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Handicapping MLB Bullpens

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/25/2006

If you're like most baseball bettors, you've had a wild ride in the first three weeks of action. Whether you're up money or down a bit, there were games you lost that you were certain you had won and there were games you won where you had already written down the "L" in your schedule and gleefully got to erase it.

*You've taken four and five run leads into the 8th inning but lost the game.
*You've trailed by three runs in the 9th inning but won the game.
*You've felt certain your Under was safe when it was 2-1 in the 8th inning, only to see scoring explode at the worst possible time.
*You've given up on an Over when the tables had turned and benefited from that late rush.

It's been crazy. I heard more bad beat stories in the last three weeks at the sportsbooks regarding baseball than I can remember hearing my whole life. EVERYONE has a story. Heck, everyone has FIVE stories like that!

What's going on?

I think it's this. Franchises that have had success monitoring their starting pitchers' pitch counts have taught the sport that it's the best way to keep your star hurlers healthy. At first just a few teams were doing it. But, when everyone saw Grady Little blow the American League championship because his old-school ways didn't respect pitch counts, the sport got religion.

It's been a few years since that happened. In those few years, it's now become the norm for most teams to get their starter out before he throws 105-110 pitches. If you've got a guy who relies on strikeouts, he's coming out earlier than he used to. If you've got a guy you just paid $7 million for, he's not going more than seven innings and you might be tempted to take him out after six.

And all of that means that you've got the worst pitchers on your staff coming in to pitch in the middle of the game.

Major league staffs are broken down this way:

*FIVE starting pitchers in a regular rotation.
*ONE ace reliever who comes in to lock down saves.
*ONE set-up man who used to be the bridge from the end of the 7th to the start of the 9th.
*FOUR situational guys where you cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Before pitch counts, those bottom four guys weren't expected to carry much of a load in terms of the critical games. Now, they've got to come in to pitch the 7th inning, and sometimes even the 5th or 6th inning when things aren't going well. If the starter gets knocked out early, they've got to get people out for four or five innings.

I think this is why you've seen so many high scoring games this year. The balls may or may not be juiced. Either way, the 9th, 10th, and 11th guys on each staff are seeing more action than they used to. This is having a big impact on sides and totals.

If you're serious about making solid selections this year, you've got to study the bullpens much more carefully than you ever have in the past. You've got to know who can hold a lead and who's just hoping for the best. You've got to know which bullpens will provide insurance for your Under bets, and which will provide insurance for your Over bets when you think the starting pitchers are going to get rocked.

Ignoring bullpens this year will turn baseball into roulette. You'll just be hoping to have a lucky day if you want to make money. Studying the bullpens will give you a big advantage, because you'll find edges that aren't currently being incorporated into the Vegas lines. The high percentage of Overs we've seen in the first few weeks is clear evidence of that. Oddsmakers were caught napping, as were many players in Vegas who's bread-and-butter plays have been Unders.

Start logging bullpen performances on a game-by-game basis. Look for staffs who threw a lot of innings the night before, and will probably be asked to do the same thing today. Monitor the transaction reports to see which floundering teams are getting desperate and calling up minor leaguers.

On the other side of the coin, look for starting pitchers who can go deep into the game on just 95-100 pitchers. They'll take the bullpen out of the game, and take the "roll of the dice" out of play for you.

The game has changed, and you've got to change with it!

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