Kyle Kendrick Has Had Some First-Inning Issues
Jayson Werth‘s three-run home run in the first inning off of Kyle Kendrick in Sunday’s first-half finale was about the most predictable thing that could have happened. Kendrick entered the game having allowed 21 earned runs in 18 first innings. At the end of the first ion Sunday, his opening frame ERA was an ugly 11.37. Kendrick blanked the Nationals over the next four innings, then allowed one more run in the sixth before leaving with two outs. Mario Hollands later allowed one of Kendrick’s inherited runners to score, giving Kendrick a line of five earned runs allowed in 5 2/3 innings.
In the first inning this year, hitters have posted a .460 weighted on-base average against Kendrick. In all other innings, they’re hitting .288. To give you an idea of the difference, the MLB leader in wOBA so far is Troy Tulowitzki at .448; Gerardo Parra, Alejandro De Aza, and Allen Craig can be found at .289. It’s night and day.
Why does Kendrick struggle so much in the first inning? Looking at his peripherals in the first inning compared to the rest of the game, there isn’t much of a difference. There’s only a small percentage difference — enough to be explained by simple statistical variation — in pitch locations and his ability to miss bats, generally speaking. His velocity hasn’t been noticeably lower, and his pitch mix is roughly the same. He induces ground balls at nearly the same exact rate in both splits as well, and faces left- and right-handed hitters at nearly the same ratios.
Kendrick has a .397 BABIP in the first inning and .278 the rest of the game. His career average is .294, and it’s .302 overall for the season. Considering that Kendrick almost always faces the opposing team’s best hitters in the first inning, it would make sense that his stats would skew unfavorably in the opening frame compared to the rest of the game. National League pitchers overall have a 4.20 ERA in the first inning, the worst of any inning, just ahead of the fourth (4.17). Kendrick has also allowed seven of his 15 home runs in the first inning, following the trend of pitchers at large.
While Kendrick’s early-game struggles are fascinating and appear to be an outlier, it doesn’t seem to be anything more than a fluke. If Kendrick really did have some kind of issue starting off a ballgame, we would see a difference in the first inning compared to all other innings. It could have been that Kendrick has trouble getting a feel for his fastball early on, or he’s over the middle of the plate much more often, or that he can’t induce as many swings and misses. But there is almost no difference in his performance during and after the first inning. Considering the trend of the league, and the fact that his BABIP is so much higher, it seems like we can chalk this case up to randomness. Don’t forget, while Kendrick has made 19 starts this season, his first-inning performance constitutes a sample of only 19 innings, so a lot can happen without any real reason other than RNG.