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Early Analysis: Rays Starters Struggling With First Inning

Four different pitchers, four different styles, four different starts, one similar problem; the first inning. As a Rays fan, I often feel as things never come easy. While other teams have 1-2-3 innings all the time, I feel like every night the Rays pitchers start with a man on base. I seem to get this feeling most often in the first inning of games and it's because it's true.

In each of the Rays first four games the starter pitcher has failed to retire the side in order. Also in each of the four starts, the starter has not been able to get out of the inning with less than 20 pitches. Long first innings are bad for a few reasons. One, you're most likely costing yourself from going deeper into games. Two, you are showing more pitches to the opposing team early on. Three, if you're throwing a lot of pitches that means you're either walking hitters or they are getting hits and that's... uh bad.

So far this season the Rays starters have thrown a combined 97 pitches in the first frame. Their opponents? 67. The Rays are averaging 24.25 pitches per first inning while their counterparts are averaging a much more managable 16.75 Here are the totals:

Rays

Name

Pitches

Strikes

Strike%

Totals

97

51

52.2125

 

Opponents

Name

Pitches

Strikes

Strike%

Totals

67

45

67.455

The Rays pitchers have thrown 30 more pitches, but just six more strikes. When your opponents are getting 15% more strikes that is a huge disadvantage early on. I know some of it is due to the hacky nature of Rays hitters, but a lot of it belongs on the Rays pitchers.

As mentioned above, none of the Rays starters have escaped the first inning with fewer than 20 pitches. Jon Lester is the only opposing pitcher to throw more than 20 pitches in the first. Even Daisuke Matsuzaka wants to know what's up with the Rays early struggles. Here is the individual breakdown:

Rays

Name

Pitches

Strikes

Strike%

Shields

27

14

51.85

Kazmir

25

13

52

Garza

20

9

45

Sonnanstine

25

15

60

Totals

97

51

52.2125

Opponents

Name

Pitches

Strikes

Strike%

Beckett

11

8

72.73

Lester

21

15

71.43

Matsuzaka

19

12

63.16

Hendrickson

16

10

62.5

Totals

67

45

67.455

Ironically, Matt Garza threw the least amount of pitches(20), but also had the fewest amount of strikes(9) and the lowest strike percentage(20%). Sonnanstine had the highest strike percentage, but was also hit the hardest. Let's look at each first inning individually.

4/7/09 James Shields

Shields faced seven Red Sox in the first inning and was lucky to give up just one run. Here are the results of his at-bats:

  • Strikeout
  • Home Run
  • Single
  • Fly Out
  • Double
  • Walk
  • Pop Up

It could've easily been uglier for Shields had he not gotten Mike Lowell to pop up to Dioner Navarro with two outs. The common theme for Shields was falling behind in the count. Of course, we are dealing with a small sample size here, but Shields has thrown a first pitch strike 59% of his career. On Tuesday, his first seven at bats started with four balls, two strikes and a hit.

4/8/09 Scott Kazmir

Unlike Shields, Kazmir's biggest problem was himself. Kaz could've had an easy first inning had he been able to put hitters away with a two strike count. Here are the results of his at-bats:

  • Line Out
  • Walk
  • Walk
  • Strike Out
  • Strike Out

Kid K used just three pitches to get Jacoby Ellsbury to line out to first, but quickly fell behind 2-0 to Dustin Pedroia. After evening the count at 2-2, Kazmir missed with a change-up and fastball both low and inside to walk Pedroia on six pitches. He used two low 80s sliders to freeze David Ortiz and start the next AB 0-2. Again, he failed to capitalize on the two strike count and the next four pitches were out of the strike zone for another walk. He would strike out Kevin Youkilis on a ridiculously good change-up and have Rocco Baldelli watching as a 92 MPH fast ball caught the outside corner for strike three, but each AB look five pitches even though Kaz had a first pitch strike to both. You can't really argue with the result of Kazmir's day, but he probably wasted another inning of work after two strike counts.

4/9/09 Matt Garza

I mentioned about that Garza had the "easiest" inning, but like Kazmir, Garza could've been more economical with this pitches. Here are the results of his at-bats:

  • Bunt Single
  • Fly Out
  • Strike Out
  • Walk
  • Line Out

After a bunt single by Ellsbury on the first pitch, Garza would fall behind to three of the next four hitters. He retired Pedroia on four pitches, and struck out Ortiz, but that took six pitches. The Youkilis AB started with a strike, but the next four were balls and that's a walk. Finally, Garza would get J.D. Drew to line out to shortstop, but only after seven more pitches were thrown. Again, like Kazmir it's hard to argue with the over all result, but efficiency is key.

4/10/09 Andy Sonnanstine

R.J. already touched on how awful Andy Sonnanstine was tonight, but the first inning was pretty awful itself. Unlike the fifth inning that saw a few bloop hits and bobbled balls, the first inning was all on Sonny. Here are the results of his at-bats:

  • Single
  • Double
  • Ground Out
  • Walk
  • Single
  • Line out
  • Fly Out

Yeah, three hits and a walk is not a good start.  Luckily, that was all the Orioles got, but unfortunately the Rays bats didn't come alive until it was too late. Sonny's breaking balls looked very hittable and all three hits in the first game off a slider or a curveball. For all the talk about change-ups, he sure didn't use it much. According to Brooksbaseball.net, he used the change-up just seven times in the game and none in the first inning. Not surprising, Sonny threw four first pitch balls which is a huge no-no for a guy who relies on control/command and not stuff.

There are a ton of things that could factor in here: nerves, building arm strength, facing a patient Boston lineup, a very underrated Baltimore lineup, and even the weather. We saw a few Rays pitchers get in trouble for going to their mouth for a little extra heat this week and I'm sure 40 degree weather and wind could have an affected on grip and location. With the home opener two days away, it will be something to keep an eye on going forward. The Rays are already dealing with a limited number of bullets in their young arms this season; let's not use them all up so quickly.