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The Value of Starting Pitching

   by Bryan Leonard - 03/31/2007

There’s an old baseball adage that pitching is 90% of the game. That’s arguable, but it comes from a time when teams would have 4 starting pitchers who would go 8 innings each game and each would throw 250-300 innings per season.

Times have changed. A lot. Teams go with 5 to 6 man rotations, starters are pampered, teams put a lot of money into deep bullpens, and expansion has diluted talent so it’s more difficult to find starters to provide quality innings. Starting pitching isn’t 90% of the game anymore. Last season the Houston Astros had the second best team ERA in the National League and fifth-best overall, yet they didn’t make the postseason with a mediocre 82-80 season.

This brings up the question about how to make a line in baseball. How much do the starters for the game go into the betting line? I’d place it closer to 50%. This may seem low to some, but remember you can count on most starters to go about 6 innings these days. That’s roughly 66% of the game, with the other 33% put in the hands of the relief staff.

In addition, other factors come into play, such as home/road play and stadiums. Some teams are terrific at home but awful on the road. Take a look at the American League East in 2006 and you find the Toronto Blue Jays sensational at home (50-31) and the Boston Red Sox not far behind at 48-33 at Fenway. Yet, on the road Toronto was 37-44 and Boston was 38-43.

Oddsmakers will examine how the team and the individual starting pitchers perform both home and away. Take a look at the World Series Champion Cardinals: St. Louis was 49-31 at home, but 34-47 on the road. Even an ace like Chris Carpenter has significant differences that need to be examined. Carpenter had a sizzling 1.82 ERA at home last season, but 4.70 on the road.

In addition, lefty/righty dynamics can factor in. Some teams are awful against lefty pitchers, so an oddsmaker might shave a few points against that team if they are facing a southpaw, regardless of who their own starting pitcher was. Injuries and weather conditions should also be taken into account.

If a pair of ace pitchers are going in Wrigley Field, like Carlos Zambrano and Carpenter, for instance, you might expect a total of around 7 or 8. Yet, if the wind is blowing out to center at Wrigley that day, the oddsmaker would have to pump it up. I’ve seen Wrigley totals fluctuate anywhere from 7 to 15 depending on weather conditions and starters.

Even the stadiums factor into what a baseball line will be. You might expect quality pitchers to go 7-8 innings in pitcher-friendly parks like Oakland, Florida, Shea Stadium and Detroit, but parks in Cincinnati and Philadelphia are very hitter-friendly. All of a sudden, in those parks, you might have to anticipate a starter going 5 innings because he will get hit, give up the long ball, throw a lot of pitches and be gone sooner than normal. In an example like that, you have to give less consideration to who the starters might be when making a number.

Notice that last season bad teams like Tampa Bay and Washington played very differently home and away. Tampa Bay was a respectable 41-40 at home, but a putrid 20-61 on the road! That’s similar with the Nationals, as Washington was 41-40 at home, but 30-51 away. So, yes, you make a baseball line based on starting pitchers, but adjustments need to be made on many other variables.

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