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The Blue Jays and their First Inning Follies

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Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mitch Bannon
15 days ago
The Toronto Blue Jays’ offensive struggles this season are well documented — they’re 25th in runs scored, 23rd in average, 17th in OPS, and on, and on.
But, there’s a specific spot where Toronto’s lineup falters even further: the first inning. Toronto’s first frame failures rank even lower than their overall numbers, as the Jays have the third-fewest runs in the opening inning and third-worst OPS. The Jays have gone 21-straight games without scoring in the first inning, as of Friday.
What’s wrong in that first inning? And, more importantly, why is it happening?

What’s The Problem?

When you open up the hood, Toronto’s first-inning approach isn’t actually that bad — at least initially. The Jays have the eighth-lowest strikeout rate and an average walk rate in that opening frame. Even the team’s hard-hit rate sits about average in the opening inning.
Sure, hitting .200 overall in the first frame ain’t great. But the real issue here is a complete lack of power to start games.
There are 77 players who have at least 35 plate appearances in the first inning this year, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and George Springer. Not one of those Blue Jays has a home run in the opening frame. Between them, they’ve got just five extra-base hits. For context, there are 20 players alone who have 5+ XBH in the first inning. As a team, the Jays have just four homers in the first, third-fewest in MLB.
Across the league, the first inning is supposed to be the most homer-happy frame. MLB’s 232 first-inning homers are the most in any inning in baseball this year — only the third and sixth frames also have over 200 total. But for the Jays, it’s a blank spot.

Why Does Toronto Struggle In The First Inning?

The easy explanation here is personnel.
Bichette, Guerrero, and especially Springer have had lengthy cold stretches this season. Only Guerrero has been an above-average hitter of Toronto’s top three. So, when you have struggling hitters starting your lineup, the first inning can get ugly.
But, as I’m sure you know, Toronto has tried the lineup shuffle and that new order seemingly brought life to Toronto’s offence. But not in the first inning. Davis Schneider and Daulton Varsho, who the Jays have now pushed up into top spots in the batting order, have .177 and .125 batting averages in the opening inning, respectively.
I think there’s something more here and it focuses around game plan/preparation. Let’s make this clear: I am not a hitting coach or a professional baseball strategist — I don’t throw around a ‘poor game plan’ claim lightly. But, there’s something so clearly off with Toronto’s top-of-the-order to open games. Something that gets corrected as games go on.
Bichette sees his OPS jump from .561 to 1.065 the second time he sees a pitcher this year. Guerrero’s goes from .686 to .961 and Springer’s .561 to .931. As a team, Toronto’s OPS against a pitcher the first time is .689 and the second is .749.
It’s common that a batter performs better the more he sees a pitcher in a given game — it’s the reason teams are so reluctant to let starters face a lineup for the third time these days. But, the rest of the league doesn’t struggle nearly as much as the Jays in these first at-bats.
I wish I had the solution or an easy fix, but it seems like the Jays are being beaten in that first inning before games even start. The first few batters step up to the box only to perform like some of the worst hitters in baseball. The Jays can’t keep ‘feeling out’ new starters and taking advantage the second time through. A new plan is needed, because it will be hard to turn the Blue Jays’ offense around without figuring out the first inning follies.

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