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Quality Starts and Baseball Dogs

   by Ben Burns - 05/23/2008

It’s amazing what some quality pitching atop the rotation can do. I’m not talking about 4-5 terrific starters, just one or two guys to anchor the rotation. Two good starters can have a domino effect on the rest of the rotation and bullpen. A pair of starters going 7 quality innings every 5 days means less work for the pen, basically giving almost 2 days off every 5-6 days. It also takes the pressure off the No. 3, 4 and 5 starters.

Underdogs in baseball offer the best wagering value. One way to assess a team’s chances as a dog or to identify a team that is undervalued by oddsmakers is to see if they have at least two reliable starters. The surprising Baltimore Orioles started this season 14-17 as a dog, including 20-10 under the total in those games. A key to their success has been the young one-two punch atop the rotation of Daniel Cabrera (5-1, 3.48) and Brian Burres.

The Orioles just won at the Yankees 12-2 as a dog behind Cabrera, then nearly took the series, losing 2-1 in the finale. It was 1-1 late in the game. Burress allowed one run in 7 2/3 innings, but the Orioles managed just five hits in falling 2-1 to the Yankees. Those two have kept them in every game. Baltimore’s pitching is 6th in the AL.

A team just ahead of them in pitching is another surprise, Tampa Bay. Scott Kazmir and James Shields provide a terrific one-two punch atop the rotation, while Edwin Jackson is improving. All 3 regularly go six-plus innings. This week marks the beginning of a season-long, 10-game homestand at Tropicana Field, where the Rays have won 12 of their past 13 games.

Before starter Andy Sonnanstine was roughed up by the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay starters had a 2.10 ERA in their previous 14 games. Rays pitchers have given up just one home run in the past 10 home games. Edwin Jackson has allowed just one earned run in his past three starts, spanning 20 1/3 innings. Tampa Bay started 16-8 at home, 10-9 as an underdog, and 18-6 under the total at home! Good starting pitching is the biggest reason for all three of those records.

And how about those first-place Marlins? They started 17-16 as a dog! Scott Olsen (4-1) and veteran Mark Hendrickson (6-2) have been the big guns that anchor the staff. Hendrickson averages 6 innings per start while Olsen averages around 7. But the guy to watch is 22-year old Andrew Miller, who is starting to put it together. Miller was 0-2 with a 9.68 ERA after his first four starts with the Marlins. Since then, Miller has gone 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA. And he has relinquished only two runs over his past 22 innings.

He had a career-high nine strikeouts in a 4-0 win over first-place Arizona, completing a 3-game sweep. And they were an underdog in all three games at home against the D-Backs. “Personally, I hope they keep counting us out,â€쳌 Miller said of those waiting for the Marlins to collapse. “I really don't mind if they count us out until they can't anymore.â€쳌 With an MLB-low $22 million payroll and a roster full of young faces, the Marlins are the surprise team thus far. Just as amazing, the Diamondbacks sent out two aces and three strong starters in the series, Micah Owings, Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, and the Marlins whipped them all.

The Angels are another team slowly getting it together. John Lackey has returned to the rotation while 25-year old Ervin Santana has been great, finally harnessing his electric stuff. The pitching has been the key, going 6-7 as a dog and 29-19 under the total. 'We pitch and play defense,' Mike Scioscia said last week. 'It's really the foundation of our club.'

Even Vladimir Guerrero has been relatively cold. He entered last week with only four home runs, the lowest total of his career for the first 45 games of a season. Power is down all around major league baseball, in fact, probably a result of the recent crackdown on steroids.

Another team that has been great as an underdog is Houston, starting 15-11 as a dog! The pitching has been average as they are still trying to get ace Roy Oswalt back on track. Still, the relief staff has been strong and note that Houston is 18-8 under the total as a dog. They are just .500 as a favorite, but bite best a dog.

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