Pitching With Early Run Support

Written by: Carlos Marcano (@camarcano)

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Picture this: you are an MLB starting pitcher, sitting in the dugout watching your team—the visitors—bat in the top of the first inning before you take the game mound for the first time that day. Between envisioning your sequencing and tunneling versus the top of the opposing order, you take a peek at the field and see movement around the bases. Your teammates get hits and put runs on the scoreboard before you ever make your presence felt that day. 

Good. You feel more confident now and you will take advantage of this. You are going to win today.

But, are you? Is it true, as the old thinking goes, that when a pitcher gets early backup they pitch better and are more confident? Or is that notion just baseless nonsense? Let’s find out.

In this shortened season, the visiting starting pitcher received first inning support 162 times: 68 times they scored 1 run, two runs 53 times, three runs 22 times, four runs 14 times, five and six runs twice and seven runs once.

So, how did they perform after that? They should have done better than starters in general, right?

In that respect, starters in general that were eligible for a W (pitching at least 5 innings) had the following results regarding W-L decisions:

Starting pitchers who went 5 IP or more earned the win 45% of the time, losing 23% of the time and leaving without decision 32% of the time (a 55% combined loss/no decision). The ERA for this group was 2.94, with a 8.91 K/9 and 2.45 BB/9. This will be our comparison group as we are assuming that pitchers with an early back up should be bound to pitch longer in the game, at least long enough to be eligible for the win.

In the 162 instances in which the visiting team scored at least one run in the opening frame—giving their SP some early support—the visiting starting pitcher proceeded to throw 5 or more innings 101 times; 62 times, the visiting starting pitcher earned the win, which is (oddly) only 38% of the time. 

This is an eye-opener: those pitchers with early run support won fewer games (38%) than the SPs in regular starts with 5 or more innings pitched. The difference is short enough to consider it definitive, especially when you consider the fact the ERA for this group was significantly smaller (2.06). For the limited sample set of this short season, this data—at minimum—raises inquiries that will be solidified in future (or former) seasons. 

So, which pitchers got early back up most times? We can check that in this list of ‘lucky guys’:

Pitching for the Dodgers is kind of sweet, isn’t it? 40% of his starts during the sprint season, Clayton Kershaw started the game pitching with the cool advantage of having early run support. Trailing Kershaw’s four, Snell, Singer, Cole, Canning, Berríos, Gray and Howard had three starts each with early run support. Twenty-five other pitchers had two starts with early run support. 

How did that group fare in those opportunities? Some pitchers took more advantage than others, as Cole, Javier, Anderson, Gonzales, Scherzer, Bauer, Glasnow and Eflin each won all of the multiple chances they got; Kershaw won 3 out of 4 and Snell 2 out of 3. But those were outliers as a whole they won 44% of the time, practically the same as the pitchers who went 5+ IP in general.

Keeping in mind the small sample, I find no evidence that receiving a first-inning advantage improves the odds for a visiting starting pitcher to get a W in that type of game.

Follow P365 MLB Analyst Carlos Marcano on Twitter! @camarcano

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

All statistics from Stathead, Baseball Savant and Fangraphs.

Featured image courtesy of photographer Mark J. Terrill and the Associated Press

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