The Royals did it again. Last night, after falling behind in the 6th inning against the Indians, they somehow managed to scratch across enough runs to get the win and claw back to .500 and second place in the AL Central. This team seems to have a knack for coming back from a deficit. Of the club’s 34 wins so far this year, 23 have been comeback wins. Winning games is great, although the fact that the Royals have had to come back from deficits is slightly troubling. It’s also confusing when you take into account the fact that the pitching staff leads the league in ERA. Of course, having an offense that is among the worst in the league at scoring runs obviously doesn’t help matters, but what else is leading to them constantly having to dig out of early holes?
Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Royals’ pitchers have allowed 249 runs to score this season. Of those 249 runs, 43 have been allowed in the first inning. That is over 17% of the total, in roughly 11% of the innings. Obviously the numbers show the starters have been getting off to rough starts, which isn’t that surprising if you’ve watched many games this season. What you may not know is that of those 43 first inning runs, 8 have been unearned. For whatever reason, the league’s best defense (according to UZR) has been pretty bad in the first innings of games. The 35 earned runs give the starters a first inning ERA of 4.63. The next worst inning the starters have had problems in is the third, in which Royals pitchers have surrendered 34 runs, 32 of which were earned, good for an ERA of 4.24. See the table below for a breakdown of the rest of the innings.InningRunsEarned RunsERA
Overall, the pitching staff has been solid, with the exception of a couple of innings. To give you a better idea of who are the biggest culprits when it comes to digging holes in that troublesome first inning, I decided to look at each starter’s numbers.Pitcher1st inn. R1st inn. ER1st inn. ERAJames Shields
Shields has been the worst in the first inning this year, followed by Santana. Guthrie and Davis have been very good, although the defense has let Davis down, much like they’ve let him down in the rest of his innings. Santana’s high ERA appears to be an issue of allowing too many hits – 18 of them, to be exact – but only 3 of them have gone for extra bases, meaning teams have mostly strung together singles to get runs across the plate. The Royals may know a thing or two about that.
For me, Shields is the most interesting case. The television broadcasts have mentioned his first inning struggles several times this year. He’s allowed 3 home runs in first innings, while allowing 5 home runs in all of the other innings combined. His strikeout to walk ratio in the first is 1.67, which is his lowest ratio of any inning. He’s allowed 20 hits and 32 total bases in first innings. Prior to last night’s game, the next closest totals were 14 hits and 21 total bases in the third and fifth innings, respectively.
But what is it that is causing Shields to have so many difficulties in that first inning? My initial thought was to dismiss it as nothing more than a 15 inning small sample size. To some degree, that is fair, since I’d expect the ERA for that inning to go down as the year goes on. However, that pattern of starting poorly seems to be a common thread throughout his career. In 232 career first innings, Shields has surrendered 110 earned runs, which gives him a 4.27 ERA in that initial frame. His overall career ERA is 3.81, so not a huge difference, but he does seem to have a habit of getting in trouble early only to settle in and not allow much more the rest of the game. The only somewhat reasonable explanation for this that I can come up with is that Shields is a very intense guy, and he may just come out a little too fired up in those first innings, which could possibly lead to him serving up too many hittable pitches. After that initial adrenaline kick wears off, he settles down and does a better job of locating and mixing his pitches.
I don’t have any statistical evidence to prove that hypothesis, and I am fully aware that saying his struggles are more of a mental issue goes against my typically analytic method of evaluation. But since I don’t have the time (or, quite frankly, the energy) to dig through hundreds of games worth of pitch-by-pitch data, I’ll just run with it. If the front office can make claims without having any empirical evidence to support them, I think I can take some liberty with this one.
The Royals have been fortunate that their top 2 starters have been able to settle down after poor first innings, however. Shields and Santana have combined to allow 21 earned runs in their first innings, but have only allowed 1 earned run total in their second frames. A struggling offense like the Royals have can’t afford to get in too deep of a hole too early. They have come back from 5 runs down, but that isn’t something I’d bank on happening very often with this lineup.
Obviously we’d like to see the Royals not fall behind at all in the first inning, but if they do, it’s nice to have pitchers who won’t completely melt down after early struggles. This rotation is a welcome change from past years’ versions in that regard, and as long as they limit the damage in the first innings, then they’ll continue to give the offense more opportunities to come back and win games.