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Bad Beats

   by Ben Burns - 05/27/2010

Without question, starting pitchers are the most important factor when handicapping baseball. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out (lucky for us). But too often bettors will overestimate the power of the starting pitchers and, in turn, undervalue the importance of the bullpens. When that happens, bettors, who lose when their team’s bullpen blows a lead, start crying bad beat, when in fact it was more likely bad handicapping.

Heading into Wednesday’s games, there have been only 46 complete games, an average of two per team. So odds are you’ll back a starter that goes the distance in approximately 1 in every 16 games.

Philadelphia leads the majors in complete games with five. Roy Halladay is responsible for all five. Only five other pitchers have two complete games to their name. In contrast, six teams—the Mets, Cubs, Dodgers, White Sox, Brewers and Pirates—have not had a starter go all nine innings yet.

Those numbers really suck the value out of starting pitchers and add to importance of the bullpen when handicapping. Another option, of course, is the five-inning line, which really puts all your marbles on the starter and adds to the value of Inning-eaters like Halladay, St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright, Tampa’s James Shields and the Angels’ Ervin Santana. But for the purpose of this article, let’s focus on the best and worst bullpens in MLB.

Best

Detroit Tigers

With a MLB-low 2.33 ERA, a sparkling 11-4 record and a dominant 12-2 save-to-blown save ratio, Tiger bettors should love to Jim Leyland make the call to the pen. Detroit’s relievers don’t give up the long ball (only six all year) and are strikeout machines, which is key when entering the game in a jam. They’ve got one of the top set-up men in Joel Zumaya, and closer Jose Valverde boasted a miniscule 0.48 ERA through his first 21 appearances.

San Diego Padres

The Cardinals have a lower bullpen ERA than the Padres, but St. Louis relievers aren’t strikeout pitchers. As mentioned above, bullpens with strikeout pitchers are the most effective, simply because most of the time relievers enter the game with men on base. The Padres excel in this area, with 149 strikeouts, third most in the bigs. Opponents are hitting just .208 against San Diego relievers, the lowest in all of baseball.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Laugh all you want, but the Pirates’ pen is way better than its 4.81 ERA reflects. Because of the team’s porous starting pitching, Pittsburgh relievers are forced to throw major innings. Seven relievers have seen action in at least 14 games. Over-use is the primary reason for the inflated ERA, not talent.

The Pirates’ pen leads baseball with a 158 strikeouts, owns a 10-2 record and a 15-5 save-to-blown save ratio.

Worst

Arizona Diamondbacks

Two words: Absolutely atrocious. The Diamondbacks’ bullpen posted a 7.42 ERA through its first 46 games. They’ve blown as many save opportunities (10) as they’ve converted, and teams are batting a robust .294 against Arizona relievers. It gets worse: The D’back bullpen has allowed a league-high 28 home runs. No other team has surrendered more than 21.

On the positive side, the Diamondbacks are the best over play in the game. Thirty of their 44 games have eclipsed the total.

Milwaukee Brewers

Everyone’s an all-star against the Brew Crew’s pen. Opponents are batting .308 against Milwaukee relievers, who have blown more saves (9) than they have converted (7). They’ve allowed more earned runs (104) and more hits (184) than anyone in baseball. No other bullpen has allowed more than 146 hits.

Kansas City Royals

Are the Royals ever going to be good at anything? Sure doesn’t seem like it.

This year, the K.C. bullpen is tied with Arizona with the most blown saves at 10. They’re wild (77 walks) and have given up 19 home runs. Poor Zach Greinke has seven quality starts in 10 games, but is only 1-5.

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