If you’ve read a few of our other baseball betting articles, you’ve no doubt noticed a theme; starting pitching is a vital element of handicapping the sport, if not priority number one. There’s no position with the ball in their hand more, and thus they hold the most significant control over the outcome of games. By the way, this goes for both the starters and members of the bullpen that take the mound.
Most of the time, casual MLB bettors will only take the surface-level statistics into account when betting on a game. They’ll look at the listed starting pitchers, their win-loss records, and maybe ERA, and make their bet on that info alone. Obviously, this isn’t a tremendously useful way of betting and is one of the reasons there’s so much value out there up for grabs for the rest of us.
In this article, we’re going to help you identify the variables you should be focusing on when grading pitchers for the sake of handicapping. We’ll cover the statistics that really matter when predicting an upcoming performance and look at some of the additional variables that aren’t expressed numerically. Taken altogether, this information should help you accurately grade pitchers when determining each side’s probability of winning.
Just remember, pitching is only one factor of many that go into an MLB betting line. While the pitching grades may be weighted more heavily than most data, there’s still much more to consider. You should read our other articles on baseball betting, finding value, and setting your own line before placing a bet on Major League Baseball.
Prioritize Recent Performances
One of the problems with only glancing over misleading numbers such as win-loss record and ERA is that they are measurements over the entire season. Besides all of their other shortcomings, which we’ll discuss later, they also include data from parts of the season that may no longer be relevant. Pitching is a streaky profession, and a hurler’s more recent performances tell you much more than a game they pitched three months ago.
We recommend focusing on the last three or four starts when grading pitchers, and the last few weeks for relievers. Now, it’s not a bad idea to compare their more current stats with the season-long values as a way to spot any trends or predict future regressions.
If a pitcher is suddenly averaging 25% strikeouts when over their career they’ve only averaged 15%, they’re probably just riding a hot streak, and so should you. But stay mindful of the fact that it may not last.
Focus on Stats That Matter
We’ve been talking about replacing those old irrelevant pitching stats with numbers that really matter and tell the whole story, since those are the most important when grading a pitcher. In this section, we’ll cover some of the most significant statistics that you should add to your handicapping arsenal and what they mean.
Major League Baseball is all about sabermetrics and analytics in 2018, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. You’ll want to be up to date on your understanding of the meaningful values if you’re going to grade pitchers accurately. You can find these stats at websites like Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and Baseball-Reference.
WHIP – Walks Plus Hits per Innings Pitched
This is a measurement of how many baserunners a pitcher allows on base per inning, on average. A pitcher with a low ERA but a high WHIP is merely getting lucky that more of those baserunners aren’t scoring, so it doesn’t tell the whole story.
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching
A pitcher’s averages are considerably dependent upon the defense of the fielders behind him. FIP calculates a hurler’s home runs, strikeouts, walks, and batters hit by pitches to create a number that only judges the pitcher on elements of the game within their control. This stat eliminates luck and defense to better isolate the pitching performance.
FIP is expressed the same as ERA, with numbers that are essentially equivalent. So, if a 2.40 ERA is good, so is a 2.40 FIP. Furthermore, this stat is an excellent predictor for a player’s future ERA.
xFIP – Expected Fielding Independent Pitching
xFIP is the same as its predecessor, FIP, only it replaces “home runs allowed” with the projected rate of homers. That projection is determined by the league-wide percentage of fly balls that are home runs. It’s expressed as HR/FB.
This advanced statistic is used to predict future performances, as it judges the pitcher’s skill level without as many external factors. What this value tells us is how many fly balls the thrower allows and how many of those should have left the park given the amount of contact allowed by the man on the mound.
HR/9 – Home Runs per Nine Innings
This number represents the average number of home runs a pitcher will allow over nine innings thrown. They divide the number of home runs allowed by the total number of innings pitched and multiply by nine. This stat isn’t everything, but taken into account with the others in this list, it can give you an idea of a pitcher’s skill level, independent of everything else.
In this case, HR/9 shows you how often teams go yard against an athlete. However, a player may have a high HR/9 and a low ERA depending on how many baserunners were allowed before they gave up their homers.
BB% – Walk Rate
This is simply a measurement of what percentage of hitters are walked by the pitcher. Players that put more runners on base tend to result in more runs being scored. The lower this stat is, the better.
When grading pitchers, keep their BB% in the front of your mind. Even if their ERA is low, that number might not be telling you that they’ve left men on base for the bullpen, who eventually scored. Only a few players can survive with a high walk rate, and they typically have exceptional strikeout numbers.
GB% – Ground Ball Rate
When a batter makes contact with the ball and sends it into the field of play, there are four characteristics that are used to describe the hit: line drive, fly ball, pop out, and a groundball. This metric is meant to express what percentage of a pitcher’s hit balls result in a grounder.
Throwers with high groundball percentages tend to give up fewer home runs and turn more double plays. A higher rate of ground balls is a favorable statistic when grading a pitcher. This stat also applies to batters, so you may search out lineups with a high GB% to bet against as well. A high GB% pitcher versus a batting order with their own elevated ground ball rate is an ideal betting scenario.
K% – Strikeout Rate
As the name suggests, the strikeout rate calculates the percentage of batters faced that a pitcher punches out, on average. On its own, this metric isn’t much, but it gives you a better understanding of the type of thrower you’re dealing with.
WAR – Wins Above Replacement
This advanced statistic measures a player’s value by calculating how many more wins they are worth than a replacement-level athlete. A replacement player is defined as an available free agent or minor leaguer. So, it shows how many more wins are created than if this player was replaced by someone off the street at their same position.
