What is the Value of Starting Pitching?
by Trevor Whenham - 03/27/2007
When it comes to handicapping baseball, no single factor gets more attention, or has more effect on the game, than the starting pitcher. A good pitcher can make his team look much better than they are, and pitching woes can make the most talented team look like the Royals. Understanding pitchers, and assigning a reasonable value to them, is the key to making money betting on baseball. Unfortunately, the starting pitcher can also be a trap that can cost us a fortune. The challenge is in knowing when the starting pitcher is a good bet, and when he has been given too much weight.
Though the starting pitcher is the most important factor in a game, it is far too easy for a bettor to give him more credit than he deserves. When a consistently good pitcher is up against a player we have never heard of on a team that isn't very good, it is easy to assume that the big name pitcher is going to win the game. A perfect example is Mike Mussina. The Yankees were 20-13 when their reliable ace started, yet a $100 flat bet on each game would have yielded a profit of just $102 on the season, and a return on investment of just over four percent. You might as well just leave your money in the bank. If you aren't making more of a profit than that when you are betting on a player that wins almost 61 percent of his starts then you are doing something wrong. Clearly, the problem is that Mussina often plays with odds that are worse than his performance would warrant.
In 2004, the Yankees were 18-12 when Mussina pitched. That means that you needed to lay odds of -150 or better to make a profit over the course of that season (at -150, you would make a profit of $1,200 on your 18 wins, and a loss of $1,200 on your 12 losses). In 2005 he wasn't quite as strong at 17-13. That puts the break-even point at about -130. Mussina had been reasonably consistent over the previous two years, so it would have been reasonable to assume that he would have a similar season in 2006. Given the results of the last two years, it clearly wouldn't have made much sense to consistently bet on Mussina last year when the odds rose much above -140. That's logical, yet Mussina went off at odds higher than -145 18 times in 32 starts.
If you had bet on Mussina when he was at or below -145, you would have won 11 of your 14 bets with a profit of $640. The return on investment there jumps up to almost 46 percent. By lacking the diligence and foresight to hold out for proper value for Mussina, though, you would take a very nice profit and return on investment and throw it away. In the 19 games Mussina pitched with odds over -140, the Yankees were 9-10, and the $100 flat bets netted a loss of $539.
Another potential problem area is what happens when the starting pitcher leaves the game. It is very rare to see a starter pitch a complete game, and any appearance more than six or seven innings seems increasingly to be an oddity. If you are evaluating the value in the game based on a comparison of the two starting pitchers then you may be making a mistake. It can be a costly mistake, or it can actually be a mistake that makes you money in the end. Beyond the starting pitchers, you need to look at the bullpens of both teams.
It's not enough just to say that one team's bullpen is better than the other team's. If you want to be successful you will want to know not only if a team has a good bullpen, but which members of the bullpen are available or likely to pitch. If a team has a middle reliever who is excellent, but he pitched four innings the previous night, then he isn't likely to be available for significant innings the night you make your wager. Some managers don't like using their closer on consecutive nights, others will run them out whenever they are needed and some teams don't even have a closer. By paying attention both to the capabilities and the availabilities of relievers you can often uncover value. A price might be reasonable given the starters, but it could turn into a real steal if your team's bullpen is in significantly better shape. It could also be a terrible bet if the bullpen can't help but throw away a good starting performance.
It's not enough to say that one starting pitcher is better than another so he will win. You have to consider not only which pitcher is better in general, but also which pitcher is in better form. As a general rule, oddsmakers don't react quickly enough when a pitcher comes into form, or when he goes into a downswing in performance. If you are on top of it then both situations can create value. Johan Santana, the most profitable, and arguably most dominant, pitcher in the league was largely consistent, but he had three stretches of bad form last year - he had four games without a win, three winless games at another point and he ended his year with just one win in his last four. At some stretches, and especially at the end of the year, his missteps created some seriously juicy underdog payoffs. Every pitcher has similar periods of poor form during every season. Spotting those periods puts money in your pocket.