Any new fans coming to major league baseball through this past weekend’s London Series between the Yankees and Red Sox got a rather distorted sense of the game’s scoring and temporal norms, particularly in the first inning of each contest. In Saturday’s series opener, each team sent 10 batters to the plate, scored six runs, and chased the other team’s starting pitcher (New York’s Masahiro Tanaka and Boston’s Rick Porcello). The 12-run, 58-minute inning was just the opening salvo of a slugfest that seemed to be imported straight from Coors Field, a 17-13 slog that took four hours and 42 minutes to play. Sunday’s game, won 12-8 by the Yankees, wasn’t quite as high scoring, but it did feature a four-run first inning by the Red Sox that clocked in around 26 minutes, not to mention a nine-run seventh inning by the Yankees in a game that lasted four hours and 24 minutes.
Though neither team in Saturday’s game came close to outdoing this year’s first-inning high score (10 runs by the Phillies on April 16 against the Mets), and the two teams fell short of the combined record of 16 runs most recently accomplished by the A’s (13) and Angels (3) on July 5, 1996, the rivals did make some history. According to STATS, this was the first time since June 23, 1989 (Blue Jays at A’s) and just the sixth time since 1912 that both teams scored at least six runs in the first inning. Via the Baseball-Reference Play Index, that game was one of just three since 1908 in which neither starter got out of the first inning after allowing at least six runs, with an August 4, 1948 game between the Red Sox and Browns, and an April 16, 1962 game between the Cardinals (not Bob Gibson’s best day) and Phillies being the others.
The Yankees’ big numbers in London helped them overtake the Twins for the major league lead in scoring (5.80 runs per game). While Saturday’s game was the second time in less than two weeks the team chased a former Cy Young winner in the first inning after clobbering him for six runs — they did so on June 19 against the Rays’ Blake Snell as well as Saturday against Porcello — they’re actually not the majors’ most prolific first-inning team. They entered Sunday ranked eighth in the majors with 0.62 first-inning runs per game, a per-nine rate of 5.56.
As it turns out, if I gave you 20 guesses as to which team has the highest rate of scoring in the first inning this year, you might not come up with the right answer, because it’s actually one of the majors’ lower-scoring teams: the Reds. They entered Sunday — for the remainder of this article, all stats use this cutoff — ranked 24th in the majors in scoring overall at 4.28 runs per game, but have cranked out 0.81 runs per game in the first, a per-nine rate of 7.31. Reds batters are hitting a combined .301/.367/.571 (.390 wOBA) in the first inning, which is about what Ketel Marte (.313/.361/.578, .387 wOBA) has done overall. Note that the Reds have just one player with a wOBA within 50 points of that first-inning mark, namely the wonderfully weird Derek Dietrich (.379, via a .222/.353/.567 line). He most commonly bats fourth, fifth, or sixth in the lineup, behind Nick Senzel, Joey Votto, and Eugenio Suarez, who apparently are doing some of their best work early in the game.
Here’s a quick look at the first-inning scoring leaders and the biggest discrepancies between first-inning and per-game scoring:
|Tm||G||R 1st||R1/9||R Tot||RS/G||Dif|
This table — which I’ve made sortable — is full of surprises, at least to me. We’ve heard so much about bad the Orioles are, particularly on the pitching side, and yet somehow they’re third in the majors in first-inning scoring. The much-maligned Mets, 17th overall in scoring, are fourth here, while the Royals, 25th overall, are ninth in in the first. At the other end of the spectrum, the Twins (who since I’m working with stats through Saturday get to reclaim the top spot in overall scoring), are just 18th in first-inning scoring. The Red Sox, fourth in scoring overall, are 22nd in the first (they’d climb a couple rungs if I included Sunday’s games). The A’s, 14th overall, are 28th in the first, crashing the basement party of the Tigers, Giants, and Marlins, the major’s three lowest-scoring teams overall.
That isn’t to say that there’s no relationship between first-inning and overall scoring rates, of course. The correlation for this year based on the numbers above is .43, which is on the low side relative to the coverage of our splits (which go back to 2002) but hardly the lowest. Comparing first-inning to overall scoring rates for each season, I found correlations as high as .71 (2003) and as low as .3 (2008); last year it was .48, in 2017 it was .41, in 2016 it was .6. Basically, it’s all over the map, which suggests some flukiness to the splits. For the 2002-18 period as a whole, the correlation was .57, for an r-squared of .33, which is to say that first-inning scoring explains about one-third of the variance of overall scoring levels — presumably because teams’ best hitters are getting a disproportionate share of those first-inning plate appearances.
