Earlier this week on Viva El Birdos, Alex (@alexcards79) dug up exactly how bad the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals were in the first inning. In short, the Cardinals starting staff had an ERA of 5.33 in the first inning, better than only Reds and Braves in the NL. The offense didn’t fare well either, as their 0.43 average runs in the first is well below the MLB average runs per inning of about 0.55.
These poor starts led to an average first inning deficit of -0.19 runs. That might not sound like a lot, but it was the second worst mark in the MLB. An early deficit is an absolute killer to a team’s win probability, and it’s really a surprise that the Cardinals still managed to win 86 games starting this poorly.
The Cardinals struggles in the first reminded me of a recent FanGraphs article in which Dave Cameron argued in favor of the evidence for starting a reliever in the first inning of away games.
According to his research, road starters are about 30 wOBA points worse than their home counterparts in the first inning. That difference is cut in half after the first inning. By ERA, away teams were more than a full run worse than home teams in the first inning. After the first inning, they cut the deficit to only 0.26 runs.
This performance gap might result from a “cool down” effect. It is support for road teams to start a relief pitcher to face the first batter, which would allow the “starter” to finish his warmup as normal and enter the game to face the second batter of the first inning.
Those two articles overlap a bit, but I wanted to look specifically at Adam Wainwright using ideas from each. Wainwright has had noted first inning struggles throughout his career: he owns a 3.79 ERA in the first inning and a 3.06 ERA in all others, a difference of nearly three-quarters of a run. But does he really have a first inning problem, or does he just suffer the same “cool down” effect as everyone else?
On the road, Wainwright has an ERA of 4.39 in the first inning and 3.40 after the second. So, while he is significantly worse in the first inning on the road than all other road innings, that one run difference is no worse than the MLB average. Sure, he’s impacted by the “cool down” effect, but not more than anyone else.
What about at home? The NL teams owned a 4.09 first inning home ERA last season, compared to 3.96 in every other inning. There is very little effect at home, which makes sense since the home starter doesn’t cool down in the dugout after finishing his warmup – instead, he trots straight out to the mound.
Adam Wainwright, on the other hand, sports a 3.21 ERA at home in the first inning, compared to a 2.75 ERA after the first.
No one’s complaining about a 3.21 ERA in the first inning, but a half run difference does show that he struggles a little more than average to settle in early on. There’s no evidence that this problem persists into the second or third inning, though: his home ERA in the second and third drops to 2.49. On the road, it drops from 4.39 to 3.33.
Yet, while it looks like Wainwright settles in after the first, it’s more due to quality of hitters faced. In the first inning, you’re always facing a team’s best hitters. During the second and third, you’re more likely to face the second half of the order. In fact, starters in the NL saw their ERA drop 0.80 runs from the first to the second and third. Adam Wainwright doesn’t “settle in” more than the average NL starter, he just faces worse hitters in the second and third.
So, instead of talking about how poorly Wainwright pitches in the first before he “settles in,” the narrative should be on his endurance and focus to maintain effectiveness deep into games. From the sixth to ninth innings, he is nearly two runs better than the average MLB starter.
Additionally, the average MLB starter is nearly a half run worse in the sixth to ninth than during the first to fifth. Adam Wainwright, however, is actually about one-third of a run better from the sixth inning on, with a sparkling 1.68 ERA in the eighth and ninth.
Earlier this week, I argued that the “Jhonny Peralta thumb injury narrative” needs to be stopped. The evidence doesn’t support the story. While today was more of a high level exercise, it certainly appears that the narrative that Adam Wainwright struggles more than anyone else in the first inning has very little support. It only looks like he struggles more than usual in the first because of how dominant he is in late innings. So, instead of talking about his “poor first innings,” let’s celebrate his elite ability to close out games.