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Handicapping Pitching

   by Scott Spreitzer - 05/28/2009

Two weeks ago I wrote about the importance of studying on-base percentage when evaluating baseball offenses. I’m constantly surprised at how many people bet on bad offenses to score runs, or bet against teams with good offenses hoping they won’t score much that day. If you missed that article, I hope you’ll check the archives and get up to date!

Today I want to talk about pitchers. Most of you already devote some study to the starting pitchers. Are you looking at the right things? Here are the stats I consider to be most important when evaluating starting pitchers:

*WHIP: This is simply Walks Plus Hits Allowed per Inning Pitched. Or, “baserunnersâ€쳌 allowed by the pitcher per inning. It’s the inverse of what we looked at with on-base percentages for offenses. Teams who get guys on base score runs. Teams who can’t, don’t. Pitchers who keep guys off base win games. Pitchers who can’t, don’t!

I wish a true pitcher’s version of “on-base percentageâ€쳌 was widely available. You can find stat geek places that have it. But I’m trying to keep my list limited to things that are easy for everyone to find. WHIP is widely available at most baseball or handicapping sites.

Look to invest in guys who are at 1.2 or lower (the lower the better!). Look to go against guys who are at 1.5 or higher (the higher the number, the lower the likelihood that the pitcher will be able to stay in the rotation.

If I had to pick ONE stat that best described a pitcher, it would be his career WHIP number. That’s as close to a pitcher power rating as you can find that truly tells you what you’re going to get in a typical game.

*IP PER START: This is Innings Pitched Per Start, and can be calculated simply by dividing the number of innings the pitcher has thrown by his starts. I’m always amazed at how little attention is paid to this!

Any hurler who can average close to 7 innings per start is a Cy Young candidate, and a great guy to bet on at value prices. Not only is he getting people out for seven full innings, but he’s handing the game off the set-up man and the ace reliever. That’s as potent a combination as you can have when trying to find smart bets.

Any hurler at 6.5 to 6.9 is doing very well, and deserves respect.

Guys just around 6.0 are fairly generic. Be careful asking to much of them as favorites, but trust them as underdogs to at least keep you in the game.

Anything at 5.9 or below is poor. In fact, few starters are allowed to stay in the rotation with a number this low. Go against them before they get benched! Not only are these guys allowing runs, but they’re replaced by the lousy middle relievers who can really cause a game to blow up. The difference between 7.0 and 5.8 is even bigger than it seems because the caliber of pitcher is so bad who comes in to replace the 5.8 guy.

If you like handicapping totals, you should obviously be looking at Unders when two guys with high IP PER START numbers are going head to head and Overs when two guys with poor numbers are on the mound in the same game.

*STRIKEOUTS PER NINE INNINGS: The stathead industry discovered long ago that strikeout rates had more correlation to long term success than anything else Pitchers with high rates can stick around forever (Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson being two obvious examples that come to mind). Pitchers with low rates are always playing with fire, and eventually get replaced by better strikeout pitchers! Oddsmakers and the general public tend to ignore this stat for some reason, choosing to rely on Earned Run Average instead. Look, if you have two guys who are at 4.00 in ERA, but one gets a lot of K’s and the other doesn’t, then the high K pitcher is MUCH more likely to get better and last longer. The low K guy will eventually be allowing too much contact to be effective. You want to go against him when that starts to happen!

What about earned run average? Isn’t that the hallmark stat when it comes to starting pitchers?

I use it like everyone else does. My concern is that everyone plays too much weight on this stat at the expense of other indicators. Also, ERA is prone to short term extremes that cause gamblers to get too excited in one direction or another. A pitcher may go through hot or cold stretches that send the ERA careening off in a wild direction. He’s about to regress to the mean. Studying WHIP, IP PER START, and STRIKEOUT PER 9 INNINGS will keep you more grounded. Those stats don’t dart around as much.

As handicappers, you need to know which starting pitchers will keep runners off base; which pitchers have the ability to strike out hitters if guys are on base; and which pitchers can last long enough to hand things off to the best relievers. You know THAT, and most of the battle is won. Throw in your knowledge of the opposing offenses, and the pieces will come into place very neatly.

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