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Handicapping Bullpens

Baseball Betting: Handicapping Bullpens

By Loot, MLB Handicapper,

It’s easy to neglect the bullpen. When most people bet on baseball, the starting pitcher takes the lion’s share of the attention. After all, when betting on a team, it is the starter’s name that is listed right alongside the team. Maybe that’s because the bookie wants us to only focus on that. Whatever the case, it is critical to handicap the bullpens. This isn’t the old days anymore.

The Heightened Importance of Relief Pitching in the Modern Era: In today’s era of big league baseball, the starter is still important. Don’t take us the wrong way. But over recent decades, that importance has faded somewhat significantly. Starting pitchers throw far less innings, as pitch-counts have been instituted and bullpens have become much more specialized. It’s not uncommon for the starter to get the hook after 5-6 innings and that’s even when he’s pitching well.

Sure, there are some pitchers who typically last later into the game--modern versions of what we used to call “workhorses.” But the proof is in the pudding. Not too long ago, even modest starters would complete double-digit games per season. Now if a guy completes just a few games, he’s in the running for the league-lead.

The issue is that the odds of baseball games are still very much tied up into the identity of the starting pitcher. But if we know the starting pitcher is only going to be pitching for 2/3 of the game, we really need to account for the remaining third or more of action. And to do that, we need to sink our teeth into handicapping the bullpen. And you don’t have to be an expert to know the quality of bullpens can vary wildly.

Another important point is that relief pitchers are in action when the game is on the line. Unless a game is a blowout, the relief pitchers are the guys who are in the game when it’s crunch-time. In a lot of games, teams are just jockeying for position in anticipation of the stretch-run. The first 5 or so innings is just setting up for the final few innings, when the sense of urgency is at its highest. It would be like a basketball game where they bring in guys just for the 4th quarter. Naturally, you would handicap the heck out of those guys if that’s how the game was played. So, it’s a little surprising how people blow off relief pitching to an extent. Here are some things to look out for when handicapping bullpens.

Different Levels of Relief Pitching: With the passage of time, bullpens have become more and more specialized. Now, you have long relief, middle relief, set-up guys, and closers. A lot of us tend to focus on the closer. After all, they get a lion’s share of the attention. Some of the more obscure players in MLB are the other guys, the ones who fill out the rest of the bullpen. The closer seldom throws more than one inning. Middle and long relievers could throw multiple innings. Needless to say, they need to be handicapped.

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Other than the closer, the guys who fill out the bullpen can be anybody. They could be young guys on their way up. They could be former starters who couldn’t cut it or who got old. They could be journeymen players who serve as roster filler, or truly valuable commodities who excel at what they do. In other words, there can be a very wide range of ability in this area from player-to-player--anything from really good pitchers to borderline big-leaguers who aren’t gonna be around for too long. Getting into the nitty-gritty is key.

Keeping Track of Bullpen Freshness: When handicapping a single game, we should know where both bullpens stand. It’s like a cycle. Naturally, managers use their best guys and when they grow weary, the less-proven guys are brought in. But it depends how close the games were, how the starters did, and a lot of other factors. Not keeping track can be a costly mistake, especially if you bet on a team and they bring in some rift-raft out of the pen in a close game. Unbeknownst to you, some poor recent starts led to the top relievers being used a lot and they’re a little spent.

When betting on a team, you’d like to know the best guys out of the bullpen are available for use. Most teams have at least a few dependable arms in the bullpen. But if those guys have been racking up a lot of appearances and you haven’t been paying attention, you could be blindsided when they bring in some 29-year old rookie who’s up for a cup of tea. That could massively impact the result of a game and naturally, needs to be accounted for in your handicapping.

Analyzing the Closer: Good closers come in many different forms. Don’t just look at save totals. Don’t get too hung up on ERA. The best measure of a closer is the percentage of save opportunities he converts. It’s a very specialized form of pitching where the sole purpose is to take a lead, squash any rallies, and deliver the win. If the closer inherits a man on third with one out, giving up a fly ball could result in a game-tying run. Normally, you could only be so upset when a pitcher actually records an out, but a closer is judged completely different. At the end of the day, it comes down to the rate in which he delivers a win. And don’t get too hung up on the league’s top save leaders. You’d rather have a guy who is 14-for-14 in save opportunities in the game than a guy who is 48-for-57 any day.

Look at Match-Ups: When handicapping a game, we may scan the line-ups and see if any hitters perform markedly better or worse against the starting pitchers. We also need to extend that analysis to the bullpen. It’s a bit of a blind area, not knowing with any certainty which relievers will play. But sometimes, there can be major clues. Maybe a lineup has 2-3 hitters in it who routinely hit the closer really well. Maybe a bullpen has all finesse guys and the opposing team is a better fastball-hitting team. The examples are endless, but to find clues that may tip the scale to one side or the other, you have to actually look. So few do. Just because it’s not an exact science and we are operating a bit in the dark doesn’t mean we should just blow it off, assume it all evens out in the end, and leave it up to fate.

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