I put together a piece yesterday that highlighted potential Big Money Pitchers for 2023 based on early returns and some of the more impressive starting pitcher outings we’ve seen so far. I used a set of shared characteristics from pitchers that produced huge profits over the last two seasons in their first three starts of the year as a comparison. Well, unfortunately, the opposite is often true as well, as early starting pitcher struggles can often point to potential “busts” in any baseball season. At the risk of jumping the gun this early, there are some things I see early from some big-name pitchers that should raise red flags for bettors, especially since some of the pitchers are among the highest-priced options in the game. Let’s dig deeper.
I tried to perform a similar methodology to yesterday when I found some definitive shared characteristics among the early season performance of recent Big Money Pitchers. Unfortunately, the numbers weren’t anywhere near as conclusive for the potential of pitchers that wound up as big-money losers over the course of a season. In fact, of the 25 pitchers over the last two seasons that lost over 9 units for backers, there was a wide array of early season performances, with variances as wide as some pitchers starting 0-3 and others 3-0. There were ERAs as low as 0.00 after three games to as high as 7.50. With that in mind, I decided to look at some of the more advanced statistics among some big-name pitchers thus far in 2023 that have posted back-to-back underwhelming starts. It’s never too early to spot these trends, as one of the worst things we can do in MLB betting is pay inflated prices for underachieving stars.
Take a look at this list of eight different MLB starting pitchers whose first two starts have me reconsidering their betting value:
Potential Starting Pitcher Busts for 2023 based upon early returns
Eduardo Rodriguez (Tigers): After striking out 398 hitters in his prior two seasons with the Red Sox in just 361 innings of work, the Tigers brought in Rodriguez in 2022 to anchor the staff. Then Rodriguez suffered through an injury-riddled season that amounted to just 17 total starts. Detroit was hoping to have their left-hander back at full strength atop the rotation. Instead, his first two starts have only brought further concerns, even though the Tigers were worse than +200 underdogs in both. The primary concern is that his Ks/9 rate has been just 5.4 over those starts, down from 7.1 last season and down from nearly 10 in his days with the Sox. Furthermore, Rodriguez has allowed a would-be career-high 36.4% of hard-hit balls thus far, with an identical 36.4% of fly balls. That usually results in a lot of home runs. It would seem that Rodriguez’s best days are behind him.
Max Scherzer (Mets): Max Scherzer is 1-1 in his first two starts of the season. However, neither outing has been typical-Scherzer, and he has been priced quite highly as a road favorite in each considering the matchup. In his most recent start, the former Cy Young winner allowed back-to-back-to-back home runs to the Brewers, running his season total of HRs allowed to four. With 3.2 HR’s/9 innings, his current rate is over three times his career average. Now three batters are no reason to panic, but what is a reason for concern is a 51.4% hard-hit ball percentage in his first two starts, when his usual percentage allowed is in the 34% range. Scherzer’s ground ball percentage is also way down. For some veteran pitchers, the new pace of play rules were bound to have a big mental impact. I sense this could be an issue for Mad Max. Is it time to abandon ship permanently? Probably not, but I don’t want to be on the side of overpricing until he figures it out, that is if he eventually does.
Corey Kluber (Red Sox): You have to hand it to the Indians. At one point, Kluber was one of the best pitchers in baseball. After an injury-riddled season in 2019, one defined by arm problems, Cleveland let their former ace walk. Since that point, he is now in his fourth home and has never come close to reclaiming his stardom. In his first two starts of ’23 for the Red Sox, Kluber has been priced as a high-quality pitcher and lost both as chalk, a net loss of -2.75 units for bettors. His WHIP is 1.68 in those games, his ERA is 6.48, and his strikeouts per 9 innings is just 6.5. All of those are easily career worsts since his three rookie season relief appearances. The strikeout numbers are the most concerning, as they are well below career standards, and indicative of a pitcher on a steep decline. The BoSox brought in Kluber and sent him to work on opening day. He’s closer to a fifth starter nowadays. Don’t pay the premium rate.
