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Handicapping 5th Starters

When I am handicapping Major League Baseball, the fifth starters in rotations almost always give me headaches. That’s not the spot where teams typically put their stars. That means that performances can be wildly inconsistent, and in turn means that MLB teams will frequently make changes in who they use and how they use them. When deciding on your baseball picks, you have to deal with fifth starters in different ways than you would other pitchers. Here are five factors to consider when handicapping a ball game featuring at least one fifth starter:

Where are they in their career arc? – There are three basic ways a pitcher can wind up as a fifth starter – if his career is on the rise, if he’s on the decline, or if he’s only ever been good enough to be a fifth starter. Each option gives you different insights into what the ball team is hoping to get out of the position, and how you might deal with the pitcher as a result. For example, if a young kid with strong potential is currently a fifth starter then the team is using it as a relatively low pressure situation for him to get experience and to be able to show what he can do. In such a case you can be reasonably confident that the team is going to protect him as well as they can. That means that you are likely to see the bullpen a lot when he pitches. If the guy was formerly higher in the rotation then his bottom of the rotation role could be for rehab, but most likely it is just because the team needs an arm and he’s the best option. They are going to do less to protect him because they aren’t worried about his future, so he could be left in longer to get himself out of trouble. If a pitcher’s talent seems to top out as a fifth starter then he’s probably just a place-filler until a better option is available. In each case you would understand more of how to deal with the pitcher by understanding how the team likely views him.

Are they an established part of the rotation? – A fifth starter may be a guy who has filled the role for a while, and who could continue to fill the role as long as he performs. Or it could be a player who is pitching just because the team needs a starter and he’s the best of the options available and fresh enough to start. The more established a guy is in the role, and the more consistently he has pitched as the fifth starter, the easier it is to trust him in his role and to get an accurate sense of what might be expected from him. He’s also more likely to be prepared for the assignment.

Would they be higher in the rotation elsewhere? – There are some teams that are so deep and talented on the mound that their fifth starter could be a third or fourth starter for many other teams. There are other MLB teams that have such weak rotations that their second starter couldn’t be a fifth starter on the best teams. Getting a sense of how good a guy is – or how good others think he is – in a more general sense can help you understand what the potential of the pitcher could be in this situation. It’s quite common to see a relatively talented fifth starter undervalued by the betting public because of where they fit in the rotation – especially if their turn comes against a top of the rotation guy for the other team. That can mean real value for the baseball handicapper.

Does the public care about them? – The public generally doesn’t care about fifth starters unless there is a reason for them to. Did the guy have some success in the past? Is he a hot prospect now, or was he a high profile one in the past? Has he been in the media for some reason – positive or negative? If the answer is yes to any of those questions then the public may pay attention to him or give him some respect, but in most cases they won’t.

Does the team respect fifth starters? – There are some teams in the majors that play as well behind a no-name pitcher as they do behind a star. They go about their business at the plate and in the field basically the same from day to day. Other MLB teams seem to clearly lack intensity when a weaker starter is on the mound – especially when that starter is up against a guy who clearly is seen as better. It’s as if they know in advance that they aren’t likely to win, so they don’t want to waste the effort involved in playing hard in a losing effort. It’s far from an admirable trait, or typically the sign of a team destined for success, but it is very common. By looking back at how the record and performance in games with fifth starters compares to those of the rest of the rotation you can often gain valuable insights into a team that can be useful at the betting window.

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