How to Bet Inexperienced Pitchers
by Trevor Whenham - 07/04/2007
When it comes to handicapping baseball, one of the toughest ongoing challenges is figuring out how a game will turn out when one or both of the starting pitchers is very inexperienced. Sometimes a team will rally behind a rookie hurler and put on a stellar performance, while other times the rookie will completely fall flat. Some rookies will use their nerves and adrenaline positively and throw better than they can be expected to in their first game or two. Others will crumble under the pressure and scrutiny of the big leagues, or won't handle the powerful bats they face well at all.
Once a rookie has a few pro starts under his belt you have something to work with, but at the start of a career it's not that simple. Though it is difficult to know for sure what will happen, if you pass over all games in which a rookie pitcher is making one of his first starts then you are missing out on some juicy opportunities. Instead, you just have to have a clear guideline on how you are going to evaluate young pitchers to decide if they are ready to win. Here are six guidelines to get you started:
Is the rookie ready? - This is a broad and imprecise question, but it's important to come up with a comfort level on the preparedness of the pitcher. The first place to start is to figure out whether the pitcher is making his appearance during the timeframe he was expected to. A quick Google search can turn up news articles about a pitcher. Those will tell you if he was expected to make the big leagues during that particular timeframe, if he is late or if he wasn't expected to be on the mound so soon. You want to avoid pitchers who have been rushed into duty.
Is the team desperate? - There are a lot of reasons that a team will call up a young pitcher. At best, the youngster is called up because he is a key part of the future and the team wants to ease him in and get him the experience that will help him achieve his best. At worst, a rookie is called up and thrown to the wolves when a slump or injuries mean that there is no one else that can take the ball. A team that is in a good position will have a better attitude about the new pitcher, and will be in better position to give him the support he is likely to need. Earlier this season the Yankees were forced to use a lot of young pitchers that weren't necessarily ready for the big time, and the negative results of many of those experiments is no coincidence. On the other hand, the Tigers have been in the position to be slow and deliberate with Andrew Miller, and the experience has been largely positive.
Does the spot make sense? - A rookie pitcher has a big enough challenge in front of him at the best of times. It gets even worse when he is thrown out in an impossible situation. You need to make sure that a rookie is starting in a game that he stands a decent chance of winning. How has his team done against this opponent recently? How does the opponent do against pitchers of his style, or pitchers that throw with the same arm? Has his team been giving their pitchers run support?
When did they get called up? - As a general rule, rookies do best in their first couple of starts if they know that their chance has been coming for a while. That way they can join the team well before their start, get some experience throwing in the bullpen and with their new catcher, get to know the team and the building, and be in a position to be at their best. I'm much more comfortable with a rookie in a situation like that than I am when the pitcher has had to come up on short notice. It's also key to see when the pitcher last made a minor league start. You want to avoid a pitcher that is coming back on short rest (something that happens surprisingly often when teams get in trouble), but you also want to avoid a pitcher that has had an abnormally long layoff between the minors and the big show.
How is the bullpen playing? - Though it occasionally happens (Jesse Litsch threw an 8 2/3 inning gem in his debut for Toronto), you usually don't see a young pitcher go very deep in his first game out. He'll probably be on a strict pitch count, and even if he isn't the manager will probably have him on a pretty short leash. That means that the bullpen is going to be at least as important as the starter in these games. As a general mindset, I like to treat the bullpen as a whole like a second starter in these games, and handicap them in the same way I would handicap the pitcher. If the bullpen has been struggling recently then the impact of those struggles will be magnified if the starter doesn't shine.
What has their recent form been? - Thanks to the wonders of the Internet it is incredibly easy to not only find a pitcher's recent minor league stats, but also articles about their performances as well. Based on that you can tell how a pitcher has been doing, and if he appears ready to throw at his best when he joins the major league team. Though minor league success doesn't translate into major league success, you can often find clues that show that a pitcher is enjoying particular good control or isn't giving up a lot of deep balls. That kind of thing can mean success in the majors.