MLB First-Time Starters
by Trevor Whenham - 05/11/2007
The Yankees pitchers have presented a real handicapping challenge for us this year. That statement is true in a lot of ways. Ace Chien-Ming Wang has alternated between truly brilliant and truly terrible. Carl Pavano has been as durable as we have grown to expect from him, and he has been joined on the DL by pretty much everyone else who can throw a ball. Those aren't the challenges I am talking about, though. The Yankees have done something else that is quite rare, especially for a team that is supposed to be as good as they are - they have sent out four starters that have never thrown a major league pitch before - Kei Igawa, Philip Hughes, Chase Wright and Matt DeSalvo. It's almost incomprehensible that a team would have done that already by the first week of May. Of course, it's also incomprehensible that a team with the payroll of the Yankees would find themselves in this position.
Handicapping a pitcher that has never been under the bright lights of the big leagues is hard. You don't really know what you have, and you can't be sure how they are going to react. Some people argue that in those cases the best thing to do is just to pass on the games. That may be true, but if you do that you also may be leaving some value on the table. First-time starters this year are 6-3 so far, and they have been nicely profitable. The trick isn't to automatically pass on the game because of the novice starter. The trick is to know the conditions that create a profit opportunity and jump on them. Oddsmakers and the public will often undervalue a first-time starter, so you can make some real money if you can pick the right spots. That may be easier said than done, but here are some places you can start:
Minor league performance - Unfortunately, it's not as simple as just looking at the pitcher's minor league record and ERA and assuming that that will go forward. The minor leagues are full of minor league batters, so what will work against them won't work as well against the big boys. In fact, getting seduced by gaudy minor league numbers is a quick road to the poor house. There are, however, at least two things to look at that can give you a better sense of how the pitcher will perform when he moves up. The first is his consistency. You want to see if a pitcher tends to consistently perform at about the same level. The kind of pitchers you want to avoid are those that have the pattern of following up a good performance with a stinker. A pitcher that has a history of consistently making quality starts at whatever level he is at is worth a further look.
The second thing to look at -- and it's really just an extension of the first -- is the strikeout-to-walk ratio. If it is in the neighborhood of 2:1 or better then you know that you have a pitcher that performs under pressure. It also won't hurt to take a look at when the last minor league start was, and how the pitcher deals with a layoff is there has been a gap before his major league debut.
Need versus want - You need to attempt to understand the psychology of the team that is using the novice starter. Sometimes a team uses a rookie because they have no choice - they are out of arms and someone has to start. That's been the case with the Yankees this year. In other cases, a team is bringing along a prized arm slowly. In the former case, the spot might not be ideal. In the latter case, the team will be able to find the opponent and the setting that gives the starter the best chance for success.
Handicap opposing pitchers - You can often outsmart yourself when you are looking at first-time starters. As in many games, the handicapping solution my lie with the opposing pitcher. As a first step when faced with a new starter, it's a good idea to ignore the new starter entirely, and handicap the game as if there were just an average starter is his place. By doing that, and by sending the extra time looking at the opposing starter, you can identify if the odds on the opponent seem fair with all other things being equal, or if the presence of a new starter has skewed the odds greatly. Quite often you can find a situation where a veteran pitcher is at odds that just don't make sense given the way he and his team have been performing.
Location, location, location - Making your first major league start in front of 12,000 in Toronto is not the same as starting off in the insanity of Fenway Park. A Tuesday night game won't have the pressure and distractions that a Saturday afternoon tilt will. Pitchers will react differently if they are pitching close enough to home that friends and family will all be there than if they don't know a person in the place. Thinking about the location can help you determine how a pitcher will react.