Handicapping Stephen Strasburg: Trends To Win Money Against Nationals MLB Ace
by Robert Ferringo - 6/30/2010
When the Atlanta Braves are selling out against the Washington Nationals on a Monday evening game in June just because Stephen Strasburg is pitching you know that there is something special going on.
The Braves don’t sell out playoff games. Seriously. (I remember sports talk radio bobbleheads begging for fans to show up for a winner-take-all Game 5 with Houston in the Wild Card round in 2004.) But Monday night Strasburg was opposite Tim Hudson in front of a packed, lively Turner Field in a National League East showdown. The Braves managed to fend off the Nationals, finally breaking through late to score a 5-0 win.
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I had a play on the Braves in that game and Allen Eastman had used Atlanta as his Game of the Month. But the guy I was watching the game with had his money down on Strasburg. And as his frustration grew as the game wore on it became clear to me: there are a lot of people that are set up to take a beating betting on Major League Baseball’s ‘Next Big Thing’.
Strasburg – you don’t need me to tell you this – is obviously the real deal. He’s throwing 90-mile-per-hour changeups, for chrissakes, along with air-bending curveballs that are completely baffling batters compared to his high-90s, low-100s heat. His poise is exceptional, he can help himself out with the bat a little bit, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a silly 7-to-1. Strasburg has the look of a guy that can be a frontline starter for the next decade (keep quiet Mark Prior fans) and a player that has become must-see-TV in the meantime.
But while Strasburg has burst onto the scene as an elite arm I’m not going to sit here and suggest that he’s anything that we haven’t seen before. The guy whose stuff and approach he most reminds me of is Justin Verlander. They have the same repertoire and that was the first name that came to mind when I saw Strasburg throw the first time.
So let’s get this straight – there is nothing wrong with being a Verlander clone. Verlander has been a dominant pitcher in three of the last four years entering 2010. And if he were in the National League he’s have even more ridiculous numbers. But the point is that while Verlander demands a stiff price to back, there aren’t people falling over themselves to get money down on him the way that bettors are backing Strasburg (the Nationals have taken at least 75 percent of the action in games he’s thrown). And if Verlander were starting for the Nationals tomorrow it would be about one-tenth the spectacle that Strasburg’s starts have become.
So, if we accept the premise that Strasburg is a mere mortal, albeit an extraordinarily talented one, and not a baseball deity then there are two enormous factors that are keeping betting on him from becoming a consistently profitable venture: the oddsmakers and the Nationals.
The books obviously understand Strasburg Mania. He has been a favorite at -200, -190, -175 and -240 in his first four starts. This is the Nationals. They have only been listed as a favorite of -200 or higher one time in their history – a July start by Bartolo Colon against Julian Tavarez and the Marlins – and had only been listed at -180 or higher six times going back to 1999. Yet Strasburg’s first few starts were raising the bar to unseen levels for bettors that wanted to back the Nationals.
Strasburg was finally listed as a slight underdog (+110) in his fifth start, at Atlanta. But to give you an idea of how off-balance that was, the Nationals haven’t been an underdog listed below +160 in a trip to Turner Field in more than three years.
So it goes without saying that the books have severely inflated Strasburg’s odds in an attempt to curb betting on the phenom. And that’s only going to slim down the margin for error that gamblers have in trying to make a buck of this stud. The books likely took a loss on his first effort, a dominating win over the Pirates. But I’m sure that there were plenty of people ready to fade him right out of the gate and I’m certain that a lot of heavy hitters wanted to sit the first one out and see what the hype was truly all about. In Strasburg’s second offering the Nationals bombed Cleveland, but since then they have lost three straight starts. And since they came against the White Sox (pre-hot streak), the Royals (haven’t been hot since July of 1984), and the Braves (the most lukewarm franchise in sports) you know that the sportsbooks have been cleaning up on the flood of money on The Next Big Thing.
The second thing standing in the way of a successful wager on Strasburg is his team. I did a radio interview back in mid-May in which I was asked about how I would approach Strasburg. The first words out of my mouth were, “Fade him”. That’s just how I’m programmed when it comes to Hype. But as I was asked to expound on why I would take that approach my answer was simple. I said that the most important thing to handicap in his starts wasn’t going to be him pitching but it was going to be his team around him.
