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Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Does Randy Wells have first-inning jitters?

By Christina Kahrl


First-inning shellackings were a problem for Randy Wells last season. His 6.10 ERA in his games' initial frame was cause for comment and concern going into spring training, and while he was far from guaranteed a job, he wound up winning one with what he showed in the Cactus League.

Last year's problem perhaps seemed especially egregious because it came after he started out the season well enough. He had logged quality starts in six of nine turns through the rotation, posted a 3.99 ERA overall, and allowing a first-inning run in just one of his first nine starts. But all that was before he got knocked out of the box on May 28th by the Brewers. He didn't retire a single batter, allowing five to score before Lou Piniella finally hooked him to control the damage.

After that disaster, he allowed a first-inning run in six of his remaining 22 starts. Which doesn't so bad except that, after that initial blowout against Milwaukee, people started wondering. And every instance that followed just served to confirm that Wells had a problem with the first inning.

Randy Wells
After giving up a leadoff home run, Randy Wells held Arizona scoreless for six innings.
It's worth remembering that Wells wasn't the only guy who had his issues in this situation, because as ugly as a 6.10 ERA is, he wasn't among the worst last season. From ESPN Stats and Info, we get this ignominious list of the worst first-inning ERAs of the 2010 season:

Kevin Millwood -- 11.03
Chris Narveson -- 9.32
Johan Santana -- 7.76
Daisuke Matsuzaka -- 7.56
Kyle Kendrick -- 7.55

Per Baseball-Reference.com, last year the first inning was the single worst for all National League pitchers combined, with a 4.38 ERA. (For the appropriately finicky worried about unearned runs, it was also the single highest inning for runs allowed too, with 4.77 RA/9.) So it seems like Wells had similar problems as many of the other National League starters.

Now that the games are for real, you can imagine what some of us were wondering, or at least what I was wondering. What would Wells do in the first inning of his first start of the 2011 season?

Well, sure enough, Wells gave up a first-inning run to the Arizona Diamondbacks on a leadoff home run. To add insult to ignominy, it was one smote by as unlikely a bopper as you could come up with on any short list of Duane Kuiper wannabes: Willie Bloomquist. This was Wee Willie's fifth career blast off all right-handed pitchers in 1,252 plate appearance against them. Power production from Willie Bloomquist, against a right-handed starting pitcher?

Doesn't that seem like the definition of a first-inning issue? Yes and no since Wells managed to avoid giving up another run through the remainder of the inning or in any of the five frames following it. Overall performance has a way of making the ticky-tack frets look scaled to actual size. Before that debacle on May 28th last year, Wells was giving up 4.2 runs per nine in nine starts; in the 22 after it, he gave up 4.3 R/9.

I would argue that the more basic problem wasn't his first innings. Wells' problem was that he's pitching much worse than he had in his rookie season in 2009. The first-inning "issue" may have, at best, become the poster child for a pitcher who fundamentally wasn't pitching as well as he had.

Statistically speaking, there were plenty of symptoms: his walk rate went up by almost a full percentage point, and his ground-ball rate dropped. As a young pitcher whose fastball rarely touches 90 mph, that means he'd been leaving a lot balls up in the zone and giving up a lot more extra base hits.

The other thing to remember with Wells is that he is a converted position player who only made the full-time move to the mound as professional in 2004 when he was 21-years old. Unlike most conversion projects, he's a big guy. At 6-foot-5 he's a lot taller than most catchers at any level. It's also worth noting that, unlike most conversion projects, he didn't wind up in the bullpen. Wells is still relatively inexperienced as a professional pitcher. And so we may not be able to apply some projection model on his career since there's a chance he might pick up something new.

But as is, Wells' attempt at mastering a full three-pitch repertoire seems certain to define the scope of his success as a starter. What happened on Monday against Arizona was a case study in that point. Take the Bloomquist homer. After the game Wells noted that, "it was a mistake, supposed to be a fastball away, and he [Bloomquist] got a good swing on it."

Fair enough. But after that initial failure, Wells was especially effective at generating third strikes with his change and slider -- if you can believe initial PitchF/X results -- getting all six of his strikeouts on off-speed stuff. He admitted to some measure of a sloppily pitched game -- four walks will do that to you -- but between going to the changeup and attacking the bottom of the strike zone, he did well enough to notch a quality start despite that first-inning homer. If he can keep doing that, and continue to get swinging strikes on his change and slider, he won't have to overpower people with pure gas. He also won't have to worry about first-inning results, because he'll be executing well enough to keep his job.

As obvious as it was that Wells was far from good in the first inning last year, he did manage to throw scoreless first frames three-quarters of the time in 2010. It should have been no surprise that by the time camp was winding down he was noticeably tired of questions about last season. If he keeps generating swing-and-misses with his off-speed pitches, then he ought to be able to stick around as a useful fourth starter in a big-league rotation.

Not too shabby for a former catcher with first-inning issues.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.