Scoring early often proves to be the difference
Data shows that taking a lead in the first few innings has profound effect on outcome
Todd Frazier remembers the feeling, be it inflicted upon others or internally absorbed, that would fill the air when one Little League team would do some early-inning damage to another.
Kids, let's face it, tend to be predisposed to emotional exaggeration. Some of them, in fact, really have been known to cry over spilled milk.
And so it extends to sports.
"I recall when you're younger and get runs on the board early, the kids on the other team started crying," said Frazier, the Reds' third baseman. "Everything is like, 'Oh, my God, we're going to lose, we're going to lose!'"
Thankfully, most of us grow out of that mindset. We learn a little about the wiggle room of life, about what it takes to roll with the punches the world delivers.
Alas, as it pertains to Major League Baseball, the feeling Frazier remembers is actually not all that far off.
In 2012, teams that took the lead in as little as one inning won 70 percent of the time, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Teams leading after two innings won 72.8 percent of the time. Teams leading after three innings won 76.2 percent of the time.
In today's game, be it because of deep bullpens or more sophisticated advance scouting or any of the oft-cited elements that have created a culture of run suppression, it's in your best interest to score early. Or else.
Maybe it seems obvious, because, frankly, it is. But the above numbers demonstrate just how important the early innings truly are.
"I honestly wouldn't have thought it would have been that high," veteran Jason Giambi said. "I would have said, 'It's nice to get that 1-0 lead, but how much of a factor does it really play?' But that's impressive."
What we're talking about here, essentially, is the element of emotion that no statistic can illustrate. An early lead, after all, breeds confidence in the pitcher now free to trust his stuff and the manager now free to set up his best bullpen.
"At a certain point in time early in the game, somebody dictates the tone," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "And then it's just a matter of whether the other guys can overcome it."
Crazy comebacks are one of the things we love about the game, but obviously those are more the exception than the rule. Just as bullpen specialization is a big reason why strikeout rates are at an all-time high, those high-velocity arms in the back end are also limiting rallies. The run-prevention revolution of recent years extends to the 'pen, as MLB's top four league-wide relief ERAs of the past 20 years have each been posted during the past four years (this year's 3.67 mark, to date, ranks third on the list).
So it behooves batters to do their due diligence -- pregame and in-game -- and understand the tendencies of that game's starter. Does he pitch with perceivable patterns? Is he more or less aggressive in the strike zone as games evolve and his pitch count rises? Which pitches are working for him and which ones look flat?
"It's all about doing some little things early in the game," Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said. "If you get a leadoff double, I think it's important early in the game to get that guy over. Not necessarily giving an at-bat away, but looking to drive the ball from the shortstop's left over to the right side and execute early in the game to get ahead."
That's why a reliable leadoff presence -- one who can see a lot of pitches and get on base with regularity -- is so beneficial to early-inning output.
"You don't want to get too predictable," Yankees leadoff man Brett Gardner said. "You want to figure out how he's working, how the ball is moving, because pitchers don't have the same stuff from day to day. Some days they might not have a good feel for their slider or their changeup. So you like to see some pitches, not only for your next at-bat but so that the guys in the dugout and on-deck can see him, too."
Unfortunately, a reliable leadoff presence is an all-too-rare commodity, but the situation seems to be improving this season. Last year, the average on-base percentage for No. 1 hitters was .324, the lowest such number in 35 years. This season, though, as players like the Reds' Shin-Soo Choo, the Rockies' Dexter Fowler, the Brewers' Nori Aoki and the Pirates' Starling Marte take off, that number has actually risen nine points, to .333.
Also of note, leadoff men are seeing 3.91 pitches per plate appearance this season, more than at any time since the stat was first tracked in 1974, according to STATS, LLC.
"It starts with your leadoff hitter," Giambi said. "He sets the tone. If he swings at the first pitch and makes an out, it makes the rest of the guys go, 'OK, what does he got?' The more pitches he can see and the more comfortable he is, he sets a tone for the rest of the guys."
Sometimes an aggressive tone must be set, depending on the starter's command.
"Every pitcher's trying to establish his own rhythm and get into the flow of the game," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, "and if you're doing something offensively to prevent that, that's what it means to get to a guy early. You take advantage of the mistakes that given pitcher might make, and that might be just not throwing strikes, that might be missing some pitches on the plate in some counts where you've got an advantage."
When a pitcher has an advantage on the scoreboard, the common assumption is that his mindset can shift to a more aggressive mode, though Farrell, a former big league pitcher, thinks that philosophy is overrated.
"The best or optimal approach would be to continue to pitch regardless of what the score is," he said, "and that's by reading swings, being able to establish a given pitch to be able to get a strike when you need it. That's not going away from what makes you the most effective pitcher ... rather than saying, 'OK, I've got a four-run lead so I'm just going to let you hit the ball.' To me, that works against you as a pitcher in controlling the situation."
Whatever the approach, an early lead breeds a confidence that's supported by the statistics.
"It changes everything in the game, every aspect to the way the pitcher is going to pitch and the way we're going to play defense," Frazier said. "If we're up a couple of runs, we don't need to play the infield in. We just get outs. So many aspects change when you take the lead."
Teams are certainly protecting those advantages at a high rate of success.
But those that don't strike first should take heart in the wiggle room. An early deficit isn't worth crying over.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. MLB.com reporter Mark Sheldon and contributor Patrick Donnelly contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.