Be Wary of Backing These Pitchers
by Trevor Whenham - 06/24/2008
It goes without saying that the starting pitchers are a major part of the handicapping process for baseball. There are a number of ways that that can cause problems for handicappers. One of the real dangers to the bankroll is when a pitcher establishes a reputation with their play at the start of the year, but then fails to live up to that in later starts. Bettors can think that they are going to get a better performance than they are actually likely to get, and the public isn't likely to adjust to the changes, so the lines can be out of whack. Here are five pitchers who have fallen off of their early peaks:
Brandon Webb, Arizona - At the start of the year it looked like Webb was a lock for 30 wins. He just couldn't lose. Heck, he could barely throw anything that wasn't a strike. He stormed out to a 9-0 start in his first nine appearances, and he looked as invincible as his team did. The last month, though, has been an entirely different story. He is 2-4 in eight appearances since May 15, and he hasn't won since June 6. It's not just that he is losing, either. He is getting beaten up. He has given up 14 earned runs in his last 15 innings. He's burning up money, too - he's been a fairly significant favorite in his last three games (as he has all year), but he just isn't delivering. His 11-4 record and 3.40 ERA is seductive at first glance, but that is not indicative of the pitcher he currently is.
Dan Haren, Arizona - Webb isn't the only Arizona pitcher to cool off a bit. He made the switch in leagues this year when he left Oakland. Barry Zito and Johan Santana will tell you that that isn't always a painless transition, but Haren made it look easy. He was 4-1 after his first six starts, and it was getting to be expected to see him end a game with a microscopic ERA. But then things cooled off considerably. Over his next eight starts he was 2-3. He wasn't pitching as well, and the hitters were catching up. Bettors faced some big numbers when backing him, and they didn't pay off as much as you would always like. As can be the case, though, Haren is back in stellar form recently. In his last two starts he has beaten his former team and outdueled Josh Beckett in an instant classic. That might make it seem like Haren doesn't deserve to be on this list, but really it shows just how important this list is - Haren has turned against expectations twice this year, and the public has struggled to catch up both times.
Cliff Lee, Cleveland - I don't want to sound the alarm too loudly regarding Lee because he is still at the forefront of the AL Cy Young race. He just hasn't been the unstoppable force in recent weeks that he was at the start of the season. He has failed to win his last two games, and since those came against struggling teams - the Dodgers and the Padres - that's a bit of a concern. He's pitched solidly in those games, though, so I'm not as concerned about those as I am about three of the four wins that came before that. He won, but he hasn't been lasting as deep as he should, and he hasn't been nearly as dominant as he was earlier on. The Indians don't reliably provide run support, so Lee is a bit of a scary betting proposition when he faces the big lines that his numbers can occasionally warrant in the public's eyes. For example, he has only won once the last three times he has been at -150 or worse, and that's not much of a way for a bettor to make money.
Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs - It might not be fair to pick on Zambrano because he is on the DL with a strained shoulder so it's hard to know how much of his current fall in form is due to the developing effects of that injury. The fact is, though, that he hasn't been nearly the same pitcher in recent starts that he was to begin with. After starting out at 8-1, Zambrano has gone 0-2 in his last three starts. In the two losses he has been hit hard, and in general he is walking too many and not striking out enough. It's usually a good idea to lay off a pitcher when he comes off the DL anyway, but even without the injury I wouldn't have much interest in Zambrano in his current form - especially since he has been favored in every one of his starts.
Javier Vazquez, Chicago White Sox - Vazquez is frustrating because he seems like he should be a much better pitcher than he is. He's dangerous this year for a couple of reasons. First of all, he got off to a strong 3-1 start, so he captured the attention of bettors. Next, he plays for a team that is surprisingly strong, and that tends to lift the public perception of the bigger name pitchers on a team. Vazquez has not had a particularly good month of June. In his four starts he has yet to make it out of the sixth inning, and he has allowed at least four runs in each outing. He also has developed the lousy habit recently of winning when the price on him is so high it is unattractive, and losing when he is a tempting underdog.