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MLB Betting: A Call To Arms

   by Jim Feist - 06/19/2012

Starting pitchers in baseball get much of the attention (and money) thrown their way. The average starter is asked to go 6-7 innings, while aces are expected to give 7-8 quality innings. Many games are decided in the last three innings, however, making relief pitchers an extremely important, and often overlooked, element.
The Indians have a lot of problems with their pitching staff, 27th in team ERA. Yet, they are battling the White Sox for second place. How? One important savior has been closer Chris Perez, on pace for 50-60 saves. The Red Sox got off to a terrible start in April with the bullpen a disaster, as they struggled to find a replacement for injured closer Andrew Bailey. The 15-9 loss to the Yankees (blowing a 9-0 lead) was squarely on the shoulders of the gas-can bullpen.
The use of effective relievers is nothing new. Specialized closers were around in the 1960s, with terrific relievers like Dick Radatz, John Hiller, Luis Arroyo and knuckeballer Hoyt Wilhelm. During the early 1970s, the Oakland Athletics had a deep bullpen with Rollie Fingers, Dave Hamilton and Darold Knowles. That group helped win three straight World Series from 1972-74. Then came the Big Red Machine, and Sparky Anderson had lights-out relievers in Will McEnaney and Rawley Eastwick. That has evolved into a situation where today managers league-wide use a variety of closers, middlemen and lefty/righty specialists.
It's important from a betting perspective to examine which teams have solid bullpen depth and which ones don't. Cleveland had a deep bullpen in 2007 that helped get them to the seventh game of the ALCS. The Rockies had a lot of effective relievers that same season, which was a huge key in their shocking late 21-1 run that led to the NL pennant.
The 2012 champion Giants won with the rock solid arms of Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez. That took a load off the bullpen, which was outstanding while being used only sparingly. That's why starters who can stay healthy and eat innings have value beyond their numbers, as they can have a domino effect on the relief staff.
The Yankees righted the ship in 2009 by getting two huge innings-eaters with the additions of C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Last season they failed to add free agent starter Cliff Lee and the strains showed on an aging starting staff that wilted in October and has been struggling this year. Note the Yankees are 20-8-1 under the total against a team with a winning record.
The Milwaukee Brewers added Shaun Marcum and Zach Greinke alongside ace Yovani Gallardo last year and won the division. This season those same starters are there, but the biggest problem for the Brewers is the relief staff, which has been poor across the board. Closer Jon Axford has an ERA over four and has allowed close to two base runners per inning! Keep in mind the over is 26-9-2 in the Brewers last 37 vs. a team with a losing record.
Don't be surprised if you see teams like the Yankees, Tigers, Mets and Reds looking for relief help before next month's trading deadline. Detroit has Justin Verlander and young Drew Smyly (3.96 ERA) throwing well, but Max Scherzer (5.88) and Rick Porcello (5.03) have been poor, putting too pressure on the pen. The Tigers are 19-7 in their last 26 games vs. a team with a winning % below .400. Will they be holding a fire sale, or buyers in July?
Strong bullpens can help keep scoring down from the sixth inning on. Four years ago, the Angels had a dynamite bullpen which helped fuel a stretch where they won 10 of 15 games, going 13-2 under the total. Over a nine-game stretch, the relievers didn't allow a run in 17 innings.
Teams that go with a lot of untested young arms can experience breakdowns. If the kids can't throw a lot of innings, that can wear down a pen fast, something to keep an eye on. You can't pay too little attention to the pen, which is a huge part of baseball success today, on the field and at the betting window.

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