The ability to quickly and accurately assess what statistics tell us about ball players and teams is crucial to success in baseball handicapping. Unfortunately, it’s not something that most casual MLB bettors understand or do effectively. With pitchers, quickly being able to assess their stats and what they mean is particularly important. There are a lot of statistics that casual baseball bettors misunderstand. There are some that are given too much credit, and others that are simple and effective but don’t get enough credit. Here are four pitching statistics that bettors would be well served to understand better:
Strikeout to walk ratio – Most casual baseball fans and bettors don’t pay much attention to this ratio. They know the basics – that having a better ratio is generally a good thing. They probably don’t go beyond that to think about what it actually means.. There are a couple of good uses of the strikeout to walk ratio. First, it’s a good way to get a quick indicator of the effectiveness of a pitcher. Once a guy has pitched enough to have a good sample size of innings pitched a ratio of 2:1 or better indicates that the guy is a reasonably effective pitcher. If the ratio is 3:1 or better than you can confidently assume that he is a very good pitcher. There are exceptions to these rules, but that’s a pretty good indicator, and it allows you to make a quick first assessment of a pitcher you aren’t familiar with. Second, you need to understand what effect a pitcher with a poor ratio can have on his ball team. A pitcher with a poor ratio typically throws a lot more pitches per inning than a pitcher with a good ratio. That means that he is less likely to last as deep in games, and is going to more consistently put a strain on the bullpen. When the bullpen is more likely to be used bettors need to spend more time analyzing the potential impact of that bullpen. A pitcher with a low ratio is also more likely to put more balls into play than one with a high ratio. That means that the defense is called on to make more plays – and to turn more double plays to get out of trouble. This makes the effectiveness of that defense more of a concern in your handicapping.
WHIP – Like the strikeout to walk ratio, the WHIP is a very good way to get a quick sense of how good a pitcher is and what might reasonably be expected of him. In fact, it is probably the single best indicator of pitcher quality there is. WHIP is short for walks and hits per inning pitched. That makes the stat pretty easy to understand – add up the walks and hits and divide by the innings. Simple statistics are often the most powerful. There are two important cutoffs for WHIP for a pitcher. If a pitcher has a WHIP under 1.50 on the season then you can assume that he is a reasonably competent pitcher. If that WHIP is below 1.00 – a rare and impressive accomplishment – then the guy is an elite pitcher, or at least one having an elite year. If a guy has a WHIP of under 1.50 and a strikeout to walk ratio of over 2:1 then even if you knew nothing about him you’d know that he is a competent pitcher and that you don’t necessarily need to be afraid of betting on him if that is what makes sense for other reasons.
ERA – The problem with ERA is the opposite of the first two stats on this list. Those ones don’t get enough attention, but earned run average gets far too much attention. ERA is the most widely available and widely touted stat for pitchers. It has a very big problem, though – it lacks context. You can’t really predict based on the pitcher’s ERA how effective he is at winning games. There are many things that could impact how well he does on the scoresheet regardless of his ERA – how strong his offense is, how good the defense behind him is, how may unearned runs the team gives up, the type of park he plays in, how long he lasts in games, and so on. It’s quite possible to have two pitchers with a 3.50 ERA, but one with a 15-5 record and one with a 5-15 record. By itself ERA just isn’t powerful enough to be predictive. If you are using it to help you predict things and make bets – like that the pitcher with the lower ERA is going to beat the one with the higher ERA – then you are making bad, and potentially costly, decisions.
Quality starts – One way to get around the problems of the ERA is to look at it in combination with other statistics – for example, quality starts. A quality start is an outing in which a pitcher lasts at least six innings and doesn’t allow more than three earned runs. A baseball pitcher who throws a quality start is more likely to win than a guy who doesn’t, and the average ERA in a quality start is much lower than in the average non-quality start. If you look at a pitcher’s ERA along with his quality starts then as a MLB handicapper you can get a much better sense of how effective he is, and that in turn makes it much easier to assess how good he is, and how likely a solid performance is in this particular outing.