Brad Allen: What we’ve learned through one month of the MLB season

11 min

We’re almost a month into the baseball season, so it’s time to take a closer look at the action so far to see what we can learn for betting purposes.

And of course, there’s a couple of bets for tonight at the end.

The bullpen is more important than ever.

There is a growing awareness around the league of the ‘third time through the order penalty’ – the idea that a hitter’s production increases the more times he sees a pitcher, as shown below. (wOBA is weighted on-base average – a pretty comprehensive hitting stat). The numbers shown for the fourth time through the order are anomalous because only the really elite pitchers get a chance to face someone a fourth time, and even then, only when they’re pitching well.

This idea isn’t new to major league teams – organisations like the Tampa Bay Rays and Dodgers have known this for years and been yanking their starting pitchers before they get crushed the third time through the order.

However this practice has picked up steam this year and teams like the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox (who not coincidentally have new analytically-minded managers) are pulling their pitchers earlier than ever before.

What does it mean for betting? One option is that starting pitchers matter less than ever before, so you might find value backing some bad pitchers on teams that do this (like the five mentioned above).

It also means you want to be backing teams with elite bullpens and betting against those that don’t. The top four bullpens so far this season by SIERA are the Yankees, Astros, Padres and Nationals.

Three of those are to be expected, but it’s the Padres that interest me most. They also have a much-improved defense this year, and these two things are often underrated by the market. I’d be looking to back the Padres as underdogs over the next few weeks.

The strength of the Cleveland Indians bullpen was a major reason why they progressed to last year’s World Series.

Is the ball still juiced?

Last year, of course, saw a record number of home runs across the major leagues and the bankrolls of under bettors demolished. In preseason the surge looked to be continuing, but so far in the regular season, the HR rate is down around 14%.

Interestingly enough, exit velocity is NOT down, meaning there are two options: 1) the awful weather across major league stadiums is killing fly balls and preventing home runs, or 2) there has been a change to the surface of the baseball which is increasing drag and stopping it flying so far.

To be honest, I don’t know for sure what the answer is, but I suspect the weather is to blame. As it heats up, the home runs should start to fly again and I’d be keen to be backing overs.

Is fantasy baseball and DFS affecting the MLB betting market?

I very much think it is, even if some people disagree with me. Pitchers that are getting hyped up for fantasy purposes by the likes of Fangraphs seem to have a premium built into their betting lines.

I’m aware of this because fantasy analysis has been one of my own avenues of research over the past few years, and now the edge seems to have disappeared.

If anything there could be value fading ‘hot’ young pitchers like Jameson Taillon, Aaron Nola and Luke Weaver. These three pitchers are all hyped but also in the bottom 20 in MLB in swinging strike rate.

I’d be looking to be against them, and if you can find them playing against a veteran pitcher on the decline (Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta spring to mind), then I think you’ll get value on the veteran. Both sets of pitchers are being priced like their future selves rather than their current selves.

Contact management might provide us with an edge

Like yards per play in the NFL, or XG in football, the single biggest factor in a baseball line is the starting pitcher’s SIERA – a stat which offers a projected earned run average based on skills like strikeouts and walks. Back in the early noughties, this stat alone would have been an edge, but now these skills are largely priced into the line.

Instead, I think contact management is undervalued. The ability to generate soft contact is not fully folded into stats like SIERA, but we do have new ways to identify this skill.

Chief among these is Statcast, which can measure how hard a pitcher is getting hit and use that info to work out how many runs he should be giving up. This stat is called xWOBA (2018 leaderboard here) and is pretty much a who’s who of elite pitchers. However, there are a couple of interesting names.

Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello has bounced back well this season.

Rick Porcello is a standout because he was awful last year after an excellent 2016. Well, according to his xWOBA he’s started 2018 on fire, and digging deeper, he’s started throwing his slider and changeup a lot more, and generating more swings and misses as well as soft contact. I’d expect Porcello to outpitch his projections this year and he looks a good bet next time out.

Tuesday Night’s Picks

Talking of which, a bet for tonight (Tuesday) is the under 8.5 in the Red Sox/Blue Jays game, which sees Porcello take on Jay Happ. We’ve already talked abut Porcello’s improvements, but Happ is also pitching well this year, having raised his strikeout rate from 22.7% last year to 32.0% now, one of the bets marks in baseball.

That’s supported by his swinging strike rate of 14.3%, good for 11th best in the majors. The change here is that Happ is throwing his fastball high in the zone and so far batters have simply not been able to hit it.

That may get figured out later in the season, but for now, we’ll ride it. I’d make this game 8 flat, so getting under 8.5 at 1.97 at time of writing represents decent value.

As a bonus, I’m also backing the Rays at 2.02 tonight. They take on Alex Cobb for the Orioles, who has a swinging strike rate of just 6% through two games this year. That is dreadful and the Rays have Jacob Faria going who looks to have rebounded after a tough start to the year. The wrong team is favoured for me.

Best of luck folks.

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