Aaron Nola (Phillies): Admittedly, it’s a bit hard to write advice indicating to go against a pitcher whose 0-2 record thus far includes losses to Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom but Aaron Nola just hasn’t looked himself. Like Scherzer, I am concerned about how the speeding up of the game has impacted Nola’s mindset in attacking hitters. The Rangers and Yankees have hit him for eight runs in 9-2/3 innings, an obvious concern in itself, but the bigger problem is in him allowing 34.5% line drives thus far, up about 10% from his career average. It can be argued that on an inning-to-inning basis, or even pitch-to-pitch, Nola has looked as good as ever in ’23, but that’s now how games, and bets for that matter, are decided. I’ll be very interested to see how he fares in his first home start, next Tuesday versus Miami.
Zac Gallen (Diamondbacks): Many of the pitchers on this list have set such high standards in recent years that any signs of struggles are cause for concern. The Diamondbacks are 1-1 in Gallen’s starts this season, with the loss at the Dodgers on opening day, so that won’t raise any eyebrows. However, almost all of this typical ace’s statistics are off from their norms. His ERA is 7.59, WHIP is 1.594, and Ks/9 is 8.4, when the career averages are 3.19, 1.111, and 10.0 respectively. Again, I must stress it is early, but the change in routine for some of these usually dominant pitchers is something to keep an eye on. Some pitchers will prove to be far more effective when they controlled the pace of an at-bat, not some time clock. Perhaps the most concerning thing for me is the shortage of ground balls Gallen is inducing 31% thus far when throughout his career it’s been around 45%. That’s a noteworthy change, even for just two shortened starts.
Patrick Corbin (Nationals): The struggles of Patrick Corbin are well-documented. They don’t reflect the fact that he is supposedly atop the Nationals’ rotation. That is how far the franchise has fallen in just a few short years. At 0-2 for the season and losing two games as an underdog of +200 or more, there is really no price anymore in which this former stud has value. I didn’t think his 2022 numbers (6.31 ERA, 1.697 WHIP) could get worse, but in 2023, those stats have ballooned to 8.00 and 2.222 over his first two starts. Furthermore, his ’23 K’s/9 of 6.0 would easily be a career low. I’m not sure how much longer this team can have the patience to keep sending him out there to get beat up.
Corbin Burnes (Brewers): Burnes and the Brewers had a well-publicized spat in the offseason regarding his arbitration salary hearing, and to be honest, I felt the franchise was being more than petty with their returning Cy Young pitcher. Perhaps they knew what they were doing. Or perhaps, the situation has started to have an effect on Burnes’ mental health, as he has not looked sharp in his first two starts. His incredibly effective breaking pitches haven’t had the bite they did a year ago, and hitters are getting to him regularly in the early going. In fact, batters are hitting .282 off of Burnes in ’23, after .201 or worse in four of the first five seasons of his career. He has also struck out just six hitters in 9-2/3 innings, way off the pace he has set the last four seasons, about 12.5 Ks/9. If you recall, he led the league last year with 243 Ks. It’s still early, but you have to wonder what the pressure of playing for free agency and the new pace of pitching changes have done to the Milwaukee ace’s psyche.
Miles Mikolas (Cardinals): In truth, I’m not exactly sure who the ace is on the Cardinals’ staff, but it is Mikolas who the team trotted out for Opening Day. Perhaps he wasn’t ready for the promotion, as he was hit hard by the Blue Jays that day, and then followed it up with a rough outing in his second start versus the Braves. In all, St. Louis is now 0-2 for -2.3 units in his two starts, and Mikolas has posted stats of 9.65 ERA & 2.144 WHIP. The one saving grace here is that he has struck out 12 hitters in 9-2/3 innings, an average well above career norms. This might just be a situation where this pitcher wasn’t at the point yet to be regularly facing the opponent’s best starters and more effective in a secondary role. We’ll keep watching but with Mikolas allowing 45.7% line drives on batted balls, his stuff is officially meat at this point.