Red Sox starting pitchers continue first inning struggles

Apr 3, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello (22) walks off the mound during the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 3, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello (22) walks off the mound during the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports /

The pitching staff continues to dig an early hole for the Boston Red Sox by giving up runs at an alarming rate in the first inning.

It’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish. At least that’s what the Boston Red Sox pitching staff seems intent on proving in the early going this season.

Boston enters the day in a virtual tie at the top of the division with a 9-5 record, yet if you tuned out after the first inning of most of these games you’d wonder how they’ve managed such success.

The first inning has been anything but a success for the Red Sox this season – in fact, it’s been downright brutal. The pitching staff owns a staggering 9.64 ERA in the first inning, having allowed 15 earned runs through the first 14 games of the season. Only the Washington Nationals have a higher ERA in the first inning.

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Steven Wright actually lowered the staff’s ERA on Monday despite giving up a pair of runs in the opening frame, as both runs were unearned after Marco Hernandez dropped a pop-up in foul territory. When accounting for those unearned runs, the 17 runs that Red Sox pitchers have allowed in the first inning ties them with Washington for the most in the majors.

If the Red Sox were aiming to draw comparisons to a rotation that boasts Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, this wan’t the way to go about it.

Only Chris Sale has avoided being tagged with at least one run in the first inning, which is no surprise given that the lanky lefty has only surrendered a total of three earned runs in three starts.

Rick Porcello has only allowed one run in the first inning, but is still having a miserable season overall. Oddly enough, when he was shelled for eight runs in his last outing, none of them came in the first inning. Just when we think a Red Sox pitcher other than Sale will get off to a strong start, Porcello quickly falls apart.

The first inning numbers are ugly for the rest of the rotation.

Eduardo Rodriguez – 9.00 ERA

Drew Pomeranz – 13.50 ERA

Brian Johnson – 18.00 ERA

Steven Wright – 21.00 ERA

Dig deeper into the numbers and it only gets worse. Red Sox pitchers have given up a major league high 23 hits in the first inning while allowing a .359 average to opposing hitters. While pitchers can occasionally work their way out of a jam without allowing any runs, several of the hits given up by Red Sox pitchers in the first inning have done significant damage. Three of those hits were home runs, tying them for second most in the majors.

About the only silver lining for this pitching staff’s performance early in games has been the strikeout rate. Boston leads the majors with 19 strikeouts in the first inning, which leaves us to wonder how the results can be this dismal when they are piling up so many whiffs.

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No pitcher has embodied this baffling outcome more than Pomeranz. The lefty has recorded five strikeouts in the first inning over his two starts, yet has also allowed three runs. All three came in his last outing on Sunday after he walked the first two batters he faced. Watching that game, it appeared Pomeranz was robbed of a few strike calls on pitches that caught the edge of the zone. Had those borderline calls been reversed, turning those walks into a pair of strikeouts, an ugly start to his outing suddenly looks dominant with Pomeranz striking out the side in order.

Could this be a sign that Boston’s pitching woes early in games can at least partially be chalked up to bad luck? That certainly could be part of the problem, in which case the trend should even out in the long run.

The Red Sox currently rank 9th in the American League with a collective 4.14 ERA, but their starting rotation is next to last in the league with a 5.31 ERA. That figure is heavily influenced by the team’s first inning issues, so if they can reverse this trend then the pitching staff will start to move up the rankings to finish in the vicinity of the elite tier we expected them to be.

There are reasons for optimism that the pitching staff will improve. Two of those first inning runs were given up by Johnson, who was making a spot start while Rodriguez was away on paternity leave. They shouldn’t need to rely on Johnson too often considering it was only his second start in the majors in two years, so take him out of the equation and the staff ERA already shows improvement. Wright has had trouble getting his knuckleball to dance early in games, although given the unpredictability of the pitch he could certainly turn things around in a hurry. The staff will also get David Price back at some point, which should go a long way toward making this rotation look better.

The Red Sox rotation needs to get better if they want to remain in the division race. The offense has been good, but not nearly up to the level of last year’s dominance. Boston can’t keep relying on their bats to bail them out when the pitching staff puts them in a hole early in games.

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Constantly playing from behind will eventually catch up to this team, so hopefully this is merely an aberration stemming from a small sample size influenced by a few bad innings.