Judging the Royals

Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez and the first inning

Edinson Volquez walked off the mound as Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost (right) and catcher Salvador Perez (center) looked down on Wednesday.
Edinson Volquez walked off the mound as Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost (right) and catcher Salvador Perez (center) looked down on Wednesday. The Associated Press

Since the dawn of time mankind has been plagued by three problems: hunger, thirst and bad first innings by starting pitchers.

On Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays, Edinson Volquez provided the latest example. In the bottom of the first inning Volquez threw 30 pitches and gave up a double, a single, a sac fly, a single, a balk, a home run, a triple and four runs.

Since the Royals weren’t going to score at all, the game was pretty much over after one inning. If you stuck with it until the end, you saw the Rays beat the Royals 12-0. When a team gets shutout and gives up a dozen runs it’s hard to find a turning point; after that first inning the Royals were never in it.

So let’s take a look at first innings.

Lots of pitchers struggle in the first inning; even Hall of Famers

As you might have noticed, Edinson Volquez struggles in the first inning. Over his career, hitters have put up a .266 batting average against him in the first inning; in the second inning that number goes down to .233. This year those numbers are worse: .301 in the first, .241 in the second.

But it’s not just Volquez that struggles in the first inning. As a team the Royals have the same problem; they allow a batting average of .278 in the first inning and it goes down to .228 in the second.

Now guess who else had first-inning problems: Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver.

I randomly picked some Hall of Fame pitchers to see what their numbers were and Maddux, Ryan and Seaver all scuffled in the first inning; after that their opponent’s batting averages dropped for the next eight innings. (On the other hand, “scuffled” is a pretty strong word for what these guys did; Ryan’s opponents hit .221 in the first inning, .196 in the second.)

Nevertheless, the pattern is clear: lots of pitchers — even Hall of Famers — scuffle in the first inning.

Some theories on why pitchers have a hard time getting started

The first reason is pretty obvious: the best hitters are at the top of the lineup. Get through the first inning and you’re probably pitching to the middle or bottom of the order.

The other reasons are a little less obvious and I never would have thought about them if I didn’t get to talk to big-league ballplayers — or big-league groundskeepers.

I’ve been told that some teams make sure the visiting bullpen mounds differ from the game mound (I’ve also been assured that the Royals don’t do this). Nobody is going to let me go throw off a bullpen mound and then throw off the game mound, so I’ve got no way of verifying this, but it sure sounds possible.

If a bullpen mound is steeper or not as high or softer or harder than the game mound, it might take a visiting pitcher more time to adjust.

And even if the mounds are identical, pitchers will tell you things change when a batter steps into the box. Once the bell rings, a pitcher might feel a surge of adrenaline, overthrow and lose his feel for the right mechanics. After Wednesday night’s game ,that’s what Edinson Volquez said; he was over-amped and had a hard time controlling the ball.

We’ve all heard that if you’re going to get to a good pitcher, you better get to him early. Let him settle in, get used to the game mound and find his rhythm and it’s going to be a long night.

Another disadvantage for a pitcher on the road

I’ve touched on this one before, but it’s worth repeating: Chris Young once said that relief pitchers have an advantage — they go straight to the mound once they finish warming up. Wade Davis was listening to us and agreed; he said that’s one reason starting pitchers have a worse ERA on the road.

When a pitcher warms up he wants to get hot (Baseball-ese for ready to pitch), but not too hot. And once he’s hot the pitcher doesn’t want to cool down.

So if you’re pitching on the road and finish your warmups in the bullpen, you then have to sit in the dugout and watch the top of the first inning. And if the top of the first inning is a long one, the visiting pitcher can cool back down again. Then that pitcher has to get used to the mound, find his mechanics and get warmed up again and he’s got eight pitches to get all that done.

Explanations, not excuses

None of this excuses a pitcher going out and blowing up in the first inning. Every starting pitcher has to deal with this stuff and some of them deal with it better than others. But it’s worth knowing why pitchers struggle in the first inning; it makes those struggles more understandable.

Ian Kennedy pitches Thursday’s day game and if he gets lit up in the first inning, now you might know why.