Last night I watched Daisuke Matsuzaka emerge from the top of the first inning relatively unscathed—1 run on 2 hits and 24 pitches, including 9 to the lead-off man—before my wife coaxed me into watching the season opener of “True Blood.” As I suffered through another meandering, campy episode of a show that lost its way after Season 1, I got to wondering just how bad Daisuke’s been in the early innings throughout his 5+ seasons with the Red Sox. It seemed like he’d always struggled in early innings, but to avoid resting on any undue bias I spent some time with baseball-reference.com, poring over Daisuke’s game logs and tabulating when, inning wise, his earned runs have piled up. Before I get to those data, a brief review Daisuke’s career:
In his rookie campaign, Daisuke won 15 games largely on the strength of run support and having an almost magical knack for using the strikeout to get out bases-loaded jams. It was like he’d ramp up and zero in on the strike zone only when he needed to, but otherwise he was a nibbler. This continued into 2008, when he led the league in hits per 9 innings (6.9), was fourth in ERA (2.90), and ended up with an 18-3 record and a World Series ring. Despite also leading the league in total walks, Daisuke ended up 4th in Cy Young voting on the strength of his ERA and record. In his third year, 2009, he showed up out of shape and was on and off the DL. When he did pitch, he had a godawful WHIP of 1.87 and was giving up 1.5 homers per 9 innings. The injury and mediocrity bugs kept biting in 2010, when Daisuke went 9-6 with an ERA+ of 93. (This is when many fans began to write off Daisuke as yet another bad free agent signing in the Theo Epstein era.) By the bitter end of the 2011 season, which for Daisuke was cut short by a torn UCL and subsequent Tommy John surgery, his record stood at 49-30 after five years, and his career ERA+ was just 108, or exactly where it was after his rookie season. All in all, it’s tough to argue that Daisuke Matsuzaka has earned his salary, and it’s impossible to imagine that John Henry is happy about having spent over $100 million on him.
So, how much of a role have first-inning struggles played in Daisuke’s mediocrity as a major-league pitcher? Have a look at the data table below, which shows how many earned runs were earned by Daisuke per inning per year in games he started.
I highlighted the big takeaways, the first of which is that a full quarter of Daisuke’s earned runs hit the scoreboard in the first inning. In short, yes, he really notably bad in the first, though the trend didn’t solidify until his fourth year. (The trend was most pronounced last year, though his damaged UCL may explain that.) Daisuke has started just four games so far this year, but again he’s showing signs of using the first inning as a time to figure out what kind of stuff he has that day.
But the second, and arguably weirdest, takeaway from the data is that Daisuke has tended to recover—his composure, his mechanics, his stuff, whatever—to a remarkable degree by the second inning. Just under 8% of his earned runs have been given up in that frame. (Given that he’s averaged under 6 innings per start, we can’t take much from the data for the 7th inning and beyond. He has just one complete game in his career.) Maybe one explanation for his second-inning success is the fact that he’s often facing the bottom third of the opposing lineup in the second inning precisely because he saw the top two-thirds in the first. But the contrast is striking, and it’s helped many analysts think of Daisuke as a pitcher whose disappointing career is due more to his own aversion to the strike zone (and to guidance from coaches) than to lack of talent.