With MLB betting lines so heavily based on today’s starting pitching matchups, it’s really easy to overlook the bullpens.
That’d be a big mistake, especially in the modern era of multi-million-dollar contracts that make managers monitor pitch counts closer than mothers monitor babies. Once a starting pitcher approaches the 100-pitch plateau, often by the sixth inning or even sooner, the hook usually isn’t far behind.
Fortunately, most sportsbooks give you the choice of betting the first five innings (similar to the first half in basketball or football) instead of the full game. With so many games now decided by the bullpens, you can use this to your advantage if you know which teams have relievers you can count on and which ones you don’t.
You can find some value on the MLB betting lines by betting on teams with poor starting pitchers and strong bullpens. You can also save yourself a few bucks by avoiding big prices on teams with massive starting pitching advantages but who often see their bullpen piss away leads in the late innings.
Here’s a look at the teams with the best and worst bullpens so far in 2017.
Chicago White Sox
A four-game losing streak has sunk the White Sox to 15-16 after a promising start to the year, but Chicago wouldn’t even be within sniffing distance of the .500 mark without some stellar work out of its bullpen.
The White Sox pen entered Thursday’s action ranked second in baseball in ERA (2.39) and owned a sparkling win-loss record of 6-1. Their starting pitchers, by comparison, are 9-15 with a 4.04 ERA.
Closer David Robertson has been his usual reliable self, slamming the door in five of his six save opportunities while posting a 1.03 WHIP and striking out 15 while walking just four. In the one game that Robertson blew a save, he earned the win instead.
Bigger factors in the early success of the relievers have been Tommy Kahnle and Anthony Swarzak, who have combined to throw 23 consecutive scoreless innings. Over his last 11 frames, Kahnle has struck out 21 batters.
The White Sox routinely need quality work out of the bullpen in order to stay in games. They’re often trailing after the first half of ballgames, thanks partly to an offense that ranks 23rd in MLB in scoring in the first five innings (2.13).
Colorado’s one of the biggest surprise stories of the year so far, leading the NL West with a record of 22-13 through 35 games.
The Rockies’ offense always gets most of the credit when Colorado is winning, and the Rockies do rank fifth in MLB in home runs. However, a more accurate explanation for the hot start to the year in Denver is the great work they’ve been getting from their relievers.
Colorado’s bullpen is responsible for more than one-third of the Rockies’ victories, going 8-1. Their ERA isn’t that impressive at 3.97, but when a team plays half of its games in the thin air of Coors Field, ERA isn’t a stat they’re likely going to look good in. In fact, the team finished dead last in baseball in bullpen ERA one year ago.
If Colorado gets the lead late in games, they’re not surrendering it. The relief corps has combined to save 16 games this season while blowing just two save opportunities. That’s quite the contrast to 2016, when the Rockies lost six games they lead after eight innings and were 12-20 in one-run games.
If you paid any attention to last year’s MLB playoffs, seeing the Indians on this list shouldn’t come a shock. Cleveland used a three-headed bullpen monster of Cody Allen, Andrew Miller and Bryan Shaw to overcome the absence of several key starting pitchers and come within one win of a World Series title.
Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are healthy and pitching once again, teaming with Corey Kluber to arguably give the Indians the best starting trio in baseball. But even though those pitchers command fairly hefty prices most nights, the rest of the rotation isn’t that strong. This could be an opportunity to strike with the Indians at a better price, knowing that the guys out of the bullpen will give Cleveland an edge in the late innings.
The Indians relief corps ranks first in all of baseball with a 1.92 ERA. They’re holding opponents to a .204 batting average, and they’re 10-for-10 in save opportunities.
However, it isn’t just holding late leads that makes the Cleveland pen so valuable. The Indians are also 5-13 when trailing after five innings. That record may not seem that impressive, but there are several teams in baseball who have yet to win when trailing after the first five.
By having relievers who consistently hold the opposition off the scoreboard, Cleveland has a chance to overcome some late-inning deficits. If the Indians are trailing in the sixth or seventh inning and paying a nice plus-money price on the live betting odds, you’ve got a nice chance to cash in.
Just like you shouldn’t have been surprised to see Cleveland included in the list of good bullpens, you shouldn’t be surprised to see Detroit topping the list of bad ones.
Tigers relievers have derailed many a promising season in Motown over the years, and this relief corps looks no different. Through the first fifth of the season, Detroit’s bullpen is dead last in ERA (its 6.28 mark is nearly 0.8 runs higher than the next-worst team), they’ve blown seven save opportunities and they’ve lost seven games.
They’ve already changed closers, with Francisco Rodriguez losing the job this week to Justin Wilson. On paper, the move looks great, as Wilson has a 1.23 ERA and 0.55 WHIP through 16 games this year. But closing is a different animal, especially in Detroit, and it remains to be seen how a guy with two career saves can adjust to the pressure of the ninth inning.
Until Wilson proves he can nail down late leads for the Tigers, you’re wise to avoid laying big prices with Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer – or consider the first five innings instead. Despite sitting at 16-16 overall this season, Detroit has led or been tied through five innings in 20 of those 32 games.
The Nationals have done almost everything well this year. They have an early 5.5-game lead in the National League East with a sparkling 22-12 record, they lead all of baseball in runs per game, batting average and OPS, and they have the most quality starts of any rotation in MLB.
Their one fatal flaw, however, may be their bullpen. Nationals relievers are 7-6, a far cry from the 15-6 record their starters own, and the bullpen ERA is 5.40. They’ve also converted just 10 of 16 save opportunities while allowing the opposition to hit .281.
“If a dumpster fire and a train wreck had a baby, it’d be the Washington Nationals’ bullpen,” ESPN’s Eddie Matz wrote after the Nats blew a 4-1 eighth-inning lead Tuesday in a 5-4 extra-inning loss in Baltimore.
Sound excessive? Maybe not, considering that Washington has already tried five different closers through its first 34 games. Injuries had something to do with that, but their Opening Day stopper got demoted to the minors after two weeks and their latest closer, Matt Albers, had gone a MLB-record 460 relief appearances before earning his first-ever save.
If you’re going to bet on Washington, we highly recommend you look at going the first five inning route instead. The Nationals rank fourth in baseball with an average of 3.12 runs scored in the first five innings, which is usually enough for starters like Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg to carry a lead into the sixth.
Closed door meetings are a pretty drastic measure in baseball, a sport that has a bit of a laid-back nature to it with games practically every day from April to October.
When the manager feels the need to have one with just a few members of the team, like the Rangers’ Jeff Banister did with his bullpen earlier this week, it’s even more rare.
Apparently, Banister didn’t call the meeting to rip his relievers a new one. The opposition’s been doing plenty of that already, knocking the Texas pen around to the tune of a 5.45 ERA and 5-8 record. The Rangers have somehow blown twice as many save opportunities (eight) as they’ve converted (four).
Instead, he was trying to convince the relievers that he still believes in them. We’re not too sure why, considering that Texas was 25th out of 30 teams in MLB in bullpen ERA last year as well, and hasn’t been higher than 24th since 2013.
Simply put, this is not a team you want to back for nine full innings right now. They’re just 11-7 when leading after five innings, and 0-8 when trailing after five.