Vegas betting lines, managerial decisions, and fans’ expectations in a given day for MLB teams all revolve around one man – the starting pitcher. The pitching matchup is the first thing anyone checks when handicapping a baseball game. Understanding how each starting pitcher affects his team’s chances of winning is key to becoming a profitable baseball bettor.
Sports betting site Oddshark has a page on which you can see the most and least profitable starting pitchers over the course of a baseball season. A pitcher’s profit is determined by the amount you would win (or lose) if you placed a $100 bet on his team each day he started. Contrary to what you may first think, names like Scherzer, Sale, or Verlander appear nowhere near the top of the list. This is because these pitchers have extremely lofty expectations and thus very poor odds. Clayton Kershaw winning 70% of his starts at -200 odds will profit less than Joe Blow winning 40% of his starts at +175 odds. The key to profitability is value. You must exceed expectations.
Below are in-depth breakdowns of two starting pitchers who have been very profitable this season and one who has not. I will walk you through where I find my statistics and how I evaluate whether their profits (or lack thereof) are sustainable and will continue. Using this knowledge, you can analyze the starting pitchers of games you are considering betting and make more informed decisions. Let’s dig in!
Pitcher #1 – Mike Leake
The most profitable pitcher to bet on thus far in the 2018 MLB season is the Mariner’s Mike Leake. The 30-year-old righty has never been considered great but has had a very stable and productive nine year career. The Mariners have played very well this season in games Leake starts, winning eleven of the fourteen. With an average line of +120 in games he pitches, 11-3 is good for a $1,018 profit.
So is Leake having a renaissance season or is he riding the unexpected wave of success that has propelled the Mariners to a 46-25 start? If we peer into the numbers we should be able to determine whether Mike Leake’s profitability is a fluke or if it can be counted upon to continue. KillerSports SDQL (sports data query language) is my favorite source for sports betting data. You can use their plethora of filters to search for specific games you want information on. Using this feature, we can see that the Mariners have been the most profitable team to bet on this year. They are taking advantage of soft lines to a tune of $1,764. Their offense’s 4.46 runs per game is not anything to brag about, but Leake receives 5.64 runs of support when he pitches. Only six other pitchers have received more run support this season than Leake. Most of his success can be attributed to this fact because, as you will see by his numbers, he has not performed exceptionally well through the first couple of months of 2018.
When I am doing research on a player and digging up stats, I always turn to Fangraphs. They offer the most detailed and in-depth data available, and it is all free. The first thing I noticed about Leake’s 2018 numbers are that his strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) have declined each of the previous two seasons while his walks per nine (BB/9) have increased. K/9 and BB/9 numbers are very strong indicators of a pitcher’s ability. These two statistics, for both hitters and pitchers, have proven to correlate very strongly to success. As a general rule of thumb in baseball, a player’s prime years are considered to be when he is in the 27-32 age range. A player’s early 30’s is typically when he begins to decline. Leake’s K/9 and BB/9 regressions are concerning because he is of the age that some pitchers begin to fall off.
Baseball fans know how ERA is not always a great indicator of a pitcher’s talent. Giving up hard hit balls and escaping with deep fly outs can still allow a pitcher to have a good ERA while, in reality, he is not pitching well. A couple of newer sabermetric statistics have attempted to figure out what a pitcher’s ERA should be given how well he has actually pitched, not by how lucky he has gotten with things such as hard hit outs, bloop hits, or great/poor defense. Statisticians have found that K/9 and BB/9 are so indicative of success that they have given them much weight in both of these formulas. While I will not explain the complicated algorithm for determining these stats (you can read all about it on Fangraphs), I will incorporate them into my analysis of Mike Leake.
The first is xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching). Leake’s ERA on the year is 4.26 while his xFIP (coincidentally) is also 4.26. This indicates that Leake’s numbers are an accurate representation of how well he has pitched. He has not been lucky or unlucky. For someone looking to bet on him in the future, we like to see low disparities between ERA and xFIP because it means we can trust the numbers we see. After the creation of xFIP, an even more accurate indicator of pitching skill was developed and named SIERA (skill-interactive ERA). Leake’s SIERA on the year is 4.44. This tells us that he may be getting slightly lucky, but because the disparity is so small, we can largely expect to see the same numbers from Leake moving forward.
WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) and opponent batting average (OpBA) are two common statistics that are often referenced when discussing a pitcher’s success over a given timeframe. If we look at Leake’s 2018 WHIP and OpBA, they are both right at his career numbers. This level of pitching is what we have come to expect from Leake throughout his career, and he is simply doing what he has always done, just now with more offensive support. Because his xFIP and SIERA indicate his ERA is an accurate representation and his WHIP and OpBA are right at his norm, Leake’s mediocre numbers can be expected to continue.
