I’m sure I’m not the only person who noticed the Royals gave up a lot of runs in the first inning this season. Far too often, the team found itself in a hole from which they could not escape. Whether it was a single run or nine, it seemed like the Royals were constantly needing to claw their way back into the game before it even began.
In 52 games, they allowed at least one first-inning run. In 25 games, they allowed at least two runs before the first inning ended. The first wasn’t the only inning in which they struggled, but it certainly caused the biggest problems.
Compare that to the 2015 staff, which allowed at least one first-inning run in 40 games, and at least two runs 16 times. Last year’s team avoided those early deficits more often, and when they did fall behind, they came back to win 41 times.
Now, allowing runs in the first inning isn’t how you want to start a game, but if the opponent is going to score, you’d rather they do it early, so you have time to come back. Early deficits tend to lead to losses, but they lead to losses less frequently than later deficits. In other words, you can expect a team to have a higher winning percentage when trailing after the first than they would have when trailing after the eighth.
Last year, the Royals had a .343 winning percentage in games in which they were behind when the second inning started. While that’s not a high number, the team’s offensive firepower allowed them to overcome poor first innings from their starters.
This season, the Royals’ winning percentage in those games was a paltry .205. That’s what happens when you combine poor starting pitching with a thin lineup and an injury-riddled bullpen. The starters dug a hole, and the offense fell in head first.
It wasn’t just one pitcher who struggled early on, either. The only regular starter who had an ERA under 4.00 in the first inning was Danny Duffy, who allowed 10 runs in 26 starts. Every other starter had their problems. Ian Kennedy allowed seven dingers in his first innings, as did Dillon Gee, in far fewer starts. Yordano Ventura walked too many batters, and it came back to bite him. And Edinson Volquez would just like to start pitching in the second inning from here on out, because everything went wrong for him.
Granted, it’s not unusual for pitchers to allow more runs in the first inning, since that’s the only inning in which the opposing lineup is guaranteed to be in a mostly-optimized order. Many excellent pitchers get knocked around a bit in the first, only to settle down and end up with seven innings of two-run ball. This is where the offensive failures come into focus.
The 2016 Royals scored at least one run in 49 games, which is only five fewer than the 2015 squad. However, this year’s version scored 83 first-inning runs, compared to 106 for last year’s. Of those 49 games this year, 21 of them resulted in a crooked number on the scoreboard. The Royals had 30 such games last season.
Even when the offense could get a little something going early on, that “little something” rarely became a “big something.” They didn’t break through with enough high-scoring first innings. And of course, the rest of the game often didn’t go much better.
Finally, the bullpen played a role as well, as you can see by the table up above. The runs allowed total for the last four innings of the game (6-9) in 2015 was 241. This year it was 281, and no, Joakim Soria didn’t allow all 281 of those runs. I don’t think.
The point here is it takes a village to lose a baseball game. The Royals didn’t have one single part of their team that sank their season. It was a combination of several things, which manifested itself in early deficits that could not be overcome.