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by Scott Spreitzer - 06/27/2007
One of the hidden keys for successfully handicapping major league baseball is having a knack for evaluating bullpens. Far too many Las Vegas wagerers focus only on newspaper standings and starting pitchers when making their selections. You can't beat baseball that way. You've got to think about all nine innings, not just the first six or seven...thank you very much Sparky Anderson.
Building a good bullpen is much more difficult than most major league general managers realize. We've seen many stories in past years where teams spent big bucks on an ace reliever just to find out that he can't get anybody out any more. On the other side of the coin, many teams have found some relative unknown who suddenly thrives in the closer role for pennies on the dollar. You just never know.
Last year Cincinnati traded Austin Kearns to Washington for some long relievers on the mistaken assumption that bottom of the roster guys in a pitcher's park would help out a team in a hitter's park. The Reds fancied themselves divisional contenders (which they were only because the NL Central was a horrible division), and they imagined that shoring up a weak bullpen would put them over the top. The trade didn't have any positive impact. This season, the Reds currently rank 24th in the majors in bullpen ERA. And, they probably wouldn't mind having Kearns back on their roster either. Dumb trade.
Even the statistical publishing industry has had troubles getting a fix on what works and what doesn't. The only advice from those publications has been along the lines of "don't throw money at the problem because you can probably solve it cheaply. Just keep trying people until something works". That doesn't give anyone confidence, does it?
I know several bettors who have lost their confidence because they keep getting victimized by bad bullpens. Nothing demoralizes dog players more than watching a lead disappear in the eighth or ninth inning. Many Las Vegas professionals focus on underdogs. Games like this are just a punch to the gut. Take a few too many of those, and you lose the taste for gambling. You know what? Those aren't really bad beats. Good handicappers should know to avoid betting on teams with shaky bullpens!
Even though there's some mystery when it comes to building a successful bullpen, it's just not that hard to recognize when it's finally in place. That's all handicappers have to do! Now that we're almost three months into the season, bullpen earned run averages by themselves give you a very good sense of where everyone stands in this key category.
I've rated the 2007 bullpens for you based on their staff ERA's heading into this past weekend. This deep into the season, the numbers are very meaningful. Teams with low bullpen ERA's have a cast of contributors who are all thriving in their roles. Teams with high ERA's still haven't figured things out yet, and will still be prone to meltdowns once the starting pitcher has left the game. I'll run through the ratings for you, and offer up some quick strategy advice for each group.
San Diego, Boston, the LA Dodgers, Toronto, Texas, Minnesota, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Seattle, all have bullpen ERA's at 3.62 or lower this season. They represent the top third of the majors, and have established themselves as relatively trustworthy almost three months into the season.
There are some surprises on the list to be sure. The Texas bullpen has been the lone bright spot on a bad team. It's the starting rotation that's ruined the Ranger season. Toronto's has been better than people realize too. Remember that Texas and Toronto pitch in the AL with the designated hitter, and play in strong divisions.
Strategies for this group:
*When two teams play each other, look to take the UNDER unless very bad starting pitchers are in the mix.
*When any of these teams is starting a quality pitcher, you can back him with confidence because the bullpen will be able to seal the deal on most occasions.
*Whenever these teams are playing games in pitcher's parks, the tendencies toward success or Unders will be magnified because the bullpen will perform even better than their full season numbers. Play accordingly.
Seattle, the NY Mets, Arizona, the LA Angels, Washington, Cleveland, the NY Yankees, Oakland, the Chicago Cubs, Florida, St. Louis, Colorado, and Kansas City, all have ERA's in the 3.60 to 4.34 range. That's relatively generic. I've listed the teams from best to worst within this group, so Seattle and the Mets are close to being very good, while the bottom three are close to being bad. It's best to just think of this grouping as "no harm no foul" in the big picture.
Strategies for this group:
*Focus on the offenses and the starting pitchers when making your side and total decisions. These bullpens aren't doing much to influence results this year one way or the other. They'll hold their share of leads. They'll blow their share of saves. It all comes out in the wash.
*Pay attention to injuries with this group. If a team loses a key player, they could very easily fall down into the worst group that you're about to study. If a star player comes back from a layoff, he could lift any of these teams up to the elite group.
*There's no reason to shy away from quality starters on these teams out of fear for the bullpen. You'll lose some heartbreakers. But, you'll win some too.
Clocking in at 4.86 or worse are Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and the Chicago White Sox. It's surprising to see Detroit on the list, as pitching was a strength during their AL championship run last year. This season, a fantastic offense has helped hide this developing weakness.
Strategies for this group:
*Look to take the OVER whenever teams in this group play each other, and almost any time that the teams are playing in good hitter's parks. A few of these teams will be Over machines this summer in the warm weather.
*Be very careful laying big odds with a starting pitcher on any of these teams. He could throw a gem but still get victimized by a bad bullpen.
*If any of these teams is starting a poor pitcher, it's a go against and/or an OVER situation. That poor starter will allow a bunch of runs, then the kerosene kids will come in and make it worse.
It's very important that you incorporate bullpens into your handicapping approach. As long as you're thinking about all nine innings of a game rather than just what the starting pitchers will do, you will be in position to grind out a steady profit. Remember that Las Vegas lines are based on public perceptions, and the public pays too little attention to bullpens.