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Good Pitching vs. Good Hitting

Does Good Pitching Beat Good Hitting?

By Loot, MLB Handicapper,

”Good pitching beats good hitting” or “good pitching wins championships” are mantras that have become a part of baseball lingo. It’s hard to argue with it. It is a fact that the difference in pitching is a huge factor in baseball results and baseball wagering. It can make all the difference in the world--make no mistake.

As bettors, however, we need to look around the still a little and see if we can’t find more meaningful information than blanket slogans that get us nowhere. Pitching does win games. But so does good hitting. And when you look at teams that are good enough to get to the playoffs, most of them were able to hit a little better than the opponents.

Conventional wisdom in baseball means something. But when we’re trying to beat the bookie, we need something more. And by in large, there is a little too much emphasis placed on pitching, especially starting pitching. As we bet on games throughout the season, we see the odds of teams shifting drastically all because of the identity of the starting pitcher. It’s as if the hitting is secondary and everything revolves around the starting pitching. Well, that’s part of it. But the hitting is just as important. After all, it’s the team that scores the most that wins and allows us to cash bets. That comes from hitting.

In fact, you can make the argument that hitting is the more constant factor. It strikes at the idea that pitching is the constant, while teams hit some days and don’t on others. But when looking at baseball odds, it’s hard to not notice how much they tie in with the starting pitcher and not as much with the hitting.

Let’s look at the great pitchers and hitters. Think back over the past two decades and the best throwers from that period. That means guys like Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Roger Clemens. In their primes, these guys were regularly seen with odds of -300 or above. You would have to win bets at a clip that surpassed 75% or more just to turn the most meager of profits. Those 3 pitchers had a combined lifetime winning percentage of 66%. And those were the absolute cream of the crop pitchers from the past 20 years.

Let’s look at another duo of great pitchers from the last 20 years in Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, two guys that usually fetched long odds. Combined, they had a lifetime winning percentage of 60.5%. It’s hard to win on guys who are almost always -200 or above when only winning a tad over 60% of your starts.


Let’s look at some more modern examples. We’ll look at a group of starting pitchers who as of press time (2014), are considered the best in the business. Next to their name is their lifetime winning percentage and the money line they would need to average out at to make them a winning bet based on their winning percentage:

Max Scherzer: .613 (-155 money line)
Yu Darvish: .625 (-165 money line)
Bartolo Colon: .594 (-150 money line)
Felix Hernandez: .568 (-125 money line)
Clayton Kershaw: .629 (-165 money line)
Adam Wainwright: .635 (-170 money line)
Cliff Lee: .618 (-160 money line)
Jordan Zimmermann: .551 (-125 money line)
Zack Greinke: .571 (-130 money line)
Justin Verlander: .639 (-175 money line)

Above, you see a lot of the good pitchers from today with their corresponding winning percentages. And plus, you see the money line odds they would need to average in order to have made them a winning proposition over the long haul. When you look at the money lines, you can figure out pretty quickly that these guys usually go off at odds that far surpass what the math would suggest it would be.

To be fair, there are some flaws in this analysis. First of all, a fairer appraisal might be to add up the winning percentage from when these pitchers were in their primes and received huge odds. And won-loss percentage perhaps isn’t as good a measure as a team’s record when a certain pitcher starts a game. But still, the spirit of the point remains the same--that starting pitching has too big of an impact on baseball odds. Or at the very least, the public feels more comfortable betting on pitchers that are of all-star caliber, inflating the odds in the process.

And of all these pitchers, many of them had seasons where they struggled. You don’t see too many of the top hitters in the league let up and hit .250 one year with half of their normal power numbers. Top pitchers, however, often have years where they struggle to find a groove. Meanwhile the odds stay the same.

Look at it this way, pitchers throw about 35% less innings than they used to. But have the odds been adjusted to bridge this cap? Hardly. In 2013, Adam Wainwright led the majors with 5 complete games. In 1985, Bert Blyleven led the majors with 24 complete games. Starting pitchers are just not as big a part of the equation as they used to be. You have pitchers held to strict pitch-counts by managers who don’t want them to pile up innings. The bullpens are more specialized and actually require more handicapping and make a bigger impact on the game than used to be the case. Don’t take us wrong, the starting pitcher can make all the difference. But to say that it is the only thing we need to worry about is a misnomer. In fact, the general baseball betting man should shift a little importance off the starting pitcher and move it more to the lineup and bullpen.

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