In last week’s column I began a discussion about a trend – troubling to some, long overdue to others – involving a significant departure from the way baseball games have been played for more than half a century.
In the 20th Century, complete games from starting pitcher were commonplace well into the post-World War II era. Over the latter third of the century the role of closer developed to which was attached a high level of significance as the closer would be the pitcher called upon the get the final few outs of a ballgame the starter was unable to finish for a variety of reasons (loss of effectiveness, fatigue, etc.).
In the years and decades that followed, middle relievers, long relievers and late- inning specialists have all came into vogue such that the average number of innings pitched by a starting pitcher has declined markedly over the years.
I cited last week that in 2015 nearly 59 percent of all games saw a starting pitcher go at least six innings. That percentage was just 46.5 percent last season and is down another full percentage point through the first two months of this season.
The latest development, initiated last season by Tampa Bay, involves using an ‘opening’ pitcher who is expected to pitch one or perhaps two innings at most before giving way to a pitcher who would normally be considered the starter and, if effective, would pitch the following five to seven innings before potentially giving way to a closer.
Milwaukee, Texas, the L.A. Angels, Oakland and Seattle are among the teams that have used this tactic this season and the number of such teams is likely to increase.
A number of reasons are given for this strategy, including not having the ‘true’ starter having to face the top part of the batting order right at the start, a means of having the starter face the opposing lineup more than twice in a game and reducing some of the lefty/righty matchups desired by the manager of the team whose lineup is facing the opener.
At the same time, managers who employ an opener are in danger of sacrificing a pitcher who might be needed later in a game, especially one that goes into extra innings. Although it is an advantage to score first in this era of increasing offense, it’s not nearly as important as it was in the past as rallies, especially against weak bullpens, are commonplace.
Managers who employ the opener strategy often indicate their plans as to who will follow that opener in an upcoming game – the pitcher most likely to pitch deep into the contest beginning with the second or third inning.
The most recent example involved Seattle and traditional starting pitcher Wade LeBlanc. Last Monday against Houston, LeBlanc was scheduled to start the game but there was a late change and Cory Gearrin started and pitched the first inning. LeBlanc started the second inning and pitched the remaining eight innings, allowing just three hits and one run.
Unfortunately Gearrin had given up three first-inning runs in what resulted in a 4-2 Seattle loss, so LeBlanc’s effort was wasted.
This past Sunday, Austin Adams pitched the first inning for the Mariners against the Angels and allowed no runs. LeBlanc started the second inning and pitched six innings, allowing just a pair of runs and, backed by his offense, got the win as Seattle prevailed 9-3.
For that reason, a change in how game have traditionally been bet has come into vogue. Rather than listing both starting pitchers in a game (as I have done and have recommended for years) has given rise to making wagers on a “starter vs. action” basis.
Many websites and apps will have information about expected starters for a team’s next game when a manager decides to go the opener route. Often the manager will name the ‘starter’ who is expected to take over once the opener completes his inning or two but often will change his mind on which reliever will open the game.
Thus, if the Yankees will start James Paxton against the Angels who plan on using an opener before a specific starter will take over, the bet would be either “Yankees with Paxton over Angels action” or “Angels action over Yankees with Paxton.”
Another way of handling the decreased number of starting innings pitched is through the First Five Innings option which shall be discussed next week.
History was made Monday night as Arizona and Philadelphia combined to hit 13 home runs, breaking by one the previous record that had been accomplished twice. There was a sense early that it might be a special night as Arizona started the game with three consecutive homers en route to hitting eight for the game. The Phillies added five of their own as Arizona cruised to a 13-8 win.
Here are thoughts on three weekend series. All are in the National League as none of the American League weekend series involve two winning teams nor does the lone interleague series.
Cardinals at Mets: This is a four-game series that begins Thursday. In their only prior series this season the Cardinals took two of three from the Mets at home in mid-April. It was a high scoring series with two games going over the total in addition to a push as the teams averaged a combined 11.3 total runs per game. The Mets have not gotten the performances expected from the Big Three in their rotation – Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Zack Wheeler. The trio has pitched decently but more has been expected. Surprisingly veteran Jason Vargas, who was horrible last season, has made nine starts and his 2.84 ERA was leading the staff prior to Tuesday’s start against the Yankees.
Still, the Mets’ rotation has a decided edge over St Louis and the Mets are likely to be favored in all three games. The Cardinals have cooled greatly since standing 20-10 after a win on May 1. Since then they’ve gone 12-22.
I will look for the Mets to win three of the four games, willing to lay -140 or less in starts by the aforementioned trio, Vargas or Steven Matz. However if the Cardinals are priced at +160 or more, which could happen in starts by Matz or Syndergaard, I’ll gladly take that underdog price.
Phillies at Braves: Philadelphia swept a home series against the Braves at the end of March in their only prior meeting this season. Two of games were high scoring games that went over total with each featuring 14 runs. The lone game to stay under the total was Phily’s 5-1 victory in the series finale.
The big news surrounding this series is Atlanta’s signing last week of free agent lefty Dallas Keuchel. Needing a few ‘rehab’ starts to get into game shape he is likely not going to pitch in this series.
Philly ace Aaron Nola has had more poor outings than good outings this season as Zach Eflin has been their best starter thus far with his 2.88 ERA and 1.19 WHIP while averaging 6.0 innings per start. Atlanta’s best starter by far has been 21- year-old Mike Soroka. In 10 starts he’s fashioned an impressive 1.38 ERA with an even more impressive 0.87 WHIP. Most impressive of all, however, is his 6.5 innings per start.
Both Max Fried and Julio Teheran have also pitched very well. Both offenses have been above average, especially at home where each averages 5.3 runs per game. I will look to back Soroka, Teheran and Fried for the Braves and Eflin for the Phillies, taking any of the four as an underdog of +125 or more, even if Eflin faces any of the Atlanta trio, in which case under a total of 8 or higher can also be considered, except if he opposes Fried.
Against other than Eflin I will be looking to back Soroka as a favorite of -150 or less (even against Nola) and both Teheran or Fried as favorites laying no more than -130.
I would back Nola as an underdog of any price against either Teheran or Fried. Note that 11 of Nola’s 14 starts have gone over the total as have nine of Fried’s 12 starts.
Cubs at Dodgers: This four-game series begins Thursday. In their only prior meeting the Cubs took two of three from the Dodgers when they met at Wrigley Field in mid-April. Two games went over the total and one stayed under as the teams averaged a combined 8.3 runs per game.
The Dodgers have been banging the baseball at home this season, averaging an MLB third best 5.7 runs per game (while allowing an MLB second best low of 3.4 rpg). The Cubs have averaged scoring 5.7 rpg on the road while allowing a rather high 5.1 rpg.
The Dodgers have played one more over than under at home while the Cubs are 18-11-1 to the over on the road, suggesting this could be a higher than expected scoring series.
I’ll look to the over in starts not involving the Dodgers HJ Ryu or Clayton Kershaw or the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks. Ryu is having a Cy Young Award season with his 1.36 ERA and 0.80 WHIP through 13 starts. Hendricks and Cole Hamels are also having solid seasons for the Cubs as only Yu Darvish has struggled in a majority of his starts.
I will look to back both Hendricks and Hamels as underdogs of +110 or more against other than Ryu while looking to back the Dodgers. Ryu and Kershaw as favorites of -160 or less against other than Hendricks. No Dodgers starter is more than two games away from .500 in their totals results while the Cubs’ Jon Lester has gone 8-3 to the over thus far.