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Time to switch up MLB betting perceptions

By Steve Makinen  () 

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Although the abbreviated MLB schedule is barely a month old, it is also at about the halfway point. In other words, much of the season is already accounted for. Of course, this season will go down in the history books as the most unusual ever. For that reason, it’s time to flush some of the betting perceptions you might have formed about certain players and teams and get more in sync with what we are actually seeing.

Unlike the marathon-type seasons we usually have, the 2020 campaign is an all-out sprint. Teams and players have so little time to snap out of slumps. Hot streaks and stellar performances may define the seasons of others. Conclusions probably will be derived quickly. It should also be a fundamental factor in the way bettors look at handicapping the action.

So it’s a good time to accentuate some of the major performance changes we have witnessed in the first half. Some have been drastic. In these cases, I believe that in a shortened season it behooves bettors to flush out their misperceptions as quickly as possible and turn the page to the here and now. Hopefully you did this to a team like the Boston Red Sox weeks ago, or on the opposite side, a team like the San Diego Padres.

To try to quantify the drastic changes best, I turned to the variable on which I rely deeply when setting game prices and handicapping the lines, my Effective Strength Ratings. I have detailed the biggest changes in my ratings from opening day till now for lineups, starting pitchers and bullpens. Oddsmakers have done their work in adjusting their lines for the changed performance levels. Have you? 

Biggest Team Offensive Surprises

1. San Francisco Giants. BOY Effective Runs: 4.2, Current: 4.75, CHANGE: + 0.55 RPG

The Giants have come on strong in the last week, and a lot of credit can go to an offense that is

scoring 5.0 RPG, well above expectations. In fact, it is an improvement of over 0.8 RPG compared with last year. Wilmer Flores, Mike Yastrzemski and Austin Slater have been big run

producers, and Donovan Solano has been a great table-setter. In the last 10 games before Tuesday, San Francisco had scored five or more runs nine times.

2. Tampa Bay Rays. BOY Effective Runs: 4.41, Current: 4.88, CHANGE: + 0.47 RPG

Led by early MVP candidate Brandon Lowe, the Rays have met lofty expectations and lead the AL East. Lowe has hit nine home runs and driven in 25 runs in 29 games. Even with LF Austin Meadows’ production off from 2019 levels, the Rays have scored 5.3 runs per contest. With a solid lineup and excellent pitching staff, Tampa Bay is among the front-runners for the AL title.

3. San Diego Padres. BOY Effective Runs: 4.44, Current: 4.84, CHANGE: + 0.4 RPG

SS Fernando Tatis Jr. has been spectacular. As one of the most dynamic players in MLB, he had 12 home runs as of Monday, and the Padres were scoring 5.4 runs per game despite playing 15 games at pitcher-friendly Petco Park. San Diego had hit 55 home runs in its first 30 games, a record pace for the National League. We’ll see how long it lasts, but in this shortened season, it needs to go only another month.

4. Atlanta Braves. BOY Effective Runs: 4.62, Current: 4.99, CHANGE: + 0.37 RPG

Even with OF Ronald Acuna missing the last couple of weeks with a wrist injury, the Atlanta

lineup has produced beyond expectations. Through the first 28 games, the Braves were scoring 5.2 runs per game. That’s actually a little under their 2019 average, but that team’s production plummeted down the stretch, so the rebound has been nice to see. When Acuna is back, he’ll join Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, Marcell Ozuna and others in a truly formidable lineup.

5. Baltimore Orioles. BOY Effective Runs: 4.38, Current: 4.75, CHANGE: + 0.37 RPG

It’s OK to admit it: You missed on the Orioles, who aren’t nearly as bad as you thought they’d be. Despite a recent six-game losing streak, Baltimore had split its first 28 games and was in the AL playoff hunt. Most of the reason for the improvement is an offense that was averaging 5.0 RPG, half a run better than a season ago. OF Anthony Santander hit 20 home runs in 93 games last season. This year he already had 10! Catcher Pedro Severino is also off to a great start.

Biggest Team Offensive Disappointments

1. Cleveland Indians. BOY Effective Runs: 4.62, Current: 4.22, CHANGE: -0.4 RPG

To see Cleveland at the top of the most disappointing offenses list, you’d figure the team was struggling. Clearly that isn’t the case as the Indians are vying for the AL Central lead. Still, the Indians are winning with pitching, as they’d averaged only 4.0 runs per game through Sunday. Big bats like Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor have drastically underperformed and will have to pick it up in September for Cleveland to become a real threat in the AL.

2. St. Louis Cardinals. BOY Effective Runs: 4.48, Current: 4.1, CHANGE: -0.38 RPG

In a word, the Cardinals’ season can best be described as disjointed, so it’s not alarming to see their offense underperforming. Runs have been hard to come by for St. Louis, as the offense has topped the five-run mark just four times. They Cards had reached double-digit hits just three times. Losing OF Marcell Ozuna to the Braves in the offseason hurt, and they’ve been without Paul DeJong most of the way due to COVID-19.

3. Texas Rangers. BOY Effective Runs: 4.5, Current: 4.14, CHANGE: -0.36 RPG

Most of the pieces are the same in the Rangers’ lineup, but something is different in 2020. Could it be the impact of the new stadium in Arlington? Are the diminished hitting conditions causing some mental issue with Rangers hitters? In terms of production, OF Joey Gallo is

having a decent season, but elsewhere it’s scarce. Heading into Monday’s game, Texas was scoring just 3.7 RPG, accompanied by a team batting average of a minuscule .210.

