The first inning has buried Danny Salazar in an early-game hole and prevented him from working deep into each one of his seven starts this season.
During the Indians’ last homestand, the 27-year-old claimed it was just a coincidence…
“I feel in the first inning the same way I did in the rest of the game.”
Over 10 days later, Salazar first-inning struggles have stayed persistent and lingered into the middle of May with 11 of his 21 earned runs coming within moments of his first delivery.
Manager Terry Francona suggested a simplified warmup as a potential fix to the concerning situation.
"His warmup used to be really long, like extended long," said manager Terry Francona prior to Salazar’s outing on April 29. "[Mickey Callaway and Salazar] tried to cut that back a little bit. One, to hopefully get him deeper into the game and also maybe cut down on fatigue.”
Despite the adjustments, Salazar claims he is doing the same routine as he did in 2016, a year in which he had a 4.56 ERA and held hitters to a .258/.374/.402 slash line in 25 first innings pitched.
“I just warmup then I go in the only thing in my mind is just be aggressive and get ahead in the count,” Salazar said. “I’ve been doing the same thing as I was doing last year.”
It is unknown as to whether Salazar is actually replicating his warmup or downsizing it (like Francona says) in comparison to his respectable 2016 campaign – 11-6, 3.87 ERA, 137.1 IP, 121 H, 61 R, 59 ER, 63 BB, 161 K.
So what has been Salazar’s problem this season?
He entered play on Wednesday with a 12.00 ERA while opposing batters slashed .419/.486/.800 off him in his six first innings alone.
The right-hander’s most recent opening frame against the Blue Jays did not help matters…
May 11 at Toronto
First Inning Line – 1 IP, 2 H, 3 R/ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HR (Jose Bautista)
Jose Bautista dealt the big blow with his third home run of the year to help break out of a skid where he had one hit in his last 19 at-bats.
By looking at the graph above, it is simple to identify Salazar’s two location mistakes right down the heart of the plate, both of which led to crucial base knocks.
Here are Salazar’s other rocky first-inning performances this year…
April 5 at Texas
First Inning Line – 1 IP, 1 H, 2 R/ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 HR (Nomar Mazara)
April 23 at Chicago White Sox
First Inning Line – 1 IP, 4 H, 3 R/ER, 2 BB, 2 K
April 29 vs. Seattle
First Inning Line – 1 IP, 3 H, 3 R/ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 2 HRs (Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager)
It is encouraging to see Salazar register at least one strikeout in each example, but the four home runs charged to his first-inning ledger this season are nearly half of the 10 home runs he allowed through 85 first innings from 2013-2016.
In other words, Salazar is leaving a multitude of pitches down the middle of the strike zone while also laboring vs. hitters who either walk (6.4 BB/9) or strikeout (15.4 K/9) in the first inning.
The number three hurler in the starting rotation will need to balance his pitch location and pitch efficiency to not only work deeper into ballgames, but also set the tone right from the outset.