Handicapping pitchers continues to evolve

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The second trimester of the 2019 baseball season is underway and generally covers the months of June and July. It’s during these two months that teams have to determine if they will be buyers or sellers as the July 31 trading deadline approaches.

As we approach the final two weeks of July teams begin to show their hands, making determinations as to whether they believe that can contend for the playoffs or begin to look toward next season by making moves to strengthen their roster. Teams will often trade veteran players usually in the latter stages of their careers for young players or prospects they hope will have them contend a season or two hence.

The game has undergone a major change in the past couple of seasons that greatly affects the way the sport is played, handicapped and bet. By this, I am not just referring to the increased usage of an ‘opener’ to start games rather than an established starting pitcher. The ‘opener’ is generally a relief pitcher who will pitch either the first inning or the first two innings before giving way to an established starter who is then expected to pitch deep into the contest.

This strategy was implemented by Tampa Bay last season and copied by a handful of other teams. The Rays continue to employ this technique on a regular basis with Ryan Stanek most often called upon to be the ‘opener.’ Thus far, Stanek has opened 16 games, lasting an average of just 1.6 innings per start while compiling a 1.73 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. Those are outstanding results but pitching less than two innings per start are of limited value in handicapping a game in which he is the opener.

This past Monday Seattle became the latest team to use an ‘opener’ in place of the expected (and initially listed) starting pitcher, lefty Wade LeBlanc.

After 26 relief appearances this season, Cory Gearrin pitched just the first inning (and was highly ineffective, allowing Houston three runs) before LeBlanc took over in the second inning and actually pitched very well, going the final eight innings and allowing just three hits and one run.

Even without using openers the role of the starting pitcher has diminished significantly over the past few seasons rather dramatically. In 2015 an average of 58.6 percent of all starts featured a starting pitcher going at least six full innings in a start with 28.5 percent of all starts seeing a starter go at least seven full innings.

Those percentages were just 46.5 percent and 17.9 percent respectively and through roughly a third of this season. those percentages have dropped to 45.4 percent and 16.1 percent. Quite possibly they will drop even further by the end of the season as more teams experiment with the ‘opener’ concept.

Baseball handicapping has long relied on an evaluation of the starting pitcher as the largest factor in the process. But the percentage usually applied to the significance of the starter has dropped. For many years, if not decades, that percentage was considered to be about 70 to 75 percent of the equation. These days, with advanced analytics combined with the increasing usage and importance of bullpens, that percentage is considered to perhaps in the neighborhood of ‘just’ 50 percent. 

Here are thoughts on three series this weekend:

Cardinals at Cubs: These longtime NL Central rivals are meeting for a third series in a five-week period, including last week’s series in St Louis. The home team has won all six games, three of which have been decided by one run. The half-dozen games have averaged 8.3 total runs per game with three going over the total and three staying under.

Last weekend, the Cardinals swept with two of the games narrow 2-1 decisions. Despite those low scores, neither team has a starter who has pitched at an elite level this season and several of them have struggled greatly. Chicago’s Kyle Hendricks has performed the best of the Cubs’ starters and is the only starter on either team averaging six innings per start. He can be backed in any matchup if priced at -150 or less. He is also the lone Cubs starter whose games have resulted more in staying under the total than going over. The preference would be to back the Cubs to take at least two of the three games in this series, gaining back some of the ground lost to the Cardinals last weekend. In second place behind Milwaukee, the Cubs entered play Tuesday two games ahead of St Louis. The Cardinals’ most favorable spot would be as an underdog of +150 or more and they can be played in such a spot against other than Hendricks, who has had outstanding success against the Cardinals over the past few seasons.

Rays at Red Sox: These AL East rivals are meeting for a third time this season and, opposite what has happened between the Cardinals and Cubs, the road team has won all five games. Their first two games went over the total but the next three all stayed under.

Both series were played over a 10-day span in April, the first three in Boston, the next two in St. Petersburg. The Rays sit second in the division, 2.5 games behind the Yankees but six games ahead of third-place Boston.

With Tyler Glasnow still sidelined Tampa Bay’s best true starting pitchers have been lefty Blake Snell and righty Charlie Morton even though each is averaging just 5.6 innings per start.

Chris Sale continues to struggle with consistency for Boston with six very strong and six very weak starts over his dozen outings. And even when he’s pitched well his team has not performed as well. Boston is just 3-9 in his dozen starts and only backers of Washington’s Max Scherzer have lost more than those who’ve backed Sale, dropping 13.3 units to date.

Boston started play on Tuesday in third place, six games behind second-place Tampa Bay. Winning at least two of this three-game series will allow the Sox to gain at least one game on the Rays and a sweep would be sweet. Despite the inconsistency I’ll likely back Sale if priced at -150 or less as well as backing David Price if laying no more than -135. Otherwise look to back the Rays in starts by Morton or Snell as underdogs of +120 or more except against Sale or Price.

Yankees at Indians: These teams are meeting for the first time this season with the Yankees having won five of seven games in 2018. New York has been perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2019 season considering all the key injuries they’ve suffered yet managed to overcome. 

Entering play Tuesday, their 38-20 record was fourth best in MLB although they are seeded third in the American League behind Minnesota and Houston.

Cleveland has won three straight AL Central titles, winning 94, 102 and 91 games in the past three seasons. But a third of the way through this season the Tribe will be hard pressed to make the playoffs, much less earn a fourth straight division crown. Entering Tuesda,y Cleveland sat second in the Central at 29-30, 11.5 games behind Minnesota.

Currently the ‘play on’ starters for Cleveland are Shane Bieber and rookie Zach Plesac. Plesac has performed well in his first two starts and both he and Bieber can be backed against any Yankees starter if priced at +120 or more. Cleveland pitchers to face are Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco, both of who pitched poorly throughout most of May.

The Yankees can be played behind any starter if made underdogs against Bauer or Carrasco. Look over totals of 9 or lower in starts by Bauer, Carrasco or the Yankees’ JA Happ. 

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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