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New ways to handicap starting pitchers

Jun 26, 2001 10:59 AM

Although the figurative halfway point of the regular season (the All Star break) is two weeks away, most teams will have completed one half of their schedule by the time this coming weekend is over. Pennant and wild card races become more meaningful. Teams figuring to be contenders that would add players prior to next month’s trading deadline are now faced with reassessing their prospects for the balance of the season and might become sellers. Specifically, Oakland, the New York Mets and the Chicago White Sox, all of whom made postseason play in 2000, find themselves facing double digit divisional deficits and, rather than adding payroll, might instead unload players to teams that remain in contention.

Let’s do a little baseball handicapping this week. Long time readers of this column know the emphasis that is placed upon starting pitcher matchups. The reason for such emphasis is that the starting pitcher is the major variable on a day to day basis. There’s quite a difference when Atlanta sends Greg Maddux to the mound versus when Odalis Perez gets the start. Likewise when the Yankees start Roger Clemens or Ted Lilly. The majority of a team’s lineup remains constant from day to day but the quality of the starting pitcher that will be faced varies greatly.

The ability of the bullpen to be effective is also directly tied to the quality of the starting pitcher. A starter who is able to give six or seven solid innings places much less of a strain on the bullpen than will a starter who gets banged around and is gone after four innings. This also has a carryover effect. A starter who is able to pitch six or seven innings not only gives much of the bullpen an off day, but also insures their freshness the following day.

There are many ways to evaluate a starting pitcher. Such measures include ERA, wins, strikeouts, average innings pitched and career record vs. a specific opponent. But one additional measure that carries great weight in evaluating both the effectiveness of a starting pitcher and the likelihood that he can pitch deep into a game is known as a pitcher’s WHIP. Simply put, WHIP stands for "Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched" and is essentially a way to measure the number of baserunners a pitcher allows for each inning he is on the mound. It is very easy to compute. Just add the number of hits and walks allowed and divide that sum by the total number of innings pitched. Thus, a pitcher who has pitched 100 innings and has allowed 95 hits and 40 walks would have a WHIP of 1.35 (95 plus 40 equals 135; 135 divided by 100 equals 1.35).

In using this measurement of pitcher effectiveness, readers might consider looking at both a pitcher’s overall WHIP for the season and his WHIP over his past three to five games. The former is a more realistic measure of a pitcher’s true ability and effectiveness while the latter measure is a very good indicator of current form.

Just to give you an idea of how powerful this measure can be consider that over 125 pitchers have started at least 10 games thus far this season. The 10 pitchers with the best (i.e. lowest) WHIP for the season have combined to make 147 starts. Their teams have won 96 of those starts and the 10 pitchers have shown a net profit of about 17 units. Now this may not sound impressive but consider that with these pitchers you are often laying a big price and the group includes some of the top names in the game - Maddux, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina.

But now consider the other extreme. The 10 pitchers with the worst (i.e. highest) WHIP for the season with at least 10 starts have combined to start 132 games. Their teams have won just 50 of those outings and have collectively shown a loss of just over 30 units, or over three units per pitcher. These pitchers are the ones you look to go against for as long as they remain in the rotation. Fortunately some of those pitch-starting rotations but many have been sent to the bullpen or to the minors.

Next week we’ll provide some indicators of just what is a good WHIP and a bad WHIP so that you can use this measure in your own handicapping in isolating pitchers to back and identify pitchers to play against.

This weekend is something of an oddity in the schedule in that 13 of the 15 series are exact rematches of last weekend. Here’s a look at four of this weekend’s ‘quick turnaround’ series.