The highest first-inning scoring rate in our splits (since 2002) belongs to the 2003 Astros (8.00 runs per nine), followed by the 2002 Yankees and 2008 Mets (tied at 7.73 per nine). Among the top 20 teams, the only ones from the past decade are the 2010 Twins (7.33 runs per nine, sixth), 2018 Diamondbacks (7.17, 10th), 2017 Marlins and 2015 Yankees (6.94 apiece, tied for 13th), and 2012 Rockies (6.83, 18th). Digging into the Play Index (back to 1908), Digging into the Play Index (back to 1908), the aforementioned Astros are fourth all-time, with the 1950 Red Sox — a team that overall scored 1,027 runs in just 154 games (6.67 per game, a post-World War II high) — apparently first. While B-Ref notes that their data is incomplete, in the 140 games for which they have Play index data, they scored 155 first-inning runs, a honking 9.96 per nine innings. I know that league-wide, there’s play-by-play data missing for some games that year, but there must be linescore data that could provide a more complete answer. However, since the second-ranked team, the 2000 Cardinals, scored “only” 147 runs in 162 first innings (8.17 per nine), there’s no way they could be be the record holder. Like a batting champion who falls short of the official plate appearance cut-off but wins with phantom PA tacked on, those 1950 Red Sox get the title of first-inning champs here.
While there’s no history being made on that end of the spectrum in 2019, you can turn that frown upside-down when it comes to the other end, because both this year’s Marlins and Giants have a shot at ignominy. The lowest first-inning scoring rate in our splits is 2.78 runs per nine by the 2010 Mariners, who were the period’s low scorers overall (3.17 runs per game) as well. As for Play Index-era lows, excluding years with incomplete data or incomplete schedules (strike years), the 1976 Expos (2.50 runs per nine) are the low men, barely edging the 1963 Mets (2.56 — the difference of a single run), with the aforementioned Mariners sixth. This year’s Marlins and Giants, if they maintain their meager first-inning output, would outdo them all — there’s something to root for in each city after all!
Of course there’s more to the first inning than just scoring, and as it turns out, the very same Giants are the runaway leaders on the other end, allowing a whopping 75 runs thus far in 82 first innings, a rate of 8.23 per nine. That’s just over one-and-a-half runs ahead of the miserable Mariners (6.72), with the Brewers (6.07) third but nonetheless somehow tied for the NL Central lead. Opposing hitters have hit .306/.380/.635 for a .414 wOBA in the first inning against the Giants this year, approximating Anthony Rendon’s line (.310/.398/.619, .414 wOBA) entering Sunday. Here’s the 30-team table, which again is sortable:
|Tm||G||R 1st||R1/9||R Tot||RS/G||Dif|
That the Giants should be so bad in the first inning on this end is somewhat surprising, given that they entered Sunday ranked 21st overall in runs allowed (5.01 per nine) and 24th in starting pitcher ERA (5.17) — garden-variety bad, rather than cosmically awful. Then again, outside of Madison Bumgarner, Jeff Samardzija, and Shaun Anderson, who had combined for 43 starts, the other six Giants with at least one start all have ERAs and FIPs above 5.00, with Drew Pomeranz (15 starts, 6.25 ERA, 5.46 FIP) soaking up the most time. Pomeranz has been wretched in the first inning, allowing 17 runs in 15 starts (10.20 per nine), but even Smarj (7.31 per nine) and Bum (5.50 per nine) have been uncharacteristically lousy in the opening frame.
At the other end of the spectrum, the gap between the Twins (seventh in run prevention overall, at 4.35 per game) and the rest of the majors is striking, and once again, the Reds are among the game’s best. The Dodgers, third in run prevention overall, are a mediocre 19th in the first inning; they have the second-largest gap between first-inning and overall scoring after the Giants, which is just weird given a rotation with three All-Stars (NL starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, as well as Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler).
Historically speaking, the Giants have their work cut out on this side of the ball. The record for first-inning runs allowed in a season is 154 (8.56 per nine), set by the 2000 Rangers in a year when major league scoring levels were at their postwar high (5.14 runs per game). That said, the Giants are currently in position to snatch the NL record from the 2006 Diamondbacks (144 runs, 8.00 per nine), and if they do trade Bumgarner by July 31, their chances of claiming the record would seem to be higher, though you’d think some kind of positive regression would be in order. Given their extremes on both sides of the ball, the Giants, with their -54 first-inning run differential (which translates to -5.93 runs per nine!), also have a shot at that record, held by the aforementioned 2006 Diamondbacks (-74 runs), who edged the 1963 Mets (-73), 1998 Tigers (-72) and, and 1974 Tigers (-71). So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.
As the correlations suggest, first-inning scoring isn’t the be-all and end-all of team quality, but the fact that things are so out of whack relative to expectations makes it a fascinating — to these eyes at least — corner of the splits. Rest assured I’ll be keeping my eyes on it as the season continues.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.