Pitching savvy morethan just strikeouts

May 1, 2007 6:01 AM

Whiff.

One of the most familiar terms in baseball. Hear the word and the image of power hitting taking a huge swing at a baseball. And, missing comes to mind.

Over the years the term "whiff" has become synonymous with the strikeout, especially a swinging K. But there’s another similar sounding word that has great significance to baseball handicappers.

WHIP.

It’s an acronym for "Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched" and it reveals much about the quality and effectiveness of a pitcher.

Baseball has always been a game dominated by statistics. WHIP is a rather recent addition to the statistician’s library but one that has great value when evaluating an upcoming matchup.

It’s pretty simple to calculate. Add the hits allowed by a pitcher and the walks he issues and divide that total by the number of innings pitched. For example, if a pitcher allows 75 hits and issues 25 walks in 100 innings pitched he has a WHIP of exactly 1.00. That means he allows on average one base runner per inning.

A WHIP of 1.00 is outstanding, something only the elite pitchers in the game are able to sustain over any length of time. As a point of reference, a pitcher with a WHIP of 1.20 is a solid starting pitcher, one you would want to back — especially as an underdog or a small favorite. Pitchers with WHIPs of 1.60 or higher are pitchers to "go against."

In 2006 there were 181 pitchers who started at least 10 games. About two thirds of those pitchers had WHIPS between 1.25 and 1.60. There were 29 pitchers with 10 or more starts and WHIPs of 1.25 or lower. In 799 starts, the teams supporting those 29 pitchers were 471-328 (59 percent winners) and showed a net profit of 36.7 units.

There were 32 pitchers starting 10 or more games in 2006 and sporting WHIPs of 1.60 or higher. In 501 combined starts, their teams went 213-288 (42.5 percent winners) and showed a net loss of 60 units. Clearly, the reason for fewer overall starts is that these struggling pitchers don’t last very long.

Once a pitcher has made 10 starts we can get a pretty good indication of his effectiveness by looking at his WHIP. Some handicappers will use just five starts to make such a judgment.

With the 2007 season a month old, many starters have just made or will make this week their fifth start. Thus, you can begin to track their results in coming weeks.

While pitching remains a major handicapping factor, the balance between the importance of starting and relief pitching has changed dramatically over the years. Back in the day, complete games were the norm as was a 4-man rotation. That meant most pitchers would make about 40 starts per season and work over 300 innings.

Those days are no more. Today’s workhorse starters are fortunate to average between 6 and 7 innings per start. The importance of the bullpen, the havoc it wreaks with handicapping baseball games and a possible way around those hazards are topics for a future column.

Here’s a look at four series to be played this weekend.

Dodgers at Braves: Both teams have had strong starts to their seasons, largely due to their fine balance of offense and pitching. For Atlanta both Tim Hudson and John Smoltz have looked sharp in the season’s first month, while the Dodgers’ Brad Penny appears to be on his way to a breakout season. Aside from the injured Jason Schmidt, the other Dodgers starters have posted decent early season stats. True, Derek Lowe has struggled more than the others. Atlanta has some concerns with its rotation as both Mark Redman and Kyle Davies have struggled. Both teams have above average offenses. Preferred plays: Dodgers against Redman or Davies if -125 favorites or underdogs. Dodgers in start by Penny at -130. UNDER 7½ or higher if Penny opposes Smoltz or Hudson. OVER 8 or less in starts not involving Smoltz, Hudson or Penny.

Mets at D’backs: A four game series that begins Thursday. The Mets were dealt another blow on Monday when El Duque (Orlando Hernandez) was placed on the DL, further depleting the Mets fragile rotation. Hernandez was having a fine start to this season. He has ostensibly been replaced by veteran Chan Ho Park, who had trouble getting minor leaguers out during April.

To be fair, the Mets have gotten better than expected results from Oliver Perez while Tom Glavine has been steady. John Maine is showing that last season’s success may not have been a fluke. Arizona has similar concerns with ace Brandon Webb posting barely average early season stats and Randy Johnson making only two starts after starting the season injured. Preferred plays: Mets as Underdogs against any Arizona starter or if a -125 favorite in starts by Maine or Glavine; UNDER 8 or higher in matchups of Maine or Glavine vs. Webb or Johnson; OVER 9 or less not involving any of these four starters.

Mariners at Yanks: This four game series extends through Monday. How bad are things with the Yankees starting rotation? Through their first 21 games they have used nine different starting pitchers! Only Andy Pettitte has made five starts plus he’s been used in relief. Kei Igawa has made four and pitched in extended relief over the weekend when starter Jeff Karstens had to leave in the first inning after being hit by a line drive. Every Yankee starter has allowed more hits than innings pitched and the overall staff ERA of 5.02 is fourth worst in all of baseball.

Seattle’s fabulous starter Felix Hernandez is on the DL and the only other starter pitching well has been Jarrod Washburn. This has all the makings of a high scoring series. Preferred plays: Seattle with Washburn as an underdog of any price; Seattle as a +160 dogs or higher in starts other than Jeff Weaver. OVER 10 or UNDER 9 in starts by Washburn or Pettitte.

Red Sox at Twins: Boston, with baseball’s best record, has taken early control of the American League East, having the largest lead (4 games) of any Division front-runner. The offense has started to heat up and the pitching has been very consistent. Only Julian Tavarez has struggled as a starter. Minnesota is also playing winning baseball through one month, despite barely average starting pitching even from ace Johan Santana. Ramon Ortiz actually has the best ERA and WHIP among the five starters. Sidney Ponson has struggled as has Boof Bonser and the offense has been less productive than expected.

Boston is averaging more than two fewer runs per game on the road than at home. Preferred plays: Boston as underdogs except if Tavarez faces Santana; Minnesota as +150 underdogs against Curt Schilling or Josh Beckett; UNDER 9 or higher except if Tavarez or Ponson start. OVER 11 if Ponson opposes Tavarez.