Starting Pitcher Observations from June
We started with caution to the new Major League Baseball season amidst plenty of uncertainty in handicapping starting pitching. Most starting pitchers only had up to 12 or 13 regular season starts last year in the shortened season that starting late because of COVID. That presented a smaller sample size from which to project early season performance this year. The absence of fans continued to introduce an unusual dynamic that may have affected MLB pitchers differently. Major League Baseball threw another knuckleball into the mix with the changes they made to the baseball. As we observed last month in our article, “It’s the Year of the Pitcher. Does that Mean to Play More Unders?”: “The ball is slightly lighter after new production standards. The new ball is easier to throw but does not travel as far off the bat given the lighter mass.”
MLB has since added a new wrinkle into the mix with their crackdown on foreign substances pitches uses to get a better grip on the baseball to improve spin rate.
Yet amidst all these new factors to consider, some actionable data began to accumulate around the 1/3rd mark into the season. Here are some of the observations about starting pitchers that has helped our 23-3 MLB money line sides run through the end of the month.
Shohei Ohtani may the story of the league with Most Valuable Year campaign with his spectacular contributions with his bat and his pitching arm, yet there are some cracks in the armor in his pitching profile. For our MLB Game of the Month report on the Yankees for Wednesday, June 30th, we made these comments on Ohtani:
“Ohtani has been a surprise as to just how good he has been on the mound. The right-hander has a 3-1 record with a 2.58 era and a 1.18 whip in 11 starts. Yet it might be premature to begin pricing him as an elite starting pitcher. Command remains a challenge for Ohtani who is walking 12.5% of the batters he faces. In his last two starts on the road, he has walked six batters in 11 innings for a 4.9 bases-on-balls per nine innings average. In four starts on the road, Ohtani has a 3.91 era. Seven of his eleven starts have been at home, so this looks to be a good opportunity to fade him in this high-profile matchup where the pressure will be high.”
The prospect of Ohtani pitching in fabled Yankee Stadium, not the literal “House that Ruth Built” but nearby to the baseball legend that Ohtani gets most compared to because he stars as both a hitter and a pitcher, may have put too much pressure on the young superstar. He walked the first three batters he faced in the first inning before allowing seven earned runs on four walks and two hits when he got pulled with two outs in the inning. Ohtani’s command remains the weakness in his pitching profile, and he may not be as effective when pitching away from Angels Stadium. Unfortunately, the Yankees’ bullpen let us down in that game by giving up seven runs in the top of the ninth inning to blow an 8-4 lead and lose the game. If he handicap the starting pitcher matchup accurately, we will win more than we lose even with the occasional back door loss from a bullpen blowup.
Kenta Maeda had one of the most disappointing starts to the season before showing signs that he might have righted the ship this month. We were not sold, particularly with him pitching on the road against the White Sox on Tuesday, June 29th. In our report for our AL Central Game of the Month, we noted:
“After a disastrous start to the season, he finally went on the disabled list last month to rest his right shoulder. He has been a shadow of the pitcher that went 6-1 last season with a 2.70 era and a 0.75 whip. His strikeouts are way down. After striking out 32.3% of the batters he faced last season, he is punching out 21.7% of batters this year. He is walking 6.5% of the batters he faces, up from 4.0% last season. His ground ball rate is down from 49.0% last year to 41.9% this year. Opposing hitters are connecting on more line drives which are up from 20.4% to 24.4% of the batted balls he is allowing into play. Maeda’s era is 5.40 in his 8 starts on the road, and his teams have won just three of their last sixteen games on the road when the oddsmakers install the over/under from 7 to 8.5.”
Maeda did get out of the fifth inning in that game, giving up seven runs on eight hits in 4 2/3 innings. He walked five batters representing 18.5% of the batters he faced. He only struck out four batters, just 14.8% of the White Sox hitters he pitched against in a clip even lower than his declining strikeout average this season. Maeda will likely continue to be a starting pitcher we will target to play against in side and over plays.
The news is not all bad, as we saw encouraging things from Adam Wainwright. We made these comments in our NL Central Game of the Month on the Cardinals versus the Pirates on Saturday, June 26th:
“They (Pittsburgh) face Adam Wainwright who has pitched better at home for most of his long career. The veteran right-hander is 5-5 with a 3.74 era and a 1.12 whip in 14 starts. When pitching at home, Wainwright has a 2.66 era and a 0.95 whip in nine starts. The 39-year-old started strong in April with a bump up in velocity. Yet his velocity dropped in May as he struggled in some starts. Wainwright has turned it around this month by not allowing more than three runs in any of his four starts while pitching at least six innings in each outing. He has a 2.67 era and an 0.89 whip in June.”
Wainwright’s strong month continued as he allowed only one run in six innings work to register a 3-1 victory against the Pirates. He struck out eight batters and walked only one to continue his consistency when pitching at home at Busch Stadium. We will continue to look for opportunities where the veteran is undervalued, especially when pitching at home.
Good luck - TDG.