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How (and why) to handicap bullpens in MLB

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

May 1, 2022 09:27 PM
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Every time a bullpen blows a save, there’s an unlucky bettor vowing to never bet a full game again. The sentiment is akin to one of the many iconic lines in “Rounders”: “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.”

We don’t think about the games we’ve stolen via a blown save. We don’t think about those lovely insurance runs served up by the opposition with a run line hanging in the balance. We remember the bullpen meltdowns that cost us a winner in a game where a “First 5 Innings” bet would have come through.

Personally, I don’t believe in any strategy or mindset that creates limitations. The sharpest and most astute gamblers look for every possible edge and anything that appears actionable. By not embracing full-game betting, you are limiting yourself to only looking at First 5 bets. Most First 5 bets also come with 20- or 25-cent lines, meaning a full game line of -125/+ 115 would equate to a First 5 line of -135/+ 115 or -135/+ 110. This is especially true in big mismatches between starting pitchers.

Taking the time to handicap and analyze the bullpens can actually be a separator for you. We don’t think about those times when a First 5 bet is a 2-1 loser, only for the full-game bet to come in as a 4-2 winner, do we? Perception bias is what limits bettors to only taking those First 5 lines, even though you can find some good edges and some noteworthy information just by taking a look at the relievers.

Here are five tips for handicapping bullpens:

1. Know who’s available: The most important factor in handicapping relief pitchers is knowing who is available to pitch — and who is not. Pitchers who have worked back-to-back days are unlikely to be called on and have a higher likelihood of struggling when they are.

If you want to bet on the Brewers, but you see Josh Hader and Devin Williams have been used for two straight days, you have to strongly consider what the end of the game will look like if the Brewers have a lead. That’s one of the most obvious examples, but the point stands for high-leverage relievers across all teams.

The same is true for relievers who have pitched three of the last four days or four of the last five. You can find this info at sites such as FanGraphs (under the RosterResource tab) or Baseball Press.

2. Strikeouts are really good: Bullpen melts often come after runners get on base and the pressure shifts from the hitters to the pitchers. Bullpens that don’t miss a lot of bats run the risk of blowing games at a higher rate than those that can rack up the punchouts. The best relievers in baseball often have high strikeout rates, which is no coincidence.

Of the top 10 bullpens in ERA last season, eight of them struck out at least one batter per inning. Of the bottom 10 in ERA, only four of them struck out at least one per inning. I prefer K% over K/9, so it’s also worth noting that seven of the 11 bullpens with a K% over 25% had an ERA under 4.00, with two more at 4.02 and 4.06. Only six of the 19 bullpens with a K% under 25% had an ERA under 4.00.

3. Walks are really bad: Home runs are bad, but walks are the worst thing for a bullpen, in my opinion. There were 15 bullpens with a BB% of at least 10% and only three had an ERA under 4.00, with one of those three at 3.99 and another at 3.97. Of the 15 bullpens with a BB% under 10%, 10 had an ERA under 4.00.

Walks create unnecessary pressure. It’s so important to force batters to hit their way on base, especially with the heightened strikeout rates we’re seeing on an annual basis.

4. How many innings will be needed? Bullpens are normally separated into high-leverage relievers (closers and primary setup men) and the rest (used mostly when a starter fails or when working back from an injury). The more innings projected for the starter, the better off the bullpen projects to be because the workload can go to the best relievers.

If a lot of bullpen innings will be required, you have to look at the depth of that bullpen. How many average or above-average pitchers are out there and available? That is very important information to have.

5. Think about the game state: Let’s use the Brewers example again. Over the last three seasons, Hader has appeared in only 11 games when the team is trailing and 37 games when tied. Managers are not going to waste their top guys when behind. You’ll see the closer pitch the top of the ninth in a tie game at home, but that’s more the exception.

If a team is likely to be trailing, its best relievers are unlikely to pitch. That should give you even more confidence to bet the other side, or look for run-line or alternate run-line options.

You don’t have to shy away from bullpens because they are high-variance. Use them to your advantage as a handicapping tool that is not priced into the market.

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