Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
"I don't know how to start shows," Louis CK admitted in one of his standup specials.
Neither does Stephen Strasburg. That's a bit of a problem when your Wikipedia entry lists your occupation as a "professional starting pitcher."
Strasburg pitched a clean first inning in his last outing Tuesday against the Diamondbacks but that hasn't been the norm recently. The former No. 1 overall pick has allowed two runs or more four times in nine first innings this season. That brings his first inning ERA to 8.00. In all other innings this season, Strasburg's ERA is a tidy 2.58.
Early in the season, statistics are easily skewed by one or two poor outings. But for Strasburg, this has been an epidemic.
Against the Mets on March 31, he allowed three hits and three earned runs in the first with all of them coming on an Andrew Brown homer to left field.
The torment continued three starts later against Miami. That night, The Fish got to Strasburg for four hits and three earned runs in the first. Again, Strasburg fell victim to the long ball, this time surrendering a 457-foot moon missile off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton.
Strasburg played it cool in his next two starts against the Cardinals and Padres. But the first inning success was short-lived as the Phillies torched him for three runs on three hits in his following start May 2 at Citizen's Bank Park. Marlon Byrd's three-run blast landed 386 feet from home plate.
When you add it all up, 38.1 percent of the earned runs Strasburg has allowed this season have come in the first inning. Opponents are batting .395 with a .605 slugging percentage versus Strasburg in the first. The rest of the time, they're hitting a mere .234 with 61 punch-outs in 171 at bats (35.7 percent).
And this isn't a new problem for the Nationals right-hander either. Last year he was just as shaky in the opening inning (4.20 ERA in 30 starts). The issue was particularly acute early in the season when Strasburg let up at least one run in the first four times in his first six starts. During that span, his ERA in the first was a miserable 10.50 compared to a nifty 1.74 in all other innings.
However, he put the problem on hold for several months, delivering 11 straight scoreless first innings before collapsing July 12 versus the Marlins (4 H, 3 BB, 5 ER in the first). After that, Strasburg allowed just one first inning run in his final 12 starts (yes, that was also against Miami), offering a faint glimmer of hope for the future.
Strasburg still hasn't outgrown his first inning jitters and it's worth wondering if he ever will. His career ERA in the first (4.07) is higher than any other inning except for the ninth (16.20). Strasburg has only made it to the ninth inning twice in 84 career starts so that shouldn't even count.
But is Strasburg alone in his first inning misery? Hardly. Justin Verlander, a former Cy Young winner and MVP, owns an ERA of 3.96 in the first inning. That's well above his career ERA of 3.40. Clayton Kershaw's first inning ERA (2.82), though still phenomenal, doesn't compare to his work in the other eight innings (2.54).
Strasburg's career ERA by inning paints an interesting picture. Have a look.
As you can see, because you have eyes, Strasburg gets better as the game goes on. And it all makes sense doesn't it? Of course the first inning is the most difficult. That's when you're facing the Mike Trouts and Andrew McCutchens of the world. These players are a much bigger threat than the bottom of the order guys you'll see in innings two and three. Plus, it usually takes starters an inning or two to get warmed up. Strasburg's first inning struggles may be more pronounced than most but they're not uncommon.
The first inning hasn't been kind to Strasburg but the others have been. For fantasy owners, that's enough to trot him out there every fifth day.