When it comes to handicapping baseball there is nothing more important than evaluating starting pitchers. It’s the pitchers that make the difference between good games for a team and bad ones. No other single player affects the outcome of games in any major sport more than the starting pitcher does. When casual baseball bettors makes their picks there are mistakes that are easy to make – and very costly. Here’s a look at five big mistakes bettors make when evaluating pitchers:
Looking at long term over shorter term – Over the course of a season a pitcher can go through many different phases as his arm feels the wear and tear of the season. Some guys will start out strong, fade in the middle, and strengthen again at the end of the year. Other guys will be terrible early on and will round into form as the season continues. Each guy will be different, but almost all guys will have stronger and weaker periods during the year. By looking at pitching statistics that cover the entire season you can miss these subtleties and not have an accurate picture of how the pitcher is performing at the moment. If a pitcher started the season playing poorly then his overall stats wouldn’t accurately reflect his strong recent performance. A pitcher who is struggling recently after a strong start will look stronger according to his season-long stats than he should. It’s important, then, to have a short term statistical view of a pitcher to be sure that you are making accurate decisions. I prefer a three game outlook, though that’s not the only way to look at it.
Overreacting to one bad outing – If you look back at the game logs of each past Cy Young winner during their award winning season there will be one thing you’ll find in each of them – they all had bad games during the year. No matter how good a starting pitcher is he is going to have days where he isn’t feeling right and his unhittable stuff is suddenly much more hittable. Inexperienced bettors tend to panic in the game following a lousy outing and assume that it’s the sign of bigger problems. One bad game is an indicator of nothing other than the pitcher had a bad day. Overreacting in a situation like this can be a mistake. Bad performances over a few games in a row can be a trend worth acting on, but one game is not a trend.
Overvaluing ERA – ERA is one of those statistics that gets a whole lot of coverage. It’s easy to understand and easy to calculate so the media relies on it heavily, and the public looks at it as a stronger indicator than it really is. There are several problems with ERA that make it a less meaningful stat for handicappers, though. The biggest problem is that there are a wide range of factors that are totally beyond a pitchers control that can have an affect on the pitcher’s ERA. A guy will likely have a better ERA over a short period if he faces particularly weak teams than if he had faced particularly tough teams, so he is at the whim of the schedule maker. This can particularly be a problem early in the season when the sample size is small. A pitcher can also be penalized by playing in front of a weak defense. In short, ERA is not a strong indicator of the actual performance of the pitcher, and better stats should be sought out by bettors who want to win.
Focusing on Ks – Strikeouts are sexy. Everyone loves a power pitcher who can blow the ball past guys, and a game full of big strikeouts is always going to get coverage. By themselves, though, strikeouts aren’t particularly meaningful for handicappers. A strikeout is useful for a pitcher, but more strikeouts don’t necessarily indicate a better pitcher. In so cases a pitcher is sacrificing other aspects of his game in order to get more strikeouts. Instead of allowing themselves to be seduced by strikeouts smart bettors know that it’s more important to look at Ks in ways that indicate how effective a pitcher really is – like k/BB ratio for example.
Ignoring matchups and circumstances – A pitcher’s effectiveness is determined to a large extent by the baseball team he is pitching against. Casual MLB bettors will address this in a very basic way – by assuming that a pitcher will struggle more against a very good hitting team than against a weak bunch of bats, for example. You need to go further than that, though. Sometimes the best pitcher could struggle against the weakest of teams if the team features a lot of lefties and he loses effectiveness against lefties, or if they are contact hitters and he is better against power hitters. A fly ball pitcher could do better playing in a big ballpark than a small one. In your baseball handicapping, you’ll need to look well beyond surface matchups to identify situations that actually significantly impact what is likely to happen.