Florida at Philadelphia - The suddenly surging Florida Marlins have closed to within 2½ games of first place Philadelphia in the NL East after having taken two of three games at home last weekend. The pitching staff is largely responsible and a look at the WHIPs of A J Burnett, Brad Penny and Chuck Smith show why. The two weakest starters, Ryan Clement and Ryan Dempster, have WHIPs in a neutral zone but both have shown signs lately of finding their good form. Philadelphia’s comfortable lead has dwindled because their starting pitching has lately been in poor form. Amaury Telemaco and Randy Wolf have recent WHIPs and ERA in the ‘unacceptable’ range while the other three starters (Omar Daal, Robert Person and Bruce Chen) have also been below their full season to date performances. Florida might be a small favorite in two of the three games depending upon the pitching matchups. Given the opposite directions in which these teams are headed, the preferred plays will be on Florida to take at least two games. The over is also worth considering when the line is nine or lower. All three of last weekend’s games went over the total even though the losing team scored three runs or less in each game.

Houston at Milwaukee - This is one of the two series that is not a rematch of last weekend. The teams begin the week a half game apart in the standings and within five games of the lead in the NL Central but within 1½ games of the wild card lead. Milwaukee has been the bigger surprise, given the low expectations most observers had for them in spring training which were lowered further when ‘ace’ Jeff D’Amico was injured after making just four starts. Jamey Wright and Jimmy Haynes have filled in nicely and are showing signs of why they were so highly thought of when they were just breaking into the majors. Rookie Ben Sheets has also been consistent and has shown fine poise on the mound. Shane Reynolds and Wade Miller have been the top starters for Houston with youngster Roy Oswalt performing very well since being made a starter a few weeks ago. Both teams have potent offenses with the nod going to Houston but both have also been capable of enduring prolonged slumps. With no truly overpowering pitchers, the first way to look would be to the underdog in all games, especially at a price of +115 or higher. When the matchup involves two of the six pitchers just discussed, the preference would be to the under if the total is no lower than nine. Otherwise the over is worth a look at a line of no higher than 10, especially if both teams start pitchers not mentioned above.

Boston at Toronto - Toronto was struggling before sweeping a three game series in Boston last weekend, its first such sweep at Fenway in more than a decade. But all that did was almost erase the effects of a four game sweep by Boston in Toronto three weeks earlier. The road team has now won seven straight games in the series. Boston has the better overall pitching, while Toronto on paper has the better offense. Seven of the 10 games between the teams this season have gone under the total with six featuring seven or less total runs. Boston’s ace, of course, is Pedro Martinez but he will be too highly priced to back and the total will be too low to go under. Tim Wakefield and Hideo Nomo are both worth backing as underdogs while Toronto’s Joey Hamilton is worth going against as a favorite. Still, at totals of lower than nine, the over should be given a look because intrinsically there is more potential for the offenses to be productive than the starting pitching, except for Pedro. Toronto’s best chances to win would be when the Chris duo, Carpenter and Michalak, get the starts, provided they are not opposed by Martinez, Nomo or Wakefield.

Oakland at Texas - Both teams continue to disappoint despite showing occasional flashes of life. Texas has played slightly better of late, winning six of their last 10, while Oakland has dropped seven of 10 beginning the week. Texas is hopelessly out of contention for the AL wild card, with only Kansas City and Tampa Bay having poorer records. Oakland’s situation is surprising given that their starting pitchers have been healthy all season. Only five different pitchers have started games with each hurler having made at least 13 starts. Tim Hudson is having what can be considered an above average season and Mark Mulder and Cory Lidle have been respectable. But Barry Zito has been a major disappointment and Gil Heredia is showing that last season’s moderate success may have been a fluke. Texas has suffered from poor pitching all season. Kenny Rogers is the only starter with a WHIP low enough even to be in the neutral zone while Doug Davis (5.08) has the best ERA amongst the starting rotation. The offense has been fairly potent and Alex Rodriguez has put up the usual quality numbers. Texas took two of three last weekend at Oakland with two staying under the total. In the rematch expect at least two of the three to go over the total and that is the preferred play provided the line is no higher than 11. Oakland’s Hudson is worth backing if laying no more than -140. Otherwise, the underdog is worth a look.