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1st inning woes plagued Cardinals pitching in 2016

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Or, why Cardinals fans were often angry before the 2nd inning.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There were 1,371 runs scored in the 1st inning in the National League last season, easily the most for any inning. The 6th inning was next with 69 fewer runs. And a total of 320 runs separated the amount scored in the 1st inning versus the 2nd. This is not a new phenomenon. Here’s an almost six-year old article from Jacob Peterson at Beyond the Box Score detailing how more runs had been scored in the 1st inning as compared to the 2nd going back ten seasons. For all the seasons since, same thing, and it’s never really been all that close.

Three hundred and twenty runs is a staggering difference, but the very principle that more runs will be scored in the 1st inning as opposed to the others shouldn’t be a huge surprise. In the NL, it’s the inning where the pitcher’s spot, a near-automatic out (-15 wRC+ in 5,322 plate appearances last season), is least likely to come up. In fact, pitchers only made 47 plate appearances in the first inning last season, and, as Peterson noted, when that does happen that means the offense is likely putting some crooked numbers up on the board. And, of course, teams naturally stack the first few spots in the lineup with some of their best hitters. To that end I’ve been openly giddy about the potential for a Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz, Matt Carpenter 1-2-3 punch to lead off games.

So almost every team has a tendency to put more runs on the board in the 1st inning. But the number is so much higher that it’s pretty easy to wonder if almost every teams’ starting pitchers, for whatever reason, are also a bit worse in the 1st inning. For example, Adam Wainwright has thrown 254 1st innings and his career ERA in the opening frame is well above his career mark (3.79 vs. 3.17). Beyond what’s detailed in the above paragraph, I have no idea why this is the case for Wainwright, or any other pitcher for that matter, and if the answer is out there it’s likely well beyond my pay grade. But what I do know is Wainwright especially struggled with the 1st inning in 2016 (5.45 ERA) as did the entire Cardinals staff relative to the rest of the league.

In 2016 the overall NL ERA was 4.17. In the 1st inning that predictably ballooned to 4.73. The Cardinals had an unsightly 5.33 ERA to open each game, behind only the lowly NL company of the Reds and Braves. I noted Wainwright’s 1st inning ERA above, here’s how the rest of the primary staff fared:

  • Carlos Martinez - 2.32
  • Mike Leake - 4.50
  • Michael Wacha - 5.62
  • Jaime Garcia - 7.80

There’s more. The 2016 Cardinals walked 61 batters in the 1st inning, tied for the most with the 8th inning. Their 2.16 strikeout to walk ratio in the 1st inning was easily worse than the other eight. And opposing hitters had a .354 on-base percentage while the Cardinals were trying to record their first three outs of the game. Again, the worst mark for all nine innings.

Opposing hitters also had a .336 batting average on balls in play against the Cardinals in the 1st inning, the worst mark in the NL, which probably didn’t help their 1st inning strand rate - 66.5%, second worst in the NL behind the Braves (66.1%). This leads to a theme I’ve casually looked at before and that’s whether Cardinals pitchers, when comparing ERA versus FIP, just didn’t have the best luck in 2016. From that standpoint, take a look at the Cardinals’ ERA versus FIP in the 1st inning compared to the rest of the NL (starting with the worst ERA and working downward):

That’s a pretty steep valley created by the Cardinals’ underperforming their FIP (4.10) in the 1st inning, and the 1.23 gap was the largest in the league. A bit more of a convergence of those numbers in 2017 should be expected, certainly preferred.

The inconvenient question is why does this even matter and I’m not entirely sure that it does. Obviously runs allowed in the 1st inning count just as they would if they were surrendered in the 6th or 7th inning. And unlike the 6th inning - the second most prolifically scored inning in baseball - the 1st inning problem doesn’t have a speculative solution. By that I mean, runs scored in the 6th inning can often be chalked up to leaving the starter in for too long, allowing him to face the top of the order for a third time.

I covered a lot of this here but to paraphrase, in 2016 opposing batters had 1,061 plate appearances against Cardinal starters when it was their third time through the order - the second most in the NL behind the Nationals. Hitters also put up an .848 OPS against Cardinal starters in the 6th inning, 68 points higher than the next closest inning (the 1st inning, of course). Mike Matheny simply let his starters pitch an inning too long one too many times. However, unless Matheny is going to be some kind of a revolutionary with the bullpen in 2017, the starter sort of has to pitch the 1st inning, and even with an offseason spent fawning over the idea of Andrew Miller, it’s probably preferable that he does.

The last interesting tidbit on this subject is that while the Cardinals were surrendering more runs in the 1st inning than the other innings, and while the rest of the league was more or less doing the same, the Cardinals’ offense - which we all know was pretty great! - was not participating in this established trend. For innings 1 through 9, the Cardinals offense scored their least amount of runs in the 1st. In fact, in 2016, the average score for a Cardinals game after the 1st inning was as follows:

Cardinals: 0.43

Other team: 0.62

That might answer the question as to why this even matters: It’s psychologically taxing on the fans and ideally this season we won’t all be in a bad mood by the 2nd inning.

Credit to Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs Splits Leaderboards for most of the stats in this post.