MLB Overrated Pitchers
by Trevor Whenham - 05/28/2008
One of the hardest but most important tasks baseball handicappers face is deciding which pitchers are good value, and which one aren't worth risking your money on. The best and most obvious way to do that is by looking at statistics. Win-loss record and earned run average are the tools that most bettors rely on most heavily, but they can sometimes be misleading. Here's a look at three pitchers with fancy-looking numbers who aren't as reliably as unbeatable as their numbers indicate.
Daisuke Matsuzaka - This discussion came a day too late. After starting out at 8-0, Matsuzaka was en route to a loss against the lowly Mariners last night before he injured his back and had to leave the game. He escaped a blemish on his record because he didn't get a decision, but it was just another example of where he hasn't been pitching as good as his record would indicate. Last night's game was the sixth time in 11 starts that Matsuzaka hasn't made it out of the sixth inning. In four of those starts he didn't make it past the fifth. When you are betting on Dice-K you are paying a premium because of his name. Because he doesn't have particularly good stamina, though, a lot of what you are betting on is beyond your control - you can't know which relievers will appear before the game. That robs the pitcher of some of his value. It's not just that he gets tired early, either. He can burn up pitches like few other. In four of the five games he was pulled from before the sixth he had already thrown over 100 pitches.
More significantly, he hasn't consistently been pitching well. His ERA has dropped from 4.40 last year to 2.53 so far this year, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The strikeout-to-walk ratio is a good indicator of the control a pitcher has. It was 2.5/1 last season. This year it has dropped down to 1.45/1. He hasn't been as crisp this year as he was last year. What he has been this year, though, is lucky. He wasn't sharp against Kansas City, but his team hit two grand slams to secure the win. He had terrible control against Detroit, walking eight in five innings, but the struggling Tigers could only convert that into one run. He allowed four runs in five innings to the Yankees, but opposing pitcher Phil Hughes struggled even more. He wasn't strong against Texas, but Rangers' starter Luis Mendoza was as bad as a pitcher can possibly be, and Matsuzaka had an eight-run cushion after four innings. Matsuzaka has been far from terrible, but he hasn't been nearly as dominant as he seems, and his record should start to reflect that. That means that there will be significant value in his opponents in coming games.
Vicente Padilla - The Rangers' starter is 7-2, and he is given the Rangers consistently solid starts - something that the team certainly isn't used to. He's currently the most profitable pitcher in the majors. Despite the booming start, though, Padilla has the look of a pitcher ready to fall back to earth - or at least to pitch more like Vicente Padilla. A big part of the reason for that is history. Padilla has six years as a starter under his belt, and he was a reliever for three full seasons before that. He's been good enough to stick around that long, but he is the ultimate journeyman. He was 15-10 in 2006, but he had losing records the year before and the year after. Overall, he is just 79-73 with a 4.21 ERA. It's not unprecedented for a pitcher to come from nowhere to put together an incredible season - Fausto Carmona and his jump from 1-10 to 19-8 comes to mind. Carmona showed significant statistical improvements in his breakout year, though, and Padilla hasn't to the same extent. His K/BB ratio is well below career highs. His ERA is down significantly from last year, but still not at a career best, and worse than 37 other starting pitchers in the majors. It's easy to see that Padilla could put together a solid year - especially if Josh Hamilton keeps hitting like he is. It just doesn't seem at all realistic that he will keep up his current torrid pace.
Ryan Dempster - This is another guy that fits into the same category as Padilla. He, like me, is from Western Canada, so I have always kept an eye on him. That's why it was a particular surprise when he was moved to the Cubs' rotation this year. This is Dempster's 11th year in the pros, but he hasn't been a regular starter since he was with Cincinnati in 2003. He underwent Tommy John surgery later that year, and he came back late in 2004 to join the Chicago bullpen. He's been a reliable closer since he came back, but nothing he has done in recent years lent us a clue to what he has done this year. He has started out at 6-2, and his ERA is just 2.56. It's difficult to compare his current stats to those in recent years because of the differences between starting and closing. You also can't really compare the current starter to what he accomplished in his earlier starting days because Tommy John Surgery often creates a totally different pitcher. There is one thing that really sticks out, though, and gives me cause for concern. If he makes it into the fifth inning in his next start he will have pitched more innings already this year than he pitched in three of the last four seasons. It's still May. His arm is going through strain that it isn't used to since the surgery. It seems quite reasonable to believe that Dempster will take a step back as the season progresses. That could mean value for the other team when he takes the mound.