Stephen Strasburg faces the Arizona Diamondbacks in his next start, and the question on everybody’s mind is: How awful will he be in the first inning?
Strasburg has struggled in the opening frame: Opponents have a .425 batting average against him, which is well above the National League average this season (.264). He also has an earned run average of 9.00 in the first inning but a 2.34 mark from the second inning and beyond. That obviously puts the Nationals at a disadvantage. This season, teams are 38-82 in games in which they trail after the first inning.
“You don’t want to lose a game in the first before you start to get into your pitch mix,” explains Brian Bannister, who pitched five years in the big leagues. “You’re going to pich a little backwards [off-speed pitches first] and you are going to throw a curveball for the first pitch and a change-up in a certain count. Sometimes you abandon that at the beginning to let the pitcher get his feel, but if you give up a couple runs early it could be the whole ball game before you get to your pitch mix.”
“There are no huge red flags of loss of skill, or loss of talent or aging curves in play here,” Bannister said.
Now that those three causes have been eliminated, here are three reasons the Nationals’ ace is struggling in the first inning:
Relying too much on fastballs
“There is an old baseball thing which is ‘establish your fastball early,’ and for some guys that is not necessarily the best approach, especially if the opposing lineup is getting geared up to hit against you,” Bannister said. “And for a guy with Strasburg’s stuff the hitters may have the mentality to jump on him right away. For some guys it might make sense to pitch backwards early and harder later.”
Strasburg has relied very heavily on the fastball during the first inning this season, often at the expense of the curve and change-up.
“Once you earn the hitters’ respect with the off-speed pitches you can go back to the fastball and that’s when you get a great rhythm going and keep hitters off balance,” Bannister explained.
This appears to be a sound strategy for Strasburg who, while known for his fastball, has off-speed stuff that has been just as effective, if not more, as measured by the number of runs saved. His change-up is especially effective ( and also hypnotizing).
More balls in play going for hits
Strasburg has a high batting average on balls in play during the first inning this year (0.500), which means his luck should even out over the course of the season. For comparison, all NL pitchers were at 0.307 BABIP combined in the first inning last season. Here is Strasburg’s first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his last start:
|0-0||0||D. Gordon||Groundout (Bunt)|
|0-0||1||C. Crawford||Ground ball single|
|0-0||1||H. Ramirez||Ground ball single|
|0-0||1||A. Gonzalez||Ground ball single|
|1-0||1||Y. Puig||Ground ball single|
“He got what he wanted in the first inning,” Nats Manager Matt Williams said after the outing. “A couple grounders got through but they just found holes. I don’t think there was any major adjustment after inning number one.”
Banister agrees. “Ground balls are a good thing. It means that whatever you are doing with your pitches the hitters aren’t able to hit the bottom half. You are fooling them enough where they can’t get underneath the ball.”
“All of his other peripherals are equal to or better than his career numbers, so I don’t see anything to worry about there,” Bannister continued. By “peripherals” he means strikeouts, walks and home runs per nine innings, strikeout to walk ratio and strikeout and walk percentage.
“A pitcher’s best movement, best late movement and best ‘stuff’ occurs when they are throwing very relaxed,” Bannister said. “A lot of pitchers, when they try and throw harder or have the mental approach to throw harder, can tighten up in their arm. They might not lose any velocity — they might actually increase velocity — but the tightness in their arms and wrists and their fingers can actually lead to less spin. When you have less spin the ball isn’t rising or moving as much as it would when you are relaxed.”
That could mean more line drives. Strasburg’s line-drive percentage is higher in 2014 on first-inning fastballs (43.5 percent) than over the previous four seasons (18.6 percent).
“Pitchers who struggle with line drives tend to be more three-quarter-type pitchers,” Bannister explained. “They still have the velocity but are kind of in that grey area between not enough rise in their fastball and not enough sink, so even though velocity is there all the hitter has to do is catch up to the velocity. The movement is really not fooling them. If you tense up and overthrow or just are not relaxed in a first inning your ball can fall into that grey area before you settle in.”