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The Cubs’ first-inning pitching woes: A look into the numbers

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They are giving up way too many runs in the first inning. How can this be fixed?

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Cubs giving up runs in the first inning is a well-known fact in 2017, punctuated (and not in a way we liked) by the 10-run first the Pirates posted in Sunday’s blowout.

That resulted in the following number to finish the first half:

And right there, you likely have a big part of the reason why the 2015 and 2016 Cubs were postseason teams and the 2017 Cubs are floundering.

I decided to have a look at the numbers, in detail.

First, the 80 first-inning runs give the Cubs a 7.26 ERA in that inning, as 71 of those runs were earned. The next-largest number of runs they’ve allowed in any inning is 55, in the fourth. Outside the first inning, Cubs pitchers have allowed 319 runs in 697 innings. Of those 319, 289 were earned, so from the second inning on, Cubs pitchers have a 3.73 ERA. If the Cubs had a 3.73 ERA in the first inning, that would translate to approximately 44 fewer runs allowed. The Cubs have scored 399 runs and allowed 399 runs. If they had allowed 355, that translates to a Pythagorean winning percentage of .558, which would be a 49-39 record.

That would put them in first place and we’re not having this discussion.

Now, let’s have a look at all the games in which the Cubs allowed a first-inning run (and how many runs), and the results, with the starting pitcher noted. (Italics indicates road game in which the Cubs scored first, then gave up runs in the bottom of the first and went behind.)

April 6: allowed three to Cardinals in St. Louis. Won 6-4 (Lackey)
April 8: allowed two to Brewers in Milwaukee. Won 11-6 (Hendricks)
April 12: allowed one to Dodgers at Wrigley. Lost 2-0 (Lackey)
April 17: allowed two to Brewers at Wrigley. Lost 6-3 (Lackey)
April 18: allowed three to Brewers at Wrigley. Won 9-7 (Anderson)
April 19: allowed two to Brewers at Wrigley. Won 7-4 (Hendricks)
April 22: allowed four to Reds at Cincinnati. Won 12-8 (Arrieta)
April 23: allowed one to Reds at Cincinnati. Lost 7-5 (Lackey)
April 24: allowed one to Pirates at Pittsburgh. Won 14-3 (Anderson)
April 26: allowed two to Pirates at Pittsburgh. Lost 6-5 (Lester)
April 28: allowed five to Red Sox at Boston. Lost 5-4 (Arrieta)
April 30: allowed two to Red Sox at Boston. Lost 6-2 (Hendricks)
May 2: allowed four to Phillies at Wrigley. Lost 10-2 (Anderson)
May 3: allowed two to Phillies at Wrigley. Won 5-4 (Arrieta)
May 6: allowed five to Yankees at Wrigley. Lost 11-6 (Anderson)
May 7: allowed one to Yankees at Wrigley. Lost 5-4 (Lester)
May 16: allowed one to Reds at Wrigley. Won 9-5 (Lackey)
May 17: allowed one to Reds at Wrigley. Won 7-5 (Hendricks)
May 19: allowed one to Brewers at Wrigley. Lost 6-3 (Butler)
May 22: allowed one to Giants at Wrigley. Lost 6-4 (Lackey)
May 25: allowed one to Giants at Wrigley. Won 5-1 (Butler)
June 2: allowed one to Cardinals at Wrigley. Won 3-2 (Lackey)
June 3: allowed two to Cardinals at Wrigley. Won 5-3 (Lester)
June 6: allowed one to Marlins at Wrigley. Won 10-2 (Arrieta)
June 7: allowed one to Marlins at Wrigley. Lost 6-5 (Lackey)
June 10: allowed two to Rockies at Wrigley. Lost 9-1 (Butler)
June 13: allowed one to Mets at New York. Won 14-3 (Lester)
June 17: allowed two to Pirates at Pittsburgh. Lost 4-3 (Arrieta)
June 19: allowed one to Padres at Wrigley. Won 3-2 (Lester)
June 24: allowed three to Marlins at Miami. Won 5-3 (Lester)
June 25: allowed three to Marlins at Miami. Lost 4-2 (Montgomery)
June 27: allowed one to Nationals at Washington. Lost 6-1 (Arrieta)
June 28: allowed one to Nationals at Washington. Lost 8-4 (Lackey)
June 29: allowed one to Nationals at Washington. Won 5-4 (Lester)
July 5: allowed one to Rays at Wrigley. Won 7-3 (Lackey)
July 6: allowed two to Brewers at Wrigley. Lost 11-2 (Montgomery)
July 9: allowed 10 to Pirates at Wrigley. Lost 14-3 (Lester)

Let’s break down the numbers in various ways. That’s 37 games in which the Cubs have allowed a first-inning run and a total of 88 runs, so it’s an average of 2.38 runs per first inning, every time they allow any runs at all. Of course, that’s a bit skewed by the 10-run inning Sunday; eliminate that and the average drops to 2.17.

The Cubs went 18-19 in the 37 games, which is... pretty much what they did in all other games, one game under .500. (25-26 in all other games.) That breaks down this way:

Road: 7-8 (12-17 in all other road games)
Home: 11-11 (13-9 in all other home games)

Well, that doesn’t tell us much either. How about by starting pitcher? Here are the numbers for each starter who allowed first-inning runs, the number of starts in which he did that out of his total, and the W/L record in games started by that pitcher.

Jon Lester: eight of 19 total starts, 22 runs, 5-3
Jake Arrieta: six of 18 total starts, 15 runs, 3-3
John Lackey: 10 of 17 total starts, 13 runs, 4-6
Kyle Hendricks: four of 11 total starts, seven runs, 3-1
Eddie Butler: three of 11 total starts, five runs, 1-2
Brett Anderson: four of six total starts, 13 runs, 2-2
Mike Montgomery: two of six total starts, five runs, 0-2

Lackey is the biggest culprit here, putting the Cubs behind in the first inning in the majority of his starts. Anderson was also pretty bad. Both of those men are on the disabled list with no timetable for their return.

Lester didn’t allow a first-inning run until his fifth start. I find this breakdown interesting:

Lester, first five starts: 2.66 ERA, 1.268 WHIP, one home run in 23⅔ innings
Lester, 15 starts since then: 4.70 ERA, 1.363 WHIP, 14 home runs in 84⅓ innings

That’s also skewed by Sunday’s game, so:

Lester, 14 starts from 4/26 to 7/4: 4.30 ERA, 1.267 WHIP, 12 home runs in 83⅔ innings

Makes me wonder if Lester is trying to gut through an injury of some sort.

One final breakdown: The Cubs have had six road games in which they scored first, then gave up runs in the bottom of the first inning. They won four of those games anyway.

First-inning runs are clearly a problem for the 2017 Cubs, but as you can see by these numbers, the team is doing about as well in those games as in all the other games. There just isn’t enough to conclude that the first-inning run thing is more or less important than any other issue facing the Cubs this year.

But it is clear that in general, Cubs starting pitching isn’t as good as it was in 2016. There are various reasons for that. I would expect management to address that, and soon.