A 4.26 ERA with a 1.27 WHIP and a 2.7 K/BB ratio is not very impressive. The Mariners offense has helped Leake to a 7-3 record, but there is nothing in Leake’s numbers that indicate he can be trusted to continue winning. In fact, his WAR (wins above replacement) in 2018 is on pace to be his lowest since his rookie season. WAR calculates how much better the team would do if they replace Leake with a league average player. His WAR currently sits at 0.6, meaning the Mariners are not even a full game better due to Leake’s play. The Mariners could really plug anyone into Leake’s rotation spot and enjoy the same success. Mike Leake is not responsible for this profitability, the Mariners offense is. Further proof of this is Leake’s profitability last season was $-487 and in 2016 it was $-609. He actually had better pitching numbers in these two seasons, but was winning at a more deserving rate and was not getting bailed out by his offense.
To determine if Leake will be a strong bet going forward, we need to determine if the Mariners will continue their success. One factor working against Leake’s future profitability is the realization by oddsmakers that the Mariners hot start is no fluke. Their odds have worsened the more they have continued winning, forcing them to win at a higher percentage to maintain the same profits. If we want to know if Leake will have success, we need to figure out the best times to bet on the Mariners.
ESPN makes it really easy to find the splits on the Mariners, or any MLB team for that matter. Teams often succumb to second-half slumps as they lose the magic they once had earlier in the season. The Mariners’ offense did regress slightly in the second half of last season, dropping from 4.78 to 4.43 runs per game. A similar phenomenon occurred in the second half of 2016 as runs per game fell from 4.89 to 4.56. Although not major drops, recent history does suggest a slight decline may be in order for the Mariners. This is not good news for Leake as he needs all of the support he can get to continue winning with a 4.26 ERA.
To be in the best position to win, the numbers suggest only betting on Leake starts when the Mariners are away from Safeco Field. Two of Leake’s three losses have occurred at home, where the Mariners offense averages only 3.97 runs per game as opposed to a 4.88 average on the road. Despite scoring less, the Mariners win-loss records are nearly identical this season for road and home games. Visiting teams often receive slightly better odds due to the supposed home-field effect, which the Mariners appear to have been immune to.
Verdict: Don’t Get Burned by Leake
Mike Leake has not pitched particularly well and has been bailed out by his offense. As the Mariners continue winning, their odds will worsen, and they will become less profitable. If you must bet on Leake, bet on a road victory.
Pitcher #2 – Mike Fiers
The second most profitable pitcher of this MLB season has been the Tigers’ Mike Fiers. The Tigers have won nine of his thirteen starts with very favorable odds, leading to an $876 profit for those who back the 33-year-old righty. The Tigers have shattered expectations for this 2018 season, posting a 34-37 start in a season that experts believed they would easily lose one hundred games. Despite the losing record, bettors on the Tigers have profited over five hundred dollars this season. Fiers has been pitching quite well but has also received his fair share of support from this young offense.
Averaging just 4.17 runs per game this year, the Tigers have hit better on nights Fiers was on the mound, getting him 4.92 runs of support. This amount of support is nothing specular, meaning that Fiers himself is mainly responsible for his own profitability. Once again, I will look at strikeout and walk numbers first because they can tell you a lot about how a guy is pitching. What jumps out at me is the fact that Fiers has cut his BB/9 from last season by nearly two full walks and is currently sitting a walk below his career average. Likewise, his K/9 are down about two strikeouts from his career average. This means that Fiers is pitching to contact much more.
When a pitcher’s numbers change this dramatically, it is important to understand why. Fangraphs is so great because, on top of standard statistics, they have pitch information for each pitcher which allows us to see how Fiers’ repertoire has improved this year. There is a very noticeable difference in his pitch selection this season compared to last. It appears Fiers has finally become comfortable throwing his slider consistently, a pitch that he did not even learn until 2015. Throwing the slider just 5.1% of the time in 2017, he has upped that number to 12.9% this year. Because his strong start has coincided with his increased slider frequency, we could assume that the slider has been a good pitch for him. Luckily, we do not have to assume because we have access to values for each pitch, allowing us to quantify exactly how well the slider has fared for him.
Fangraphs’ pitch info stat wSL/C (slider runs above average per 100 pitches) shows us the difference between Mike Fiers’ slider and a league average slider. Positive numbers are good, negative are bad. Albeit a small sample size, Fiers’ slider has been off the charts. At 8.65 runs above average, Fiers has featured the most effective slider in the game this season and the metric suggests it has been one of the most effective pitches of 2018 by any pitcher. As tends to happen in the MLB, advantages like these are short-lived as opponents learn to adjust. Expect hitters to eventually begin hitting the slider. The pitch may be good, but it is not legendary as the numbers generated from a small sample size suggest.
There are a couple of red flags in Fiers’ numbers that indicate a slight regression may be in order. A 4.09 ERA is difficult to sustain with a 1.32 WHIP coupled with a low strikeout rate. Sabermetrics agree as Fiers’ 4.39 SIERA and 4.65 xFIP signal that he has been getting slightly lucky with batted balls finding gloves. With a career WHIP of 1.29, it is unlikely that Fiers will post a much better number this late in his career. An ERA in the 4-4.5 range, which is basically a continuation of his early season 2018 numbers, is what we can expect moving forward.
