Analyzing rotation's first-inning woes as Gausman joins trend

April 18th, 2023

HOUSTON -- The Blue Jays might be the best team in baseball. Well, from the second inning on.

That first frame is giving the club fits, putting Toronto in a hole before you can blink. had been the lone survivor from this curse until Monday night, when the Astros jumped on him for seven runs in a long, loud first inning. The rest of the game was competitive, but at that point, the rest of the game didn’t matter.

Toronto’s 9-2 loss at Minute Maid Park puts the spotlight right back on this bizarre trend. The Blue Jays have been outscored 23-7 in the first inning this season and now hold an 11.65 ERA as a staff. Gausman hadn’t allowed a run in the first until Monday, then he turned in the worst opening inning of his career to join his rotation mates in their struggles.

Manager John Schneider saw an Astros lineup with a “very obvious” approach, refusing to chase the splitter that has baffled so many hitters already this season.

Gausman added his own perception to that analysis.

“They came out aggressive,” Gausman said. “They were taking pitches, but it was more me throwing some uncompetitive splitters early in the game. I definitely fed into that. Then I got into bad counts and had to throw strikes. They kind of eliminated an off-speed pitch because I couldn’t throw it for strikes. I kind of put myself in a hole there right out of the gate.”

Let’s start with Gausman in a vacuum, where this is much easier to write off as an outlier. The right-hander had pitched brilliantly up until Monday, and even though his velocity needed an inning to wake up, he’d already succeeded in 2023 without his best stuff. There’s no reason to believe that this is anything other than one bad inning at the office, the equivalent to sitting down at your desk at 9 a.m. and immediately spilling a cup of coffee on your lap.

“I just need to pitch better, be able to slow down that inning and not let it snowball the way that it did,” Gausman said. “I’m also confident in the work that I’ve done to this point. I feel pretty confident that I’m not going to go out and give up seven runs every inning.

“Credit to them. They did a good job of putting the bat on the ball and laying off some good pitches early in the game. Credit to them.”

It’s how this fits in the bigger picture of the Blue Jays’ rotation, though, that’s worrisome. Take a look at how the rest of the rotation has fared in the first inning:

Alek Manoah: 9.00 ERA (.679 OPS)
Chris Bassitt: 18.00 ERA (1.671 OPS)
José Berríos: 9.00 ERA (.692 OPS)
Yusei Kikuchi: 9.00 ERA (.846 OPS)

Can this really be a coincidence, or does something connect all of the starters?

There are individual reasons spread across the five pitchers, of course, but there have to be some threads that tie this together. One possibility is that opponents are simply matching the Blue Jays’ aggression from the first pitch and winning. Toronto’s pitchers have generally done a good job of filling up the zone early, so this has been more a problem of hard contact right out of the gates, not sloppy pitching or self-inflicted wounds.

Another possibility is that hitters know what’s coming, or at least have a better guess than usual. No, this doesn’t mean picking up signs or pitchers tipping. Instead, opponents could be zeroing in on something in their scouting, like a sequence of pitches that Blue Jays starters like to open with or lean on in early counts.

“I think it's a coincidence,” Schneider said. “We’re two weeks in and I know it’s happened to a few guys now. I think it just comes down to execution. Hopefully that can get sorted out and give us a little bit more of an in-line bullpen. It’s tough when it’s kind of happened once to every guy so far.”

Regardless, the Blue Jays need to find a fix.

Beyond the obvious disadvantage of falling into early holes, the bullpen can’t weather these struggles forever. Gausman, like Manoah in a couple of his tough starts, at least got Toronto to the midway point with 4 2/3 innings, but this is a bullpen without a true long man.

This won’t last forever, but there’s some urgency to solving this puzzle and letting the Blue Jays team that shows up in the second inning take the field immediately after the anthems.