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Baseball's Overlooked Edge: Relievers

   by Bryan Leonard - 04/14/2008

Relievers in baseball don’t get much of the glory. Nor do they get much attention, except when they blow saves or walk in the winning run in the 10th. Still, for sports bettors, examining bullpens is a very important handicapping tool. Understand that starting pitchers generally go 6-7 innings, even very good starters. That still leaves, on average, a third of the game up to the relievers. And when you calculate that starting pitchers account for roughly 90% of the betting line before the game, relief pitching strengths and weaknesses are very important to look at.

The Rangers hosted the Blue Jays this week, and Toronto had a bit of a dilemma when starter A.J. Burnett reached 114 pitches in the sixth inning. What to do? Toronto trailed 4-3 and had to turn things over to the relief staff. The results were outstanding, as the Blue Jays shut out the Rangers the final four innings using relievers Tallet,

Accardo, Downs, Wolfe, Carlson and Ryan. In fact, closer B.J. Ryan earned first save in over a year. Ryan was activated before the game barely 11 months after undergoing elbow ligament replacement surgery. His last save was April 11, 2007. The bullpen won the game.

A few years ago the Red Sox did a study to determine what inning most baseball games are decided in. The answer? The sixth. You can see why, as starters are most likely to tire or be pulled around the sixth inning. Building your bullpens with talented and versatile arms is such an advantage these days.

I recall two games at this time last season. In one, the Twins finished up a tough 4-game home stand by batting .148 with runners in scoring position. Despite scoring 10 runs in the four games, they managed to squeeze out a win in the finale, a 1-0 victory in a 3-hour, 42-minute game! How? Great relief pitching. Starter Boof Bonser went 5 innings allowing two hits and no runs, but the relief staff topped him by going 6 shutout innings for the win in 11 innings.

Contrast that with the Reds, who got off to a hot start but then fell fast because of some horrendous relief pitching. They got great starts in back-to-back home games against the Astros by ace pitchers Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, only to watch the bullpen collapse each team and blow the game.

Reds relievers were involved in several bullpen meltdowns, after which manager Jerry Narron said, "We've hurt ourselves with hit-by-pitches and bases on balls as much as anything. It's been a disappointment."

It can deflate a whole team. Relievers are important to examine from a betting perspective. Ideally, a team should have one or two reliable set up men, preferably at least one a lefty or one who can get out lefty batters, and a reliable closer. If you have three or four relievers who all throw the same kind of pitches, that helps batters. The art of pitching is about changing speeds and deception, not just overpowering batters.

A starting pitcher may leave the game in the seventh with a 3-1 lead, but what good is that if the bullpen is not reliable? We see this all the time with ace pitchers, who are often laying a big price. They can give the team a strong 7 innings, but in order to collect on a betting ticket, the team has to have that lead when the game is officially over.

Examining starting pitchers and everyday line-ups are essential in betting baseball, but don’t overlook whether the team has reliable set-up men and rested relievers, either. We are living in the age of specialization in baseball, so brush up on your pens!

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