What's the best pitch in baseball? According to my American Legion coach, the answer is Strike 1. That's right, the best pitch in baseball is not Jim Hoey's 97 MPH fastball painting the black on the lower outside corner; it's not Bert Blyleven's curveball that buckled and humiliated right-handed batters for decades, and it's not Frankie V's change-up that helped propel the 1987 Twins to the World Series. Getting ahead in the count consistently is a better advantage than any one type of pitch in a hurler's arsenal.
Now, let's be clear: I am not suggesting that Twins pitchers should throw a first-pitch strike to every hitter, every game. We saw last night that Liriano got in trouble at the end of his outing, giving up 2 first-pitch home runs. He was tiring, he could not locate his pitches as well, and the Orioles made him pay. Major league batters and coaches are adept at catching onto trends and patterns, and it wouldn't take all game for them to realize that our pitcher has just thrown a belt-high, first pitch fastball to 25 batters in a row. I am, however, suggesting that the Twins do preach the right mentality in teaching and demanding control--specifically first-pitch strikes, from their throwers. And haven't we seen it from the other side, as well: How many Twins fans and bloggers have commented at the fat first pitches that Joe Mauer almost always takes for strikes, thus beginning many at-bats in the hole?
In 2010, Fransisco Liriano threw a first pitch strike to 61.7 % of batters faced. That is the highest such percentage of his career. The second highest figure for Liriano was in 2006, when he threw 60.5 % first pitch strikes. Unquestionably, those were Liriano's two best years in the big leagues, and certainly, he had many other things going for him, such as good velocity and that killer slider. But getting that first pitch strike on a consistent basis allowed Liriano to work ahead in the count, and allowed him leeway to work off the plate. This last statement is underscored by the fact that, in 2010, Liriano got opposing hitters to swing at 34.4 % of pitches outside of the strike zone. That figure, far and away, has been Liriano's career high. Regardless of whether the batter makes contact with those pitches swung at outside of the strike zone, common sense dictates that the batting average on those particular balls put in play is going to be relatively low.
So far, in 2011, Liriano has thrown first pitch strikes to just 49.5 % of opposing hitters, and hitters are swinging at 26 % of his pitches out of the strike zone. To be fair, these are small sample sizes, but for anyone that has watched Liriano pitch, he has been wild, has walked many batters (5 last night against one of the worst lineups in the American League), and has been working behind in the count so often that it often becomes uncomfortable watching him. Increasing his control on the first pitch (but not throwing meatballs) is the surest way for Liriano to regain his 2010 form. Starting 0-1 on two of every three batters achieves several things: it gives batters one less strike to wait for, thus decreasing their selectivity; it constitutes one less strike Liriano has to throw to get a K, which, as a power pitcher, he will hopefully do fairly often; it will lead to fewer walks; and it allows Liriano to expand the strike zone, thus inducing swings-and-misses on balls off the plate, and those weak choppers and pop-ups that we all love seeing.
Just for comparison, here are the 2010 first strike percentages of Roy Halladay (67.3%), and Felix Hernandez (61.1 %), the 2010 Cy Young award winners. When he is "on," as he was for a long stretch last year, I put Liriano's "stuff" right up there with these guys'. One step towards achieving ace status, then, is to start taking command of that strike zone on the first pitch. Get in the driver's seat, Frankie!