Noah Syndergaard gave up three runs in the first inning Tuesday night, making him the latest Mets pitcher to struggle in the opening frame. For the year, Mets starters have allowed 21 runs in 27 games in the first inning, for a dismal 6.67 ERA. The NL mark in that inning is a 4.90 ERA. Lineups are typically stacked to maximize runs in the first inning. Still, the Mets struggles there stand out. Their .906 OPS allowed in the first frame is the third-worst mark in the league.
Prior to yesterday’s outing, Syndergaard had only given up one run in six games in the first inning. But now Jacob deGrom is the best on the club, with two runs allowed in six games. Steven Matz has been acceptable in this regard, giving up three runs in five games. But then it gets ugly. In nine starts combined Matt Harvey, Jason Vargas and Zack Wheeler have surrendered 12 runs and Harvey’s 1.098 OPS allowed is the best mark of the three.
The second and third innings have been much better. We expect the second inning to go down and Mets pitchers have a 2.00 ERA and a .559 OPS allowed in the frame. The third inning’s numbers are 4.00 and .623, respectively.
So, why is the first inning such a problem?
We could speculate it being a small size sample. Or we could hypothesize that the pitchers aren’t executing their pitches. Perhaps the new catchers are taking a while to figure out what offerings that day’s pitcher has working. Of course maybe the answer is simpler than all of that. Maybe the pitchers aren’t as good as we might think.
And to compound the matter, the issue isn’t just runs or OPS allowed. Even in innings when the opposition doesn’t score any runs, the Mets’ starter is throwing a ton of pitches in the first inning. Last night Syndergaard threw 26 pitches according to the ESPN box score in the opening frame when he allowed three runs. But in his start against the Brewers, Matz needed 24 pitches in the first inning when he did not allow a run. And you’ll forgive Mets fans if they think that Wheeler has turned this particular issue into an art form.
In his last outing against the Padres, Wheeler needed 30 pitches in an inning that featured two walks, two strikeouts and ended with the bases loaded but no runs crossing the plate. He gave up two runs in the first inning his previous start but in the one before that, against the Nationals, Wheeler required 19 pitches, saved only by an over-aggressive rookie who grounded into a double play on the second pitch of the AB, right after Wheeler had surrendered back-to-back walks. Even in his strong game against the Marlins to open the season, Wheeler needed 20 pitches to get out of the first inning.
One of two things need to happen – either the Mets pitchers need to be more efficient in the first inning or the brain trust has to stop being terrified of the 100-pitch bogeyman. Otherwise they are doomed to five and six-inning starts for the rest of the year.
With a 6.67 ERA in the first inning, it’s not like the Mets would lose a whole lot by asking their pitchers to do something different when they first take the mound. Maybe they can nibble less in the first inning. Or maybe they can look for easy contact rather than a strikeout right away. But those may not be practical solutions. As for allowing guys to go longer in the game, all that requires is a careful eye to see how the pitcher is executing on that particular night.
Syndergaard had retired seven of the last eight batters he faced before he was pulled after 91 pitches. Why was he pulled? No, they didn’t pinch-hit for him. Rather, it was a page from the Terry Collins playbook. The Braves had two lefty batters leading off the inning so reflexively the Mets went to Jerry Blevins. It’ didn’t matter that the first batter, Freddie Freeman, owns Blevins. The Mets escaped a bullet when Freeman hit a ball that landed one step shy of the wall in left field.
The Mets took out a pitcher who had found in his stride during the game so they could play matchups. They could have gotten another inning from Syndergaard, possibly an inning-plus if his turn to hit didn’t come up. And this is not rare. We regularly see times when the starter had gotten himself together and is cruising only to find him lifted because he’s brushing up against 100 pitches.
It was one thing when the weather was cold. But that certainly wasn’t the case last night. It’s one thing if the bullpen has been lights out. But that hasn’t really been the case here recently, either. It’s not that the bullpen has been bad. But the fat lady isn’t singing at the top of her lungs when a reliever enters the game.
The Mets should be looking for a way, a reason to keep effective pitchers in the game. Mickey Callaway has embraced that with his relievers, frequently asking them to throw more than an inning at a time. That’s great to see. Now he needs to use that same approach with his starters, allowing them to throw 110 or 115 or even 120 pitches occasionally when the situation merits.
Of course, the Mets starters could do themselves a favor and look to get out of the first inning with just 13 pitches, too.