Thursday, April 14, 2011

MLB Betting Notes From Las Vegas: Handicapping the Bullpen Serves Well

By Micah Roberts

Handicapping the bullpen is worth while 
When handicapping baseball games most of us take a quick look at the current streaks of teams, look at the starting pitchers chart, but rarely do we ever sit down and take a hard look at what a team’s bullpen is doing. Part of that is because it’s not a stat line that is quickly offered or readily found as a stat on-line. This is something that has to be accounted for as a mental note and written down next to every team's daily adjusted rating.

With starting pitchers still on a short leash of 100 pitches regardless of how well they‘re doing, the bullpen becomes almost as important as the starter. Even in the heart of the regualr season, how fun is it to lay a big price on Tim Lincecum only to find yourself with a wager on the Giants bullpen, who for some reason always seem to blow it for him. I found my self being talked into a few plays last week just because of a terrible bullpen situation by the opposing team and in each case was fortunate to cash.

Last Friday the Tampa Bay Rays were getting +145 against the White Sox. Through their first six games, the Rays had only scored eight runs and had scored only one run in five of those losses. It’s never a good strategy to bet a streak to stop, but the line seemed to be a little inflated due to the Rays hitting woes. There was value in a game that I had personally made Chicago a -140, but I couldn’t pull the trigger until I started looking at the White Sox bullpen numbers from their first six games.

The White Sox pen had given up 16 runs and were overworked. Their closer, Matt Thornton, had already had his confidence shattered a couple times and was coming in as the worst kind of closer, one that’s scared.

So I had thrown all conventional wisdom regarding poor hitting teams on a losing streak out the window and made the wager on the Rays with the Sox bullpen being the deciding factor. Whether I got lucky or just tapped into an area I had not given much attention to in the past, the move paid off as the Rays won their first game of the year 9-7. Not only was it the first lead of the season for the Rays, but the five runs in the ninth inning all came off of Thornton.

Thus far we have four teams that have matched the White Sox futility in not being able to close out games. The Angels, Cubs and Cardinals haven’t given up as many runs as the White Sox, but they have all blown three save opportunities. In St. Louis, Ryan Franklin can’t get anything positive going with his three blown saves and four runs allowed in 3.2 innings and is on the verge of being replaced by 40-year old journeyman Miguel Batista.

Cards Struggling
Beyond all of Franklin’s troubles, the Cardinals are having trouble everywhere else as they currently are 28th in runs scored (27) and slugging percentage (.306). Most of that can be attributed to Matt Holliday being out of the lineup and Albert Pujols struggling in part because it. But still, it’s pretty bad when pitcher Jake Westbrook has a higher batting average (.250) than your star slugger (.143) after nine games. Pujols has only five hits in nine games with only four RBI’s. The Cardinals only have one player, Colby Rasmus, who has played at least three games that is batting over .300 which has contributed to their 3-6 record. They are likely to bounce back soon, but I’ll be taking long hard looks at betting against them in every game for the next week other than when Jaime Garcia is pitching.

Pitchers on the Rise
The days of getting plus money on Baltmore’s Zach Britton, Toronto’s Kyle Drabek and Cleveland’s Josh Tomlin may be gone soon unless they face an ace, but you still have to ride them for a while as their team has won both games they have started this season. All three having been dazzling, but the standout is Britton who shut down the red hot Rangers bats Saturday. He’s got a killer sinker that is worth riding to the bet window every game he pitches.

Beckett Sooths the Nation
Between seven losses, only Dustin Pedroia hitting and just one solid start from their pitching staff, the Red Sox Nation was in a bit of a panic mode heading into Josh Beckett’s Sunday night start against the Yankees. After eight strong shutout innings, Beckett -- perhaps the biggest question mark of the 2011 season, showed that he is capable of being a dominant pitcher again. Things should get better for prized free-agent pickup Carl Crawford, who has struggled miserably at the plate, as he faces his old team this week.

Hughes in Trouble
Velocity down for Hughes
In two starts this year, Yankees starting pitcher Phil Hughes has allowed 11 earned runs in six innings of work. The 18-game winner from last year didn’t have a great spring and his fastball’s velocity is off 3 mph from last season which has essentially allowed opposing hitters to tee off on him. I know it’s tough to bet against the powerful lineup of the Yankees, but until Hughes shows he’s better, he’s a great one to bet against.

The one positive for the Yankees if Hughes doesn’t return back to normalcy is that former Cy Young award winner Bartolo Colon looks close to being like his old self coming out of the pen. In Friday’s loss to Boston, Colon was throwing some heat in the mid-90’s that Boston had trouble with.

Surprise Teams Paying Well
I know it’s early and not likely to last much longer, but I still can’t help feeling excited for what is going on in Cleveland, Kansas City and Pittsburgh. Their all teams playing against a stacked deck of what today’s baseball is and are exceeding their abilities. Each one of these teams have shown they can hit the ball well which will give them a fighting chance all season, but the real surprise has been their pitching. How long will it last and how long should we ride the wave?

I feel good about taking Josh Tomlin in Cleveland, but I guess I can’t get enough nerve to even jump on the wave until seeing a few more weeks of play. I’ve bet Pittsburgh a couple of times this year, but there’s a stigma that is attached to these teams that kind of keeps me from playing them regularly, opting to play good teams with value. So while I'll tip-toe around the idea of betting on or against them, I'll just root for them all separately as just a regular baseball fan with little or no action.

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