As he wrapped up a phenomenal year, one that could come with a few Cy Young votes, Mike Minor’s 200th strikeout on the season came with a bit of controversy Thursday afternoon:

Those who had the biggest issue with the intentionally dropped pop up were seemingly Red Sox beat writers, who, at this point in the Sox season, have nothing left to write about:

Of which, Mike Minor himself rightfully told one them to eat his shorts in his 4th tweet ever:

It doesn’t matter at all, and certainly doesn’t pertaint to the article, but my opinion on this is that it’s all stupid. Minor wanted 200 strikeouts and it changes nothing. People, Sox beat writers especially, apparently, just like to whine. However, some new information was introduced to the “scandal” after the game, when the Rangers said they had thought the Red Sox were trying to spoil Minor’s chances at the milestone:

On Thursday afternoon, the Red Sox, as a team, swung at 17 of the 37 first pitches in the at bat, a 46% clip. Over the past 2 seasons under Alex Cora, they’ve swung at 28.2% of first pitches, so the Rangers may have been onto something. Now, there’s no way to prove whether or not the Sox did this intentionally without someone from the club saying it outright, but that doesn’t mean we can’t investigate how possible it is that the Sox would have such a high 1st pitch swing rate in a game without some ulterior motive.

Hitter By Hitter

If we think about it in terms of swing and no swing, a first pitch only has two possibilities. That means we can analyze those possibilities and probability using a binomial distribution, which has only two outcomes –  success/yes/true/one & failure/no/false/zero.

If we consider a swing on the first pitch as a trial “success” [1] and no swing as a “failure” [0], the Red Sox, as a team, have a first-pitch swing probability of 0.282. Given the 37 first pitches (37 total trials) and the trial success probability (0.282), the cumulative binomial probability of 17 or more hitters swinging at the first pitch is a measly 1.6% chance. That, at the very least, makes this whole thing very interesting.

If you want to take just 2019, the Sox first pitch swing rate goes to 0.296, which makes that 1.6% probability jump to 2.6%. In the second half, the team rate went to 0.297, which results in a 2.7% chance of 17+ first pitch swings. No matter how you slice it, a 46% rate of 37 trials is abnormally high for this team under this manager.

Game By Game

What if we don’t analyze each hitter individually, but rather the Red Sox as a team, game by game? The 46% first pitch swings on Thursday afternoon would mark the 5th highest Red Sox single game rate since hiring Cora:

Out of 317 games, that mark is in the top 1.6% of games.

It is, however, not the highest mark, which means there is a possibility that all of this is coincidental. Could it have been part of a bigger strategy?

Potential Strategy?

From a game planning standpoint, there are 2 major possibilities why a team may want to swing more than they normally would on the first pitch against a specific pitcher:

  1. The pitcher throws a high rate of pitches in the zone on 0-0
  2. The pitcher gets hit hard on 0-0, for whatever reason

If any of these seemingly could be the case, I’ll dive deeper

Let’s see if, historically, Cora’s Red Sox have game planned in such a way.

Over the last 2 years, the Red Sox have not drastically altered the way they approach the first pitch by starting pitcher Zone%, so that being the justification of that potential “strategy” against Minor on Thursday wouldn’t hold up, regardless of what his Minor’s Zone% is, because the Sox don’t have a track record of doing such a thing. Even if we isolate the heart of strike zone, the correlation between Heart% on first pitches and Red Sox team swing% on first pitches isn’t strong enough to say that it could have been a strategic choice on Thursday.

How about the quality of contact allowed by the pitcher on first pitches? Do the Red Sox historically game plan for that?

Definitely no correlation there. All-in-all, there doesn’t seem to be a strong, pitcher-dependent, strategic reason for the Red Sox first pitch swing tendencies in the Alex Cora era based on the few small examinations above. Of course, there is infinite amounts of data and ways to break this down, including hitter/pitcher tendencies, etc, but that would require 10x the work, and based on what we’ve already found at the team level, may not produce any real findings.

Conclusion

Is doesn’t seem as though the Rangers were completely off base with their suspicions of the Red Sox and their attempt to block Minor’s achievement. The game did produce an abnormally high number of first-pitch swings for the Red Sox, and it isn’t unlike teams to play for silly things such as spoiling a pitcher milestone when they’ve recently becoming mathematically eliminated from the postseason.

The number’s say that there is a strong case to be made that this was in fact the Red Sox game plan against the Rangers on Thursday. However, given the fact that there have been games, however few, over the past 2 years that produced a higher first-pitch swing% for the team, it’s still very possible that it was coincidental as well. 

I’m putting my money on the fact that the Rangers were right, but we’ll never actually know for sure. Congrats to Mike Minor on his very impressive, 100% deserved, 200 strikeouts.

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