Defensive shifts rewriting some MLB betting rules

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This week’s focus is more on the actual playing of the game and how a major component of on-field play has changed fairly significantly in recent seasons with potential hazards and opportunities for bettors and handicappers.

And the change I am referring to is not the increased employment of the defensive shift against certain hitters who have shown an ability to put the ball into play in only one half of the field.

That strategy may be annoying to some but it’s perfectly legal and simply forces the player against whom the shift is used to learn to hit to the opposite field, a task most major leaguers can succeed at with a little extra work.

The change that concerns me is the increasing tendency of managers to pull starting pitchers earlier and earlier in games, often citing pitch count as a main reason or, secondarily, to avoid the starter having to face a complete lineup more than twice.

Using pitch counts as a reason does make some sense and we have seen many teams in recent seasons instruct their hitters to try to work pitchers deep into counts in an effort to get the starting pitcher removed earlier than his manager would like.

Avoiding facing a lineup more than twice seems to make sense as well as batting efficiency for hitters does improve when seeing a pitcher for a third or fourth time, although that increased degree of success might be as much due to a tiring starter than to the hitter having “figured out the pitcher.”

The tendency for managers to micro manage a game seems to be at an all-time high and is a major factor in why nine inning games routinely last for three hours or more.

Let’s take a look at how the average length of a starting pitcher’s starts have varied over the years. For purposes of this study I have considered using data only involving pitchers who made at least 10 starts during a season, thus eliminating pitchers who may have been ineffective early in the season and then demoted to the minors or pitchers who were called up late in the season (often prospects) and were not asked to go very deep into games.

The following data reflects the percentage of starters whose average start was at least five innings or more and those starts that averaged at least six innings or more (which are, of course, also included in the five-or-more category).

In 2017, 193 pitchers made at least 10 regular season starts with only 37 of those pitchers averaging at least 6.0 innings per start (19.2 percent) while 170 of the 193 averaged at least 5.0 IPS (88.1 percent).

That’s quite a drop off from those averaging at least 6.0 IPS to those averaging between 5.0 and 6.0 IPS.

Between 2010 and 2015 the percentage of starters with at least 10 starts averaging at least five but less than six IPS has remained pretty steady and within a narrow range of between 95.2 percent (2012) and 97.2 percent (2010).

But the data has changed over the past two seasons with just 91.0 percent of those pitchers averaging between 5.0 and 6.0 IPS in 2016 before dropping further to that 88.1 noted earlier for last season.

But let’s take a look at how the percentage of pitchers averaging at least 6.0 IPS has varied since 2010.

Between 2010 and 2014 that percentage ranged between a low of 44.4 percent in 2012 and a high of 55.9 percent in 2010. But in 2015 that percentage dropped to 38.4 percent and we witnessed a further drop to 29.8 percent in 2016 and that percentage dropped to below 20 percent (19.2) in 2017.

Obviously what this does is place greater and greater emphasis on the use of bullpens, which for the most part are made up of players considered (or having proven) not good enough to be starters. The great closer, Mariano Rivera, began his career as a starter as did current Yankees closer, Aroldis Chapman. Closers are often the exception in that in the current environment they are asked to throw hard for just one inning, throwing maybe 15 to 25 pitches in an outing.

Only a few teams have built their bullpens capable of effectively bridging the gap between innings 5 or 6 and inning 9.

The more uncertain the use of a bullpen, the greater the challenge to the handicapper and bettor. A couple of generations ago or so, when complete games were the norm, handicapping rarely involved placing great emphasis on bullpens, especially when top starters took the mound and routinely went more than 7 innings.

Nowadays bullpen analysis has taken on almost the same importance in handicapping a game as is attached to starting pitching.

Fortunately the introduction a decade or so ago of wagering on the first 5 innings of a game has provided ways to deal with what I consider to be an alarming change in the way games are managed.

In next week’s column I shall share some thoughts on ways to approach wagering on the first 5 innings.

Here are some thoughts on three series this weekend.

Arizona at Washington: Both teams were projected to be Playoff contenders and whereas Arizona has held up its part of the bargain with its 15-6 start the Nationals have struggled for the first month of the season, standing just 10-12 through this past Sunday. Bryce Harper is off to a strong start but the rest of the offense has lagged.

That has contributed greatly to the poor start as their top two starting pitchers – Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg – have been extremely solid thus far. Even number three starter, Gio Gonzalez, has started well. Arizona has combined timely hitting with fine pitching for its strong start. Lefty Patrick Corbin has been the Diamondbacks’ most effective starter with the two Zacks – Godley and Greinke – also pitching well.

Washington likely comes favored for at least two of the three games and the preferred play will be on Arizona although the Snakes would have to be getting at least +150 if facing Scherzer or Strasburg. Corbin can be backed if laying no more than -120 and not facing either of the Nats’ top two starters.

The UNDER is preferred to the OVER, especially at Totals of 8 or higher although the UNDER can be played at 7 or higher if the matchup has Scherzer, Strasburg or Gonzalez against Corbin, Godley or Greinke.

NY Yankees at LA Angels: The Angels have been one of the nice early season surprises and their 14-8 record has them performing at a better level than the 11-9 Yankees. The Angels have had trouble cobbling together a consistent starting rotation as already nine different starting pitchers have been used. That contrasts with the Yankees who, with assists from the schedule maker and postponed games, have been able to rely on just their five projected starters.

Much of the attention has been paid to Japanese import Shohei Ohtani who is settling in and starting to display his immense talents both at the plate and on the mound. Mike Trout has started to heat up and the Angels are averaging 5.1 runs per game. But that’s a half run less than the Yanks’ average of 5.7 rpg, setting this up as a potentially high scoring series. The Total can be played OVER Totals of 9 or less except in a start by the Yankees’ Luis Severino who is off to a strong start following his 2017 breakout campaign or in a start by the Angels’ Ohtani.

If Ohtani and Severino oppose each other you might consider looking UNDER Totals of 7.5 or higher. Both Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka have struggled in the early going and their games can be played OVER Totals of 9.5 or less. Either team can be played as underdogs of +125 or more except if the Angels face Severino, in which case the Halos should be +140 or more in order to be backed.

The Yankees do have the bullpen edge so you might want to consider a First 5 Innings play on the Angels if they are facing Gray or Tanaka.

Cincinnati at Minnesota: The lone interleague series pits the woeful Reds against a Minnesota team that has been inconsistent thus far as its 8-8 record might suggest. The Reds started this week an MLB worst 3-15 and became the first team (but likely not the last) to make a managerial change that has yet to make a difference. They have struggled both on the mound and at the plate.

Homer Bailey is their only starter with an ERA below 5 (3.67) and has been the only starter who has been reasonably effective. Yet the Reds are 0-4 in his starts. Minnesota’s best starter has been Jose Berrios and he’s put up outstanding stats in his four starts, three of which have resulted in Twins wins. The lack of quality starting pitching overall has put a strain on the bullpens, which suggests looking toward playing this series OVER the Total.

With the exception of a start by Berrios, look to play OVER Totals of 9 or lower. Berrios can be backed as a favorite of -160 or less against any Cincinnati starter while the Reds would have to be priced at +180 or higher before they can be considered for backing but cannot be backed, even at that price, against Berrios. If Berrios is priced at more than -160 consider laying the run and a half with the Twins in his start.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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