Handicappers followpitchers at 20 starts

Jul 19, 2005 5:27 AM

When the temperatures hit triple digits for several weeks in a row it means two things in baseball. First, the hot temps mean most teams are approaching 100 games played. Second, football is just around the corner.

With more than half the season complete handicappers have been able to get a very good read on the strengths and weaknesses of individual players. Starting pitching remains the cornerstone of baseball handicapping. Many starters are approaching 20 starts for the season if they have been in the rotation since the beginning of the season and have not been injured. A pitcher making all scheduled starts over the season will generally have between 32 and 36.

A secondary tool used by handicappers is to chart the results of home plate umpires. A typical full time umpire will also be behind the plate roughly 32-36 times in a season, allowing for vacation time. Most of the attention from charting umpires is paid to the distribution of totals. Certain umpires involved in far more "overs" than "unders" are considered to have small strike zones. If so, that forces the pitcher to place the ball in a very narrow area above home plate. Umpires involved in far more "unders" than "overs" are said to have very large, or wide, strike zones. This gives pitchers benefit of the doubt on close pitches.

Such information is available on many websites. At this point of the season, many umpires have demonstrated significant tendencies. They can be classified as one type or the other, based upon the ump’s first 15 or so squats behind the dish.

The most extreme case this season has been Ed Montague. In his 19 appearances as home plate umpire, the "over" is 14-1 with four pushes. Just the one "under" when working the plate. An average of 11½ runs have been scored in his games behind home and the starting pitchers have combined for a 4.75 ERA.

Marvin Hudson has also been an "over" umpire, going 13-5 with two pushes. Greg Gibson is just behind Hudson in the "over" category at 12-5.

The umpire kindest to pitchers has been Lance Barksdale. His log for 2005 has the "under" with a 13-5 edge with one push. His games average just 7.3 total runs being scored when he is head arbiter. Veteran John Hirschbeck has also favored the pitchers with a 14-6 "under" mark through this past Sunday.

It’s interesting that the composition of umpires making up the "extreme" list will change from year to year. Perhaps the list differs as a result of umps making changes during the off-season in interpreting the strike zone — maybe after a review by MLB officials. But what is also interesting is that once identifying the extreme umpires (often after only as few as 10-to-12 starts) their tendencies seem to continue for the rest of the season.

While just one component of a sound handicapping model, paying attention to the tendencies of umpires can often reinforce an already handicapped play. It can also keep you off a potential play because of these likely subconscious biases. We will track the results for those five umpires over the rest of the season and see if this continues to hold true. The three "over" umpires above are a combined 39-11-6. The two "under" umps are a combined 11-27-1.

Next week we’ll look at yet another aspect of incorporating umpire information into the handicapping of baseball games.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend, three of which are four game series that begin on Thursday.

Astros at Nationals: First meeting. Houston has relied on incredible starting pitching from Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte. Washington has been well balanced without any true stars aside from brilliant closer Chad Cordero. Houston is likely to be favored when any of their three aces start. Preferred plays: Houston at —125 or less if Big Three pitch. Play "under" at 8 or higher.

Cubs at Cardinals: These long time rivals have met just twice this season, splitting a pair of games in Chicago back in April. The Cards and Cubs have 14 meetings remaining. St. Louis is known for its potent offense, but has have gotten outstanding starting pitching from the entire rotation. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are healthy as the Cubs make a drive for the wild card. Preferred plays: Go "under" if 7 or higher. We like the underdog if at least +110. The only exception is when Chicago’s fifth starter Jerome Williams pitches. Take "over" if 9 and bet the Cards at —140 against Williams.

Red Sox at White Sox: First meeting. The White Sox continue to have the best record in baseball and that 31-14 road record is especially impressive. Boston has struggled with its pitching for much of the season. It remains to be seen how effective and for how long Curt Schilling will be as closer. Preferred plays: It’s been often said that good pitching stops good hitting. With that in mind, play Chicago at —130 in starts by Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland. Go "under" 8 if Matt Clement or Bronson Arroyo faces any of the White Sox trio. Otherwise, take "over" at 9 or lower.

Yanks at Angels: The Angels lead the series 2-1. The Yankees’ starting rotation is a mess with several starters on the DL. Al Leiter pitched a gem in New York’s win over Boston. If he can in any way resemble the pitcher he was for several seasons in Florida and the Mets, the Yankees might have found at least one answer for their woes. They catch the Angels in an offensive slump. Over the past 10 games, L.A./Anaheim has scored more than four runs just once. Fundamentals call for this to be a high scoring series. Preferred plays: The "over" at 9 or lower. Play Angels as underdogs against Mike Mussina or Randy Johnson. Stick with Angels as —125 favorites in starts by John Lackey or Jarrod Washburn. Bet Yanks as a dog against Bartolo Colon and as a —130 favorite against rookie Ervin Santana.