For baseball handicappers there are few things harder to evaluate than bullpens. It is tough to know in any given game how much a bullpen is likely to be needed, which pitchers will be used, and which batters they are likely to face. The response that most bettors have in this situation is just to ignore the bullpen – they don’t factor it into their handicapping at all. That can be appropriate in many situations, but if you ignore the bullpens completely then you can miss out on potentially value-filled situations. Here are six factors to consider when looking at the handicapping of bullpens:
How deep is the bullpen? – The baseball season is long, so depth in the bullpen is more important than any other factor when evaluating the relievers a team has. Inevitably at several times during the season there will be a game in which the bullpen is relied upon heavily and many pitchers are used. Some teams have the skill and depth to handle that well without serious adverse effects in the next couple of games. Other teams, though, will be hit hard by this and will be vulnerable going forward. The more sense you can get of depth, the better off you will be. We’ll look at the components in more detail, but essentially you want to look at the number and health of pitchers, the types of arms, and how effective those arms have been.
Break it into components – When evaluating bullpens many bettors have the tendency to look at the group as a whole, and try to assess them based on group statistics – like ERA, for example. You can have a much better sense of how good a bullpen really is by breaking down the bullpen into components and evaluating them separately. There are a couple of obvious ways to break down a bullpen. First is left-handed and right-handed pitchers. Does the team have a shortage of one type, or is one kind more effective than others. The other way is to look at their uses. Are the pitchers long relievers, set-up men, or closers? How do they stack up in each of those areas? Is there an obvious area of concern? For example, if a team has a real shortage of middle relievers, or if the middle relievers aren’t currently available, then that could be a real concern for bettors if the starter doesn’t seem likely to last long in the game.
How does manager tend to use bullpen? – There are some managers that are very aggressive with their bullpens, and others that are far more passive. An aggressive manager will be more strategic, and will use pitchers for just a batter or two if they think that that gives them the best advantage. The more aggressive a manager is with his pitchers, the more important it is that they have both depth and variety in the bullpen.
What is likely from the starter? – This is simple, but really can’t be overlooked and often isn’t given enough credit by bettors. Simply put, the longer a starting pitcher is likely to last in a game, and the more effective you reasonably expect him to be, the less concerned you need to be about the status and efficacy of the bullpen. It’s important when you make this assessment, though, that you look at how the pitcher has been performing recently and what he is likely to do now as a result, and not be blinded by his reputation or his performance over the longer term.
What has recent usage been? – A well rested bullpen can perform better than they might be expected to. The rest can help to cover up problems with depth or lack of skill. A tired bullpen, on the other hand, can perform well below expectations if they have been forced to work more than is ideal. Looking at the short term the last five games or fewer – is more important than any other time frame when evaluating bullpens from a betting perspective.
How well is the opponent hitting? – The better an opponent has been performing offensively, the harder it could be for the starter to perform at a high level, and the more challenging the potential task could be for the bullpen – both because of how long they could be asked to work, and what they will have to face. As with evaluating the performance of the bullpen it is important to look at a short time frame here. You need to look at how the offense is performing recently and what that suggests they are capable of now, not what their reputation or long term performance might lead you to believe.