How Pitching Staff Usage Influences MLB Handicapping

MLB Pitcher
There was a time when starting pitchers frequently threw 300 plus innings a year. Their job was to either finish the game or get through the eighth inning with a lead to turn the game over to the closer.

The last year a pitcher threw 300 innings in the regular season was 1980, when Steve Carlton threw 304 innings. The last time a pitcher threw 250 innings was in 2011, when Justin Verlander threw 251.

Pitching staff usage has changed a great deal over the years, and you need to handicap games based on how pitchers are being used now.

From Nine to Five

To throw 300 innings in a season, a pitcher needs to start 40 games and throw an average of 7.5 innings per start. No one starts 40 games a year anymore, and no one averages that many innings per start. In 2019, Verlander started 34 games and averaged 6.6 innings per start, and he led the league in innings pitched.

Today, the best starting pitchers are expected to start 32 to 36 games and pitch six or seven innings in most starts. A guy that can keep his team in the game for five or six innings and make 30 plus starts a year is getting huge money on the open market.

Two Lineup Cards

Studies have shown a large decline in performance for the average starting pitcher after the first two times through the lineup. These studies have influenced team management to build their pitching staff, so they can go to fresh bullpen arms in the middle innings more often.

It doesn’t really matter why things have changed, even if they make sense. The important thing is to learn how to use the new usage of starting pitchers and entire pitching staffs to do a better job at handicapping baseball games.

Starting pitchers are still important when you handicap a MLB game, but the way the manager handles a pitching staff and the strength of the bullpen is more important.

One of the first managers to start using his complete pitching staff with success was Sparky Anderson with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s. He earned the name “Captain Hook” because he often pulled his starters early in games and relied on a deep bullpen.

At the time, this was a different approach from the other teams in the league, but today, his strategy is considered the norm.

How I Handicap Baseball Games

MLB Logo
When I bet on MLB games, I try to map out three areas of the game and I also utilize these 5 MLB betting stratigies. The first thing I look at is the first five innings, when the starting pitchers throw the bulk of the innings. Then, I look at the sixth and seventh innings where long and middle relievers enter the game.

The last thing I look at is the end of the game, in the eighth and ninth inning, where the set-up man and closer come in when the team has a lead. It’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting the starting pitcher to get through seven innings and hand the game over to the set-up man and closer, but very few games work out this way.

Good teams need guys in the bullpen that can get outs in the sixth and seventh inning just as often as they need a guy to come into the game in the ninth and close the door.

Strikeouts and Pitch Counts

Another area where MLB games have evolved is the importance of strikeouts. More teams focus on developing and acquiring pitchers who can strike out more batters, because strikeouts can kill rallies and make the chance of an error on a ball in play disappear.

The higher rate of strikeouts makes the pitch count go up for pitchers, which in turn, leads managers to pull pitchers faster. It also leads manager to protect their bullpen arms more by giving them more days off.

Strikeouts

As a handicapper, both of these things are important to understand. I want pitchers with high strikeout rates because they do a better job of controlling the other team’s offense. But I also need to know how often a manager is willing to use his best pitchers in the bullpen. If a guy isn’t available today, it needs to be considered before I handicap the game.

Pitch counts also have a great deal to do with how deep managers let their starters go into games. Most pitchers are on some sort of pitch count limit, even if the teams and managers don’t talk about it. Only a few pitchers are good enough and are trusted enough by their teams to be allowed to work deep into games.

Specialists in the Pen

Each baseball game has 27 outs per side in a regulation nine inning game. Of the 27 outs, which ones are the most important? Is the first out more or less important than the second out? Is the final out more important than any other out?

Hader

The final out or outs of the game seem like they’re the most important, but the truth is that each of the 27 outs is equally important. MLB teams still tend to use one of their top relievers to close games, but managers and front offices realize that the out you get in the sixth or seventh inning is just as valuable as the last out of the game.

The problem is that each team only has so many good pitchers. And your best pitchers can’t throw every inning of the season. Because of this, managers have been trying to learn how to use their less-talented pitchers to get the outs between the starter leaving the game and the set-up man and closer entering the game.

Instead of putting a weaker pitcher on the mound and hoping for the best, pitchers are being used like specialists more and more. A left-handed pitcher might be saved to come into the game to face the other team’s most dangerous left-handed hitters, then removed for a right-handed specialist for the next batter.

The middle innings are more specialized than ever, so you have to use this information when you’re handicapping MLB games. Games can be won or lost in the middle innings. Evaluate the middle inning specialists for each team every time you handicap a game.

The New Three-Batter Rule

Major League Baseball put a new rule in place starting with the 2020 season that is supposedly designed to speed up the game. The rule states that a relief pitcher must face at least three batters before being removed from a game unless the inning ends before they face three batters.

This rule has a direct influence on pitching staffs, especially the specialists that have been used to getting one or two big outs in the past. The interesting thing is that the rule doesn’t restrict opposing managers from pinch hitting. This rule seems designed to add more offense to games instead of making games shorter.

The pitchers that get hurt the worst are the lefties that have extreme splits between facing left-handed and right-handed batters. A smart handicapper is going to be aware of this and adjust his or her evaluations using this information.

Ranking the Middle Innings

Every successful MLB bettor handicaps games their own way. But most of them consider the same things when they’re handicapping, they might just look at things in a slightly different way. I’m going to share how I use middle innings relievers in my handicapping to help you get started.

Middle Innings on Scoreboard

I look at the pitching staff of each team in a game and rank the starters against each other and the back end of the bullpen against each other. The back end is the closer and set-up man.

Then, I look at all of the pitchers that might pitch between the starter and the back end. I try to find out if any pitchers aren’t available, and look at the ones most likely to be used today. Then, I use all three pitching groups to help me find a side of the game that offers value.

Conclusion

Pitching roles and expectations have changed a great deal over the years. Starting pitchers are being pulled earlier and middle inning specialists are expected to bridge the gap between the starters and the closers in almost every game.

Winning baseball bettors learn how to adjust when the game changes, and it’s important to adjust to the way managers use their pitching staffs today. Break the pitching staff into three groups for each team and adjust your handicapping model or system so you have the best chance of finding value.

Also, don’t forget to include the three-batter rule for relief pitchers and how it influences in game pitching decisions.