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Francis and the Tough First Inning

This is probably a little untimely considering we’re directly in between Jeff Francis starts, but I thought I’d take a look at what appears to be a problem of Francis in the first inning of giving up too many runs. Just off the top of my head, I can think of three games where he’s struggled in the first inning before settling down and giving the Royals as many as eight really solid innings. It’s an affliction that a lot of pitchers have struggled with, some way better than others. For the longest time, Tom Glavine was thought to be a guy who, in the first inning, was mediocre or worse, but after that would settle down and give up nothing the rest of the way. I remember distinctly that Miguel Asencio struggled in the first inning so much so that the Royals had him throw a simulated inning in the bullpen before his start. Amazingly it seemed to work for awhile.

The point is that Jeff Francis isn’t alone in this issue, but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how badly it’s hurting both his statistics and the Royals. For the season, Francis is 2-6 with a 4.52 ERA. While his ERA is on the high side, his FIP is 3.89 and his xFIP is 3.85 which means that he’s been underperforming his peripherals. A lot of this is because he’s done a great job of keeping walks to a minimum with under two per nine innings. That’s offset somewhat by his inability to rack up strikeouts, but not walking hitters is always a good trait to have. I should say at this point, though, that I was wrong about Francis a few weeks ago when I said that he had no business on the Royals staff. He’s not a great pitcher by any stretch, but he fills a role nicely and has been better than I expected…except for that darn first inning.

Interestingly enough, the first inning wasn’t a problem for Francis until later on into April when the Royals faced the Indians on April 27 in Cleveland. Francis gave up five runs in the first and ended up going only three innings, but didn’t allow another earned run that game. That’s not the greatest example, though. Starting on May 8 is where the good examples get going. Francis allowed two runs in the first inning to the Athletics (one was unearned) before settling down and pitching 6.1 innings and only allowing one more run. The Royals went on to lose, but he kept the team in the game. In his next start on May 14, Francis seemingly could get nobody out in Detroit. He gave up three runs on five hits in the bottom of the first inning putting the Royals in a big hole. Over the next seven innings, he allowed no runs on two hits. This was probably the greatest example of his first inning troubles. He had a similar start against the Angels last Tuesday where he allowed two in the first and finished by allowing just three total in seven innings. And in his most recent start on Sunday, he allowed three runs in the first and only ended up allowing one more in seven total innings.

To be honest, I thought it had been more of a detriment to the Royals than it had in looking at the numbers. Unluckily for the Royals, their offense has been mostly dormant in these games that Francis has struggled in the early going, but you have to wonder if part of that is being down by a large margin before they even have their first or second at bat. You’d hope that isn’t the case, but it’s hard to know for sure. I’m not sure what the solution is for this, but I thought it was something interesting that was worth pointing out. There may be nothing that can be done. I guess the Royals can try the simulated inning with Francis prior to the games, but if this has been a career long issue, I’d assume that’s been tried with him at some point previously.

Something I have learned from this is that the Royals have far bigger problems in their starting rotation than Jeff Francis. Well, I didn’t learn it from this, but it definitely reiterated to me that he’s not that bad of a pitcher. I’ll admit that I’m not exactly sure how he gets some of these hitters out with a fastball in the mid-80s and nothing too dazzling, but he seems to get the job done adequately for the Royals. Based on some of the regression of some of the prospects, I wouldn’t have a huge problem with keeping Francis on board for next season. My first preference would be to trade him and not worry about the hole that would create in the rotation, but I just don’t see there being a ton of interest for a guy like Francis. Even if there was interest, I can’t imagine the Royals would be able to get a piece back who could be a big part of the future. At this juncture, barring a good trade opportunity, the Royals might be smart to hang on to Francis and let him be a solid back-of-the-rotation starter next season.

To slightly shift gears, the starting rotation considered its poor performances last night as Vin Mazzaro successfully lowered his ERA by over five points. Of course, it started at over 22, so that wasn’t exactly a feat of strength that would have made Frank Costanza proud on Festivus. He gave up six earned in five innings pitched before exiting and letting Louis Coleman take control of the game for a couple of innings. Bruce Chen is beginning his rehabilitation assignment, so he should be back on the big club in short order which will be a huge boost. When he comes back, the rotation won’t look quite as awful until the time when Paulino turns into a pumpkin again. I hope that doesn’t happen, but you sort of have to assume it will based on his track record. It’s too bad for Mazzaro because he really does have good stuff. I think he has what it takes to be a contributor to a Major League rotation, but the results just aren’t there. In the end, it’s all about the results. I’m excited to see Duffy tonight as he goes for his first big league win, but I’m nervous about the righties in the Blue Jays lineup doing some damage against him. Should be a good one.

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  1. Patrick
    June 8, 2011 at 10:09 am

    If I remember correctly, in the one good season, and one decent season of Brian Bannister, most of the damage done against him always seemed to be in the first or second inning.

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