Handicapping MLB Aces
by Trevor Whenham - 4/15/2010
One of the toughest things to handicap is baseball is an ace. Every time a team sends their ace to the mound they are setting a trap for us to fall into if we aren't careful. The problem is that the ace is the pitcher that the public knows best, so he is the one that draws the most public action. That makes it that much harder to find an edge, and in turn makes it deceptively simple to make a bet which gives you no edge. Here are six things to consider when you are handicapping a game with an ace starting to make sure that you aren't throwing your money away:
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Don't get sucked in by a name - In many cases an ace has become an ace because a few years of very strong pitching. Because of that it's easy for handicappers to develop 'ace blindness' - a belief that a pitcher is going to be very good now because he has been very good in the past. It's far more important, though, to look at how the pitcher is actually pitching right now, not what he did to earn his reputation. Recent form will make you money, but long-term form can empty your wallet. It can be very tempting to blindly make a bet at any price when a big-name pitcher is up against a no-name journeyman. The problem, though, is that it's not at all uncommon that the journeyman is in better form despite the variance in paychecks.
Matchup against opponent - Even the best pitcher has teams that he can't seem to beat, so you need to be very aware of the opponent when you are handicapping aces. Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball in my eyes. In the last three seasons when he was in the AL East he was an impressive 53-28 overall, and a stunning 9-2 against the Yankees, but at the same time he was an underwhelming 6-7 against the Red Sox and a lousy 4-7 against the Rays. You don't have to be a superstar handicapper to know which situations to look at and which to avoid at the prices that you would inevitably face betting on Halladay.
Who is he facing? - A team has a much bigger edge when they send their ace to the mound against a fourth or fifth starter than they do when he is up against an opposing ace. Because of the typical odds on a starter you need to make sure that an ace has a large edge before you play them, so you need to spend at least as much time getting a sense of the opposing pitcher as you do the ace.
Where is he playing? - Some pitchers are much better at home, while others don't really seem to care. Tim Lincecum is 21-8 over the last three years at home, and 19-9 on the road, so he's a very attractive ace to play on the road. Felix Hernandez is similarly strong on the road - except for when he plays in Angel Stadium. When he travels to Anaheim he has looked totally mortal in five starts, and has been attractive to bet against there.
What are his patterns of strength and weakness during the season? - Halladay has traditionally been stronger before the all-star break than afterwards. Hernandez usually sees his ERA rise after the break,but his record has been similar. Lincecum's ERA has actually fallen after the break. Sabathia is a second-half pitcher as we saw when he went to Milwaukee two years ago and was unconscious all fall. Over the last three years Sabathia is just 5-6 in April and 8-7 in July, but an incredible 22-3 in August and September combined. Betting an ace in his strongest periods and avoiding his weakest is a good way to maximize value. Beyond timing, you also need to look where and when the game is being played. Is the pitcher better at night or during the day? Does he do better in domes or outdoors? On the turf or grass? Finding detailed split information is so easy these days that you are throwing your money away if you don't use them.
A pitcher can't win alone - No matter how good a pitcher is or how well he is playing he can't win games if the team around him isn't scoring runs and playing defense. It can be easy to view an ace in isolation, but you have to carefully consider his team as well. Ask Roy Halladay what it's like pitching consistently well for a team that doesn't provide any run support.
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