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MLB Baseball and Bullpen Betting
by Bovada Sportsbook

Baseball, as one famous fictional manager once said, is a simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Baseball betting is equally simple. You handicap the starting pitchers, you handicap the bullpen, and you handicap the hitters.

Of course, neither pursuit is quite that simple. You have to do all those things well if you want to be successful. Still, handicapping success is at your fingertips. Only a select few have the skills to play baseball professionally, but roughly half the betting public is going to win that next wager. You can be in that better half more often than not with a little homework.

Unless you're fairly new to this, you know that the two starting pitchers generally have the greatest individual impact on a game's outcome. That's why their names are included in the lines. But it's a rare event for a starting pitcher to register a complete game. At some point, the bullpen is almost certain to make its own impact felt. You can usually tell by looking at the starting pitcher's previous performances how many innings he is likely to provide his team. New York Mets superstar Pedro Martinez, for example, almost never goes longer than seven innings. No wonder the Mets went for that big offseason bullpen upgrade.

Handicapping relievers is by and large the same process as with any other pitcher. Most of the conventional statistics are the same: strikeouts, ERA, batting average against, and so on. Also, most of the "new" stats provided by the sabermetricians of the world still apply: WHIP, FIP and the like. The elephant in the room is the one stat that may be the most useless ever devised: the save.

We've already stressed that the "win" is a poor indicator of a starting pitcher's performance. That goes double for the save and relief pitchers. How many times have you seen a team with a three-run lead bring in its closer for the ninth inning? That man can give up a handful of hits and a pair of runs and still collect a save. Worse, he can blow a save and still collect a win in certain situations. If you're handicapping a reliever based on his save totals, stop.

The baseball analysis provided by the seamhead community has turned the way we look at relief pitching on its ear. Cold rationalization tells us that the three outs a team records in the seventh inning are just as important as the three outs registered in the ninth. We're seeing more and more situations where a team will bring its "closer" into a tight spot earlier in the game, rather than waste his talents by only using him with the lead in the ninth. The "set-up" man has grown in importance to the point where he now has his own useless statistic: the "hold." Don't even bother with this piece of fluffery. But do pay attention to whether a team is willing to use its best relief pitcher(s) in non-save situations.

Most sources of pitching statistics offer the option to sort between starters and relievers. It's a good idea to consider a team's relief corps as a whole, looking at its cumulative WHIP numbers and any other tools you find effective in evaluating starters. You never know for sure whether a game is going to feature the 98-mph flamethrowing closer, or the ancient "mop-up" guy who only has a job because he's a "positive influence" in the clubhouse. A team that has too many of the latter and not enough of the former gets an immediate red flag, especially if the starting pitcher that day is prone to leaving the game after five or six innings, or if the closer has already worked the game beforehand.

Also note that a dominating closer can often mask the deficiencies of the rest of the relief corps. That creates a potential difference between the team's perceived value and its "real" value, a difference that balloons if the closer's value is already inflated with empty saves. Sharp handicappers jump on this opportunity like ants on a picnic. If you can effectively work the relievers into your analysis, you can pick up a few tasty morsels yourself at the pay window.

5Dimes Sportsbook