Striking first

If you’ve been following the Indians closely this year, you’ve undoubtedly heard manager Manny Acta go on and on (and on) about the importance of first-pitch strikes.

When asked the difference between this year and last year (as a whole; we all know about that second-half success), Acta is always quick to go back to that favorite topic. First-pitch strikes are up and so is the performance of Cleveland’s pitching staff.

But just how many first-pitch strikes are the Indians shooting for from their arms?

“You always want to be over 60 percent as a staff,” Acta said recently. “If it happens as a staff, you’re in business. It’s tough even to get it as a staff at 60 percent.”

Entering Monday, here’s how the op of the American League looked in that regard:

First-pitch strike percentage
1. Seattle 61
2. Baltimore 60
3. Los Angeles 60
4. Boston 59
5. Chicago 59
6. Cleveland 59
League average: 58

So the Indians are a touch under Acta’s goal of 60 percent. For what it’s worth, last year’s AL postseason teams were each at 58 or higher: Twins (62), Tampa Bay (59), Texas (59) and New York (58). A year ago, Cleveland’s staff was at 56 percent overall for the entire season.

Another area to look at is overall strike percentage. This season, the Indians are doing well in that department as well.

Strike percentage
1. Seattle 64
2. Los Angeles 63
3. Chicago 63
4. Cleveland 63
5. New York 63

Also…

Pitches per plate appearance
1. Tampa Bay 3.72
2. Seattle 3.74
3. Chicago 3.75
4. Cleveland 3.76

Interestingly enough, the Indians are tied for first in the AL with a 73-percent swung-at-strike percentage (percentage of swings at all strikes — simple enough) and with 46-percent rate of swings at all pitches. Plus, Cleveland’s 112 walks were tied for fewest in the AL.

So what does it all mean?

Well, the Indians are peppering the strike zone early and often, drawing swings, inducing contact and minimizing the self-created damage. With one of the league’s top-rated defenses playing behind them, the pitchers are enticing hitters to swing and trusting the plays will be made.

That’s a big reason for the Indians’ strong start.

Good strike percentages don’t always portend low ERA, however. Consider the Oakland A’s (playing in that spacious ballpark), who are below or at league average in strike percentage, first-pitch strike percentage and pitches per PA. In fact, Oakland is tied for the lowest first-pitch K% (56) in the AL at the moment.

And yet, here is the AL ERA and WHIP leaderboards:

AL staff ERA
1. Oakland 2.72
2. Los Angeles 3.33
3. Tampa Bay 3.38
4. Cleveland 3.49
5. New York 3.81

AL staff WHIP
1. Tampa Bay 1.221
2. Los Angeles 1.225
3. Oakland 1.238
4. Cleveland 1.246
5. Seattle 1.298

If you’re curious about Cleveland’s individual strikethrowers, Josh Tomlin is the team’s top performer. He leads the Tribe with a 64-percent first-pitch strike rate (8th in the AL) and a 68-percent strike rate (2nd in the AL). Others: Justin Masterson (56 FPK/64K%), Fausto Carmona (60/63), Carlos Carrasco (61/61), Alex White (60/61) and Mitch Talbot (48/62).

Acta is quick to praise his coaches for the improvement this season.

“Baseball is repetition,” Acta said. “[pitching coach] Tim Belcher and [Bullpen coach] Scott Radinsky deserve as much credit as anybody here. This thing started last year from Spring Training, but it takes time, especially for young guys to buy into it and get it done. They never stopped preaching it. They never got impatient. They just kept at it. The second half of the season we saw some results. Then, the guys, once they see the results, they by into it more and want to do it.

“It was just a very small percentage of first-pitch strikes that  made that huge difference in the second half of the season. They both have been tremendous. They know how to deal with these kids. They’re patient wwhen they have to be patient. They’re straight forward when they have to be straight forward. They do a tremendous job.”

I’m not going to be in KC. I’ll catch up with the team in Chicago on Thursday.

Until then…

–JB

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