First 5 innings a popular betting option

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Over the past couple of issues I’ve discussed the significant changes and challenges presented to baseball handicappers and bettors resulting from the increasing strategic usage of ‘opening’ rather than ‘starting’ pitchers over the past couple of seasons in addition to noting that the number of innings pitched by traditional starting pitchers has decreased significantly.

One betting option that was introduced over the past decade and has gained in popularity in recent seasons is First Five Innings wagering. In many respects it is analogous to first-half wagering in football.

In First Five Innings wagering the result of your bet is determined by the result of the game after five full innings have been played. In general, such wagers involve sides and totals with just a handful of books offering run line wagers as well.

Pricing is such that the favorite for the entire game is usually a slightly higher favorite for the first five innings based upon the likelihood that the bet’s result will largely be influenced by both team’s starting pitchers pitching most, if not all, of the five innings, thus usually taking the bullpen out of play.

The first five innings total is roughly one half of the full game total, plus or minus half a run (for example, for a game with a total of 8 or 8.5 the first five innings total might be 4 or 4.5).

The wager is dependent on the listed started pitchers actually starting the game. There is generally no ‘action’ option available. If one of the two starters are scratched, the bet is refunded.

Over recent seasons, my preferred first five innings play has been to look under the total when a pair of elite pitchers were opposing one another.  Think Max Scherzer vs. Clayton Kershaw or Chris Sale vs. Corey Kluber. Other high-quality matchups would also meet my expectations of a well- pitched first half of a game in which there was a strong possibility that either or both starters would not face a hitter more than twice and almost certainly not facing the entire lineup three times through.

As a result of the diminished value of the starting pitcher due to shorter appearances I have started to make plays on or against certain starters for first five inning wagers, usually looking to back underdogs with below average bullpens when facing favored teams starting one of their weaker starters but one who will be backed with an average to above average bullpen.

In this scenario the expectation is that if the underdog is to fare well, that team will have success against a weak starting pitcher, but its own bullpen will have trouble closing out the game over the final few innings.

In most cases, a bad baseball team is one that has a poor bullpen that often blows late-game leads. The first five innings wager enables the bettor to back bad teams in favorable situations, often as underdogs when starting their best starter or two.

Of course in this era of increased offense bad teams are also those that have trouble scoring runs. Currently there are five MLB teams averaging less than 4.0 runs per game — Baltimore, Detroit, Miami, San Francisco and Toronto. These teams are usually underdogs, but each has a starter or two capable of giving five solid innings before being pulled.

Over the next month or so let’s keep an eye on Baltimore’s John Means, Detroit’s Matthew Boyd, Miami’s Pablo Lopez, San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner and Toronto’s Marcus Stroman. All five — including Bumgarner — are under 30 years old (Lopez is 23).

Here are thoughts on three weekend series.

Mets at Cubs: This four-game series starts Thursday as they meet for the first time this season. The Mets have been a major disappointment thus far with a poorly performing bullpen unable to provide support for a solid though underachieving starting rotation anchored by Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard, the latter two of whom may the involved in July trades should the Mets fall out of realistic contention (although Syndergaard is currently on the IL and will miss this series).

Chicago’s best starter has been Kyle Hendricks. But he also is on the IL and will miss this series. Cole Hamels has been steady and can be backed as an underdog of +120 or more against deGrom or as a favorite of -150 or less against any other Mets starter.

The Mets’ best spot as an underdog would be against Jon Lester who was brilliant over his first seven starts (allowing two runs or less in each) but has tailed off considerably over his last six (allowing four earned runs or more in five of those starts). Even deGrom can be backed as a favorite of -125 or less against Lester but look to take +120 or more with other Mets starters against the veteran lefty.

With the exception of starts by deGrom or Hamels look over before under for totals plays with over totals of 9 or less most worthy of consideration.

Astros at Yankees: This is another four-game series starting Thursday. In their only prior series, played in early April, the Astros swept a three-game home series from New York. Two of the three went over the total with one staying under as the teams averaged a combined 10.0 runs per game.

The Yankees are finally getting healthy with both Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge expected back in the lineup by the time this series begins.  Houston is still without Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. Of the three, Altuve appears closest to returning and may be available for this series.

Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have each been outstanding thus far and can be backed as favorites of -125 or less against any Yankees starter.  Masahiro Tanaka has been New York’s most consistent and effective starter and he can be backed as a favorite against other than Cole or Verlander if priced no higher than -140.

In a matchup of Cole or Verlander against Tanaka look under totals of 8 or higher. In games not involving any of those three starters, consider playing the first five innings over totals of 4 or lower as the Yankees and Astros each have above average, deep bullpens.

Angels at Cardinals: St. Louis played its best baseball through April but stumbled during May but they’ve improved somewhat in June. The Angels did not play well for most of the season’s first two months but their play has been more consistent over the past few weeks.

Through nearly have a season the Angels are averaging an identical 5.1 runs per game both at home and on the road as Mike Trout is heating up and on pace to another MVP caliber season.

The Angels are the latest team to extensively go the ‘opener’ route with no fewer than a half-dozen pitchers filling that role at one point this season.  Rookie Griffin Channing has shown promise through nine starts and can be backed as an underdog of any price in this series.

Second-year pitcher Dakota Hudson has pitched well recently for the Cardinals and can be backed against other than Canning if favored at -130 or less. No starter on either staff is averaging more than 5.6 innings per start which suggests the bullpens will be in play throughout this series. 

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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