Judging Baseball’s Fast Starting Pitchers

At the start of every Major League Baseball season there are a few pitchers who get off to very fast starts. In their first couple of starts they are virtually unhittable. That leads to an impressive record, a microscopic ERA, impressive stats, and increased attention from the public. The challenge for bettors is to determine whether the fast start is a sign of a very good year ahead for the pitcher, or if he is soon going to fall back to earth. The more accurate your sense of what to expect from the pitcher, the more effectively you can seek out and find nice value when making your baseball picks. Here are seven factors to consider to help evaluate what to expect from a pitcher with a fast start:

Who have they played? – All wins are impressive, but some wins are clearly more impressive than others. Simply put, if a pitcher beats a good team that is hitting well it is far more impressive than if he beats a bad team, or if he beats a good team that is really struggling at the plate. Similarly, it’s more impressive if he wins on the road – especially in hitter’s ballparks – than if he wins at home. No matter what, the sample size here is going to be small enough that you can’t read too much into what has happened, but the more impressive the wins are, the more you can trust the pitcher and feel confident when you make your sports picks.

Have they faced teams before? – If a pitcher is new to the majors, or if he has switched leagues, then he might be facing teams for the first time, or for the first time in a long time. When a team isn’t familiar with a pitcher they can be surprised by him – especially early in the season when they don’t have recent video to scout him with. The more familiar a team is with a pitcher, though, and the better they can scout him, the more impressive it is if he beats them in strong fashion.

What is their WHIP? – There are more precise and effective stats than the WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), but WHIP is a very good quick indicator of how a pitcher is performing. If a WHIP is below 1.50 then a pitcher is performing well. Below 1.00 and he is absolutely on fire. At or above 1.50 and it has not been dominating performance from the pitcher. It’s possible that the ERA and wins could be impressive while the WHIP is less impressive. That would be a sign that the pitcher has been lucky, and luck is hard to bank on in the longer term.

Are their stats roughly comparable to the past? – Pitchers can and do improve from year to year, but those improvements are typically gradual as the guy gets stronger, smarter, and more comfortable. If the pitcher’s start is dramatically better this year than they have been over the last few seasons then it’s a cause for potential alarm. That doesn’t mean that a pitcher can’t possibly make a dramatic leap forward. It just means that when a pitcher is performing at a totally different level you need to be confident that there is a reason for it, and that there is at least a reasonable chance that it could be sustainable.

What has changed? – If a pitcher is off to an unexpectedly fast start then one thing you want to look at is if anything has changed in the offseason that could be explaining the improvement – and making it more sustainable. Is he coming back from a major surgery like Tommy John? Did he change his offseason routine – fitness, exercise, training, and so on? Does he have a new coach working with him?

Has he previously started strong? – You can get a better sense of how sustainable a fast start is if he has started fast before. That should be pretty self-explanatory – look back at past seasons to see what the first couple of games looked like, and what happened after that.

How is the team hitting behind them? – It will be a lot easier for a pitcher to keep winning – and delivering for bettors – if he has a team that is talented and hitting well behind him. When the offense is working then the margin for error is bigger for the pitcher, and he’s going to feel less pressure to shut the opponent down. A less tense pitcher is, in most cases, a more effective one.

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