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Handicapping Pitchers' Skill Sets

   by Scott Spreitzer - 07/27/2007

When handicapping MLB, do not forget a pitcher's basic skill set, which many times is more telling than a hurler's ERA.

I'm not saying that ERA is irrelevant. But it's misleading so many times, particularly in the way that some bettors use it, that it's much closer to being irrelevant than you might realize.

Here are the errors that most people make with ERA:

*They don't adjust for ballpark influences. Pitchers who have to play their home games in hitter's parks have misleadingly high ERA's. The players are better than the numbers make them look. Pitchers who get to play their home games in pitcher's parks have misleadingly low ERA's. The players are worse than the numbers make them look.

*Pitchers who get to face a string of bad offenses will put up good numbers. Pitchers who get have to face a string of strong offenses will have some ugly numbers mucking things up for awhile.

*They look at small sample sizes that don't mean anything. Most morning newspapers will show you what a pitcher has done over his last three starts. It's amazing how many people will say to themselves, "this guy's really on form", if there's a low ERA or, "this guy's out of synch", if there's a high ERA. You just can't get the whole story from three starts! Baseball is too random for that. Besides, it's possible to pitch well in two out of three starts and still have a bad ERA!

Start one: 6 innings, 2 earned runs allowed

Start two: 3 innings, 7 earned runs allowed

Start three: 7 innings, 2 earned run allowed

A pitcher posting those numbers would have an ERA of 6.19 even though two of the three starts were very good. What's going to happen in his next game? The median start of the mix is six innings and two starts, which is a quality outing. Many handicappers see the 6.19 and think the guy is horrible.

If you want to take your baseball handicapping to the next level, you need to upgrade how you evaluate pitchers. I do believe in using situational ERA's as part of the process, (ballparks, caliber of opposition, day/night, on regular rotation rest or not). I think you should also add these factors into the mix:

*STRIKEOUT RATE: there are very few pitchers that can have sustained success without getting strikeouts. If the ball never gets put in play, it can't fall in for a hit or go over the fence for a home run! You should find or compile a ranking of all rotation starters in either K's per start, or K's per nine innings just so you can see the amazing differences in this key area.

*GROUNDBALL/FLYBALL RATIO: A lot of baseball stat sites on the web now have this information for pitchers. This can be very valuable when you know the conditions present in a ballpark. If the wind is blowing out in a bandbox park, the fly ball pitcher is going to be in deep trouble. Tall grass in a pitcher's park will greatly favor the groundball pitcher. Often, what you see in ERA stats is just a reflection of how conditions favored or hurt certain pitchers in the past, not whether they're good or bad.

*WHIP: this is Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched. A lot of stat sites have this handy as well. Pitchers who constantly put runners on base have trouble sustaining success. They may strand a bunch of runners for awhile. But eventually, those runners come home to score. Pitchers who have a low number in this stat will occasionally have bad outings, but are much more likely to win for you. Find or compile your own rankings in this stat as well.

In fact, I strongly believe that if you do the work in these three categories, you'll have a much deeper understanding of each pitcher's strengths and weaknesses that you don't get just from looking at an ERA. Too many handicappers think earned run averages are a shortcut that tells you at a glance what you need to know. That's obviously an incorrect assumption.

Before making a selection, I ask myself these three questions about pitchers I'm thinking about taking or going against:

*How does he go about trying to get people out?

*How successful has he been at that over his career?

*How do today's game conditions influence his strengths and weaknesses?

Find ways to answer those questions every day, and stay on top of the injury reports, and you'll find that your new knowledge of pitchers will greatly influence your handicapping success.

Focusing on ERA by itself can lead you in the wrong direction way too often. And the numbers probably won't matter that much anyway for the unique conditions in play for the game you're handicapping. A home run prone pitcher will suddenly look great with the wind blowing in. An erratic flamethrower will strikeout a dozen guys in parks with bad lighting. A pitcher who just fooled a few bad teams playing out the string will get lit up when facing a power in a pennant race.

Get serious about handicapping pitchers and you'll reap the benefits!

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