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To Strike Or Not To Strike

   by Bryan Leonard - 04/13/2008

One often overlooked avenue of baseball is the free pass, players drawing walks or pitchers issuing too many four-ball freebies. From a handicapping point of view, this can reap benefits, especially this time of year with the beginning of a brand new season.

Last year Indians lefty C.C. Sabathia won the Cy Young award winning 19 games. Pinpoint control was a huge part of his success, walking just 37 in 241 innings. Think about that: 34 starts, 37 walks! It’s interesting that Sabathia has had a rough start, walking 7 in 10 innings. Just a slump? Or did all those innings last year take a toll?

One area that attracted the Red Sox to shell out so much money for last year for Japanese Daisuke Matsuzaka was his control. The guy not only had a slew of outstanding pitches in his arsenal, but his control was exceptional – in Japan. Last season in the AL he was a little too wild. This season, although it’s early, his control has been remarkably improved.

The amount of free passes can tell a lot about a pitcher. It can help you predict totals, too, for example is two starting pitchers who walk a lot of guys are on the hill, it might be worth a play on the over. Or, if a pitcher with great control is going in a park that’s tough to hit in (San Diego, Shea Stadium), they might be a worth a look to back or maybe even at going under the total.

A bad mix for winning is a team with a bad bullpen and a starting pitcher who walks too many batters. Walking batters means you’re throwing a lot of pitches and not going deep into games, lasting 4-5 innings. And a bad bullpen is a bad mix, as the pen has to throw a lot of innings for the “control challengedâ€쳌 starter.

Veteran Greg Maddux has outstanding control and gets to finish out his career, presumably, in San Diego, a great pitcher’s park. A good mix if you like to play unders is a pitcher who throws strikes in a big park, like Maddux in San Diego or Johan Santana, now in Shea Stadium.

I used the factor when Maddux first joined the Padres against the Giants. The Padres were a road favorite, yet the guy they sent to the hill was young Clay Hensley. I wrote, “He has a tendency to issue far too many free passes. Hensley gave 41 walks in 91 innings on the road last season. San Diego is a great pitcher's park, where Hensley pitches his best and is most comfortable, but on the road he was 3-6 with a 4.34 ERA. All those free passes will hurt against this veteran Giant offense.â€쳌

Veteran pitchers are more likely to be focused and relaxed with their first start of the season and successful veterans have likely learned it’s not good to walk too many batters. San Francisco had a stable veteran in that game in Matt Morris, one who has excellent control. Notice that the home dog won, 5-3, as Hensley walked 3 batters in less than 5 innings, trailing 5-1. Morris walked just 2 batters in 6 efficient innings and got the win. He threw 42 pitches with 29 strikes through three innings.

Getting ahead in the count is key in pitching, and walks can be even more deadly to a pitcher in April as the weather is cooler and less conducive to hitting in many cities. Another game I had that same day was Arizona, playing at Washington. Washington starter Jason Bergmann had a terrible history of control problems, 108 base runners allowed in 64 innings. He walked 27 in just 64 innings, giving up 84 hits, which explains the 6.68 ERA. By contrast, Arizona starter Edgar Gonzalez was much more refined, with only 9 walks in 43 innings and a 3-to-1 K/BB ratio.

So what happened? Bergmann was all over the place, walking 6 batters in less than 4 innings as Arizona opened up a 4-0 lead. Gonzalez, meanwhile, walked only 2 in 5 innings while fanning 7. Washington may have won the overall battle for hits by a whopping 11-6, but Arizona got the win (and the money), 4-3, largely because their pitchers walked 2 batters while the Nationals walked 7. Control is a huge key, in handicapping and on the mound.

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