at the first pitch in the same inning, or even the same game, something strange is going on.