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Baseball's Overlooked Edge -- Relievers

   by Bryan Leonard - 04/30/2006

Relievers in baseball don’t get much of the glory in baseball. 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.

Of course, bullpen capabilities are not everything. How else to explain the surprising starts in the National League Central of the Astros and Reds? Houston is without Roger Clemens, yet they are in first place despite a miserable bullpen ERA of 6.30 and 3 blown saves. Cincinnati has been a huge surprise, and relief pitching has not been one of their strengths, with a 4.93 ERA as opponents hit .299 off the pen. If those weaknesses aren’t fixed, it could be detrimental to their winning.

Still, 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. For instance, Florida cleaned house in the offseason and their relief staff currently has a poor 4.61 ERA, which is not surprising. San Francisco is hovering around the .500 mark and notice they have a miserable 7.04 ERA and 4 blown saves.

I enjoyed the Indians smacking the Red Sox around this week. Cleveland has a terrific young offense that can smack any pitching staff around. However, in the offseason they cut some of their best relief pitchers, a great strength last season, and the Indians bullpen has a 5.71 team ERA. That partly explains why the Indians are 14-7 over the total: Great offense, suspect relief staff.

A couple of surprises in the National League have been the Rockies and Mets. The Mets bullpen was bad last season, but bringing in Billy Wager has already paid dividends: The Mets relief staff has a 2.44 ERA. They are also the only team in the NL East with a winning record. The Rockies have been surprisingly competitive, with a lot of young players. Notice the Colorado bullpen has a 3.30 team ERA. Colorado is also 11-6 as an underdog!

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. The Dodgers already miss ace closer Eric Gagne, with 6 saves and 3 blown saves.

Several NL teams are struggling a bit, and two were expected to be better. Milwaukee has a bullpen ERA of 4.99, The Phillies have a 4.25 relief ERA and the Pittsburgh Pirates are at 4.40. Letting go of Wagner has taken a big bite out of the Philadelphia pen.

Which leads me to one of the surprise teams of the American League: The Detroit Tigers. The Tigers relief staff has been very successful, with a 3.13 team ERA, 7 saves, and no blown saves for first-year manager Jim Leyland. Sports bettors take note: The Tigers are 15-6 under the total! 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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