The biggest factor in Fiers’ success later this season will be whether Tigers GM Al Avila decides to keep the roster together or trade away veterans. If Fiers gets dealt, his value would likely increase as he would assuredly go to a contender with a higher chance to win than the Tigers. The kiss of death for Fiers would be if Avila decides to sell at the deadline but keep the veteran righty. Winning games would become significantly more difficult with a depleted roster and Fiers would need to improve upon his 4.09 ERA, which we have determined is not likely at all. Because the Tigers have not been playing winning baseball, just better than what was expected of them, their odds are still very favorable. Unlike the Mariners who are now undoubtedly the favorite in most of their games, the Tigers still play the role of the underdog. These are exactly the types of teams and pitchers that generate big profits when they get hot.
Verdict: Stick With Fiers as Long as the Team Stays Together
His revamped approach and nasty slider have helped the 33-year-old achieve newfound success. As long as the Tigers do not sell big pieces at the deadline, they will continue to be a good value bet.
Pitcher #3 – Jacob deGrom
At 4-2 with a stellar 1.55 ERA, you would think the Mets’ Jacob deGrom would be a very profitable bet this season. Being on the cellar dwellers of the NL East, deGrom gets more favorable lines than his fellow star pitchers. Pitching for the Mets means one other thing, however. DeGrom gets little run support. The Mets’ bats fall silent whenever deGrom has stepped on the mound this year. Getting deGrom only 3.36 runs per game, the offense has only managed to score six runs total in the 29-year-old’s previous five starts.
DeGrom has been absolutely sterling this season, but his lack of run support leads to some laughable anomalies. DeGrom has allowed only six earned runs in his previous ten starts. This level of dominance over a stretch that long is almost unheard of. What does he have to show for this miraculous run – a 2-2 record. At 4-2 total on the season, the Mets have lost nine of the fourteen games deGrom has started. To make matters worse, the average line for these games has been -135. Losses add up faster than usual when betting favorites due to the fact most bettors risk the line to win $100.
When you allow six earned runs in ten starts, you deserve to win most of those games. I think it is safe to assume that if deGrom keeps pitching exceptionally well, he will begin winning. How can we be sure that his numbers will not drop off? As always, let’s begin by examining those walk and strikeout rates:
At 2.37 BB/9, deGrom is walking a few more batters than we would expect from a bona fide ace. If we put this stat into perspective, however, we see that he has actually cut down on the walks from 2017 and that he is now right around his career average. With BB/9 above 2 in each of his previous seasons but one, it appears that deGrom’s effectiveness is not hindered by his wildness. We can also downplay this high walk rate when we see that his K/9 is up from last year and nearly two full strikeouts higher than his career average. High strikeout pitchers tend to pitch away from contact, often times elevating their walk rates.
Although definitely not while his team is batting, DeGrom has been a tad on the lucky side this season. Sabermetrics suggest deGrom’s ERA should be nearly a full run higher. With an xFIP of 2.46 and a SIERA of 2.74, we see that deGrom is extremely unlikely to maintain his sub-2 dominance. If we dig into his numbers a tad more, I will convince you that there is absolutely no cause for concern over this impending rise.
In order for the Mets to be a good bet when deGrom is on the mound, they need to win games, right? 2017 was the worst year of his career numbers-wise, and he still posted a 15-10 record. For perspective, deGrom is currently on pace for nine wins in 2018. The Mets had a winning record with deGrom on the mound in 2017 and are a miserable 5-9 with him starting this season. So if he was winning, what made his 2017 season so bad?
For starters, deGrom posted the highest walk rate since his rookie year. All of these extra baserunners can eventually catch up even to the best of pitchers. DeGrom was also extremely unlucky in the fly ball department. HR/FB (home runs per fly ball) is a very useful measuring tool because, given a large enough sample size, this number will always trend toward the league average of 10%, no matter the skill of the pitcher. The nature of Major League Baseball is that about 10% of fly balls become home runs – no exceptions. In 2017, deGrom’s HR/FB was an amazing 16.1%. He was extremely unlucky. Here is the good news: Even with a dismal 2.64 BB/9 and a 16.1% HR/FB, deGrom’s ERA sat at a solid 3.53, and he was a winning pitcher. DeGrom’s worst season was still good by most standards.
2017 was when we discovered deGrom’s floor. This is the worst he had pitched in the major leagues, and, as we pointed out, the results were not bad at all. This is why deGrom continues to be a smart bet moving forward. His 2018 HR/FB is very low, 6.9%. This, coupled with his above average walk rate, accounts for the elevated xFIP and SIERA numbers. These elevated numbers are not discouraging because, even if deGrom does not maintain his 1.55 ERA and it jumps up a run, we have proof that he is still a profitable pitcher with numbers far worse than that.
Verdict: Maintain Faith in deGrom, but Don’t Expect His 1.55 ERA to Continue
DeGrom has received virtually no run support as of late. xFIP and SIERA indicate he won’t keep pitching at this level, but we have proof he is still profitable with far worse numbers. Don’t shy away from him just because his offense has been in hibernation.
All statistics and information accurate as of June 16, 2018