At the time the Nationals were one of baseball’s biggest surprises. On May 14 they were 20-15, one of the most profitable teams for bettors in the Majors, and just 1.5 games out of first place in the National League East. Since then it’s been all downhill. They are 14-29 since then and entering Wednesday’s game in Atlanta they are on a vintage 2-12 Nats slide. They are now 11 games back and in the basement.
Atlanta gave a perfect blueprint for beating Strasburg in the series opener Monday. Be patient, stay focused, and just slightly apply pressure on the rest of his teammates. The results were obvious. Ian Desmond booted a crucial double play ball in the seventh inning. Then after a sacrifice fly put Atlanta up 1-0, centerfielder Nyjer Morgan threw to the wrong base, allowing runners to advance to second and third. The next batter, Yunel Escobar, singled them both home and the rout was on.
Further, the Nationals do boast the No. 9 bullpen in the league. However, their relievers have also thrown the fifth-most innings in the league. It will be interesting to see if the pen will start to wear down and if that will open up another avenue for Strasburg’s teammates to let him down.
After all, this is still the Nationals. Strasburg may be the foundation to turn things around for this organization. But they aren’t there yet.
In regards to Strasburg’s long-term prospects, I can’t speak on that. He is clearly an exceptional arm. But he’s on a bad team playing for what has been a feeble organization. But if you are looking for a way to earn some money related to his pitching there is some trends that have started to pop up.
The first is to go ahead and play ‘under’ when he starts. Obviously the totals on his starts have been shrinking, moving down from an 8.5 against the Pirates in his first start to a 6.5 on Monday in Atlanta. This is a part of the game in which Strasburg has a ton of control and is a way to bet on his brilliance without having to bank on the rest of his mates to come through. In fact, the worse they play – at the plate, anyway - the stronger your bet will become.
Four of Strasburg’s five starts have stayed ‘under’ the total and besides a nine-run outburst against Cleveland (which came against David Huff, which is like hitting off a tee) the Nationals have given Strasburg just 1.5 runs of support in his other four outings. Tack on Strasburg’s average outing – six innings and 1.5 runs allowed – and you have a recipe for low-scoring affairs.
One caveat to that, though, is to monitor Strasburg’s total innings. The Nationals are going to be very careful with their ace. And as they slide into their familiar spot in the East cellar they will likely be even more cautious with his innings. They have stated that he will only throw about 100 innings this year. He’s already at 32. So as we go in the summer don’t be surprised if they take him out after five or six innings “just because” and turn over the games to the bullpen. (Which has been great but, like I mentioned, could wear down and bust those ‘under’ bets.)
Two other angles that appear to be presenting themselves are betting against the Nationals the day after Strasburg throws and betting ‘over’ in the game following his outings. The Nationals are just 2-3 in games after Strasburg starts and have dumped three of four in what are clearly letdown spots. The ‘over’ has also gone 3-1-1 in those starts.
The reasons to bet against the Nats and on the ‘over’ are simple. Strasburg has had four different Washington starters throw behind him. And – this just in – the other Nationals starters suck. Naturally, that’s going to lead to plenty of runs and plenty of losses for Washington.
But beyond that, teams are obviously getting amped up to take a crack at Strasburg. Stadiums are selling out and opposing managers are shifting and stacking their lineups to counter the rookie. If the opponents beat Strasburg you can expect plenty of good vibes and for that momentum to carry over into the next day. And regardless, the batters are going to feel like they have been let out of prison the next day after facing Strasburg’s dizzying arsenal. I mean, how would you feel after four at-bats against Strasburg, then you show up to the park the next day and you’re facing J.D. Martin, Jacob Arrieta, or Craig Stammen?
So there are plenty of ways to make money on Stephen Strasburg and the incredible buzz that he has created in baseball circles. Whether you try to tug on Superman’s cape or whether you take the position of Fade, Fade Away, or whether you try to earn off some more subtle things involving the new Nats ace (betting ‘under’, playing ‘over’ later in the year as his outings shorten, or betting ‘over’ and against following his starts) there will be plenty of methods that sharp anglers can utilize to earn on Strasburg through the rest of the season.
With 10 of 13 winning months for MLB picks, Ferringo is a must-see for any MLB bettor looking to procure a profit during the second half of the MLB season. Check out his Insider’s Page for more information.
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