When determining a pitcher’s WAR, RA9 (runs allowed per nine innings) and FIP are compared against league averages. The result is a number which expresses how many wins more an individual pitcher is worth over an athlete the team could immediately sign as a free agent.
Again, this metric simply gives the bettor insight into just how good the pitcher really is, without all of the external factors affecting their numbers. Now, clearly, the thrower doesn’t get to play the game in a vacuum, and his teammates’ performances will impact the final result of the bet. Still, it’s always preferable to understand just how solid a pitcher is before betting on him.
BABIP – Batting Average on Balls in Play
BABIP helps you learn just how much luck has factored into a hitter or pitcher’s past outcomes. It measures the batting average of only the balls hit into the field of play. The lower a pitcher’s BABIP, the better. However, you’ll want to see them sustain this low average over a larger sample size, as athletes typically regress to around .300 with this stat.
Put Them All Together
Don’t you see how much more context these values give than the old-fashioned numbers that the public and pundits generally talk about? Once you’ve collected these figures on a player or group of players, you can piece them together to paint a better picture of who you’re dealing with. You’ll know what kind of hits they give up, how much their defense has contributed to the runs they’ve given up, and how much contact batters typically make with their balls.
For example, you’re handicapping a game with a starting pitcher who has a 4.50 ERA but only a 3.00 FIP and a .475 BABIP; what does this tell you? Surely, the FIP is giving you a better indicator of how the pitcher has been playing. The high ERA is likely the result of an unluckily high number of balls knocked into the field of play becoming hits. It suggests the defense may not be picking up the slack behind the thrower.
Innings Logged on the Season
You’ll want to know both how many innings a pitcher has spent on the mound over the course of the season, as well as how many they’ve pitched in recent outings. As the season drags on, many organizations begin to worry about the stamina of their players’ arms and may limit their innings regardless of how well they’re throwing. It’s worth your time to research how many innings pitched a player has versus league averages at the same position.
When grading pitchers, a red flag should be raised if the number of innings pitched has been increasing lately. These athletes need a full four or five days of rest between assignments, but that’s still not always enough. Pitchers’ arms wear down over time, and a player who has been logging tons of innings recently may not be expected to throw as well as past numbers suggest he should.
History Versus Team or Ballpark
It’s also worth taking the time to research a pitcher’s historical records both against the team he’s facing as well as in the ballpark in which he’ll be playing. Some athletes are merely bad matchups for specific squads, and their performances in games against those clubs vary drastically compared to their averages. It may be a mental block or even a stylistically bad fit, but whatever the case, it must be included in your overall grading.
You won’t want to be breaking down long-term advanced stats when there’s a pattern of falling apart in a particular location. In that situation, you’re better served only to study the games that took place in that park and similar stadiums. It may have something to do with the type of contact the pitcher often gives up and how they interact with park factors.
We’re always looking for new patterns and trends, so make sure to know what to expect based on history when grading pitchers. In most cases, a player shouldn’t deviate too drastically from the norm, but you never know for sure until you check.
Speaking of stylistic matchups, understanding how to utilize advanced statistics is crucial to accurate baseball handicapping. The numbers themselves merely tell you how well the player has performed, independent of variables outside of their control. They also provide insight into the number of baserunners often put on base, the amount of contact made by hitters, and the kinds of contact made most frequently.
Once you’ve collected these stats, you have to compare them to the upcoming opponent for them to be useful. When handicapping a fly ball pitcher (elevated FB%), you might want to avoid opposing lineups with a much higher-than-average home run to fly ball rate (HR/FB). Is the pitcher’s FIP much lower than their ERA? If so, can the defense be trusted in a game in which the man on the mound gives up lots of contact on average?
But what if the game is taking place in a pitcher’s park, where fewer of those fly balls will make their way over the warning track? What about the weather – will gusts of wind be blowing into the stadium? The more details you have, the more clearly you can paint the overall picture in your mind and the easier it will be to grade pitchers effectively.
The data collection is one part of the equation, but combining the information with critical thinking is where money is made. Logically analyze the statistics collected and compare them with the park factors, umpire assignments, and the opposing team’s hitters to accurately grade a pitcher for an upcoming showdown.
Handicapping Major League Baseball games is uniquely exciting for bettors who enjoy data, statistics, and analytics. The nature of the MLB game lends itself well to the tracking of loads of independent variables which all play their own role in the eventual outcome. Our job is to figure out which factors play the most prominent role and focus on them to make sound predictions.
Just looking at the advanced pitching statistics that we shared in this article, you can see how much context and information is left out of the more common stats. When grading pitchers, we are much better served to calculate the numbers the player deserves to have, all things being equal. Then we can compare the advanced stats to the more familiar figures and draw a picture of what’s been happening when this athlete is on the mound. Maybe their defense has been letting them down, or perhaps they’ve just been unlucky, and you can expect improvements to come soon.
Finding players with great advanced stats but a mediocre ERA, win-loss, etc., is what the Oakland A’s did when they first took the league by storm with Moneyball and the sabermetrics movement. The same philosophy applies to bettors; we’re looking for an edge in the numbers that we can exploit for value.
Grading pitchers is arguably the most vital aspect of creating a betting line. There’s no position on the field that matters more. While their grade will be one of many variables included in the final prediction, it will have the most considerable influence on the handicapping line. Nobody matters more than the man on the mound, so knowing exactly what’s going on with his stats is the key to accuracy and larger bankrolls.