4. Minnesota Twins. BOY Effective Runs: 5.02, Current: 4.68, CHANGE: -0.34 RPG

The Twins set some extremely high offensive standards in 2019, setting a major-league record with 307 home runs. The production has dropped significantly this season, but the team has

adjusted. Heading into a key series versus Cleveland, Minnesota was leading the AL Central. With 42 homers in 29 games, the Twins were still hitting plenty of deep balls. It’s the smaller ball they are struggling with, as the batting average is down 25 points and the OBP 13 points. Again, though, not much need to panic as the lineup is loaded top to bottom.

5. Milwaukee Brewers. BOY Effective Runs: 4.55, Current: 4.24, CHANGE: -0.31 RPG

Last offseason, the Brewers said goodbye to the big bats of Yasmani Grandal, Eric Thames, Mike Moustakas, Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar. Since opening day, they’ve also lost Lorenzo Cain, who opted out of the season. The replacements haven’t come close to matching the departed production, and with Christian Yelich way off his usual pace, the results have been dismal. As of Monday, Milwaukee was scoring just 4.0 RPG and hitting .214. The Brewers were also dreadful at scoring runs early in games, often having to play from behind, a bad sign for a team whose biggest strength is keeping opponents down with its bullpen.

Most Improved Starting Pitchers

1. Dylan Bundy (Los Angeles Angels). BOY Effective PR: 43, Current: 77, CHANGE: + 34

Bundy has been a superb addition to the rotation, a very fortunate transaction in light of Shohei Ohtani’s inability to pitch. Bundy had struck out 44 hitters in 38 1/3 innings and had gone at least six innings in four of his six starts. He has emerged as the ace of the staff after putting up modest numbers in Baltimore the last three seasons.

2. Trevor Bauer (Cincinnati). BOY Effective PR: 48, Current: 78, CHANGE: + 30

Bauer is another pitcher who has greatly benefited from a change of scenery. Though he went only across the state as opposed to Bundy, who went across the country, Bauer seems to love his place in the Cincinnati rotation. Heading into his Monday start at Milwaukee, the former Indian was sitting with a pretty 0.68 ERA and even better 0.570 WHIP to go along with 41 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings.

3. Dinelson Lamet (San Diego). BOY Effective PR: 48, Current: 78, CHANGE: + 30

Lamet showed positive signs last year that he had the stuff to become dominant in the future. From early indications, the future is now. Through his first six starts, Lamet had compiled an ERA of 1.89, a WHIP of 0.840 and 45 strikeouts in 33 ⅓ innings. He was on a three-game stretch in which he had struck out 28 hitters in 17 2/3 innings.

4. Shane Bieber (Cleveland). BOY Effective PR: 70, Current: 98, CHANGE: + 28

Oh, the riches in the Cleveland rotation. Bieber has been one of the marvels of the early part of the season, having struck out 65 hitters in just six starts covering 40 2/3 innings. That is an unusual stat in this day and age. His 1.11 ERA and 0.762 WHIP are quite nice as well. This may be a pitcher ready to ascend to elite status for years to come after demonstrating a little of that potential in 2019.

5. Brad Keller (Kansas City). BOY Effective PR: 35, Current: 60, CHANGE: + 25

Keller was decent in his first two seasons with Kansas City, but nothing to where we would have expected the start he is off to in 2020. Through three outings, Keller had yet to allow a run in 17 2/3 innings. He had yielded just eight hits. His strikeouts (15) were above his usual pace too.

6. Max Fried (Atlanta). BOY Effective PR: 48, Current: 72, CHANGE: + 24

Despite losing Mike Soroka to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury, the Braves still boast an

overabundance of young talent on their pitching staff. Fried has capitalized on his chance to

move to the front of the rotation. The left-hander owned an ERA of 1.32 and 33 strikeouts in 34 innings in his first six starts.

7. Spencer Turnbull (Detroit). BOY Effective PR: 28, Current: 52, CHANGE: + 24

Turnbull was off to a pretty good start in 2019 before fatigue caught up to him in the second half of the season. That won’t be a concern with this year’s abbreviated schedule, and although Turnbull comes off his worst start of the year in a loss to the White Sox, he showed enough in his first four outings to believe he will be a reliable betting option going forward.

8. Kevin Gausman (San Francisco). BOY Effective PR: 34, Current: 57, CHANGE: + 23

With his fourth franchise in three years, Gausman might have found a permanent home. Gausman was a stable part of the Orioles’ rotation for six years, starting 30+  games in 2016 and ’17. With the Giants in 2020, he was off to a good start, with a WHIP of 1.290 and 42 strikeouts in 31 innings. He also has a strong offense behind him for a change.

9. Antonio Senzatela (Colorado). BOY Effective PR: 22, Current: 43, CHANGE: + 21

The improvement numbers don’t scream dominance, as Senzatela’s 2019 season (6.71 ERA/1.749 WHIP) was about as ugly statistically as you’ll see from a full-time starter. This year had started much better (3.96 ERA/1.101 WHIP). The result has been a big change on my heavily betting-oriented Effective Strength Ratings.

10. Kyle Freeland (Colorado). BOY Effective PR: 33, Current: 53, CHANGE: + 20

After a nightmarish 2019, Freeland is starting to resemble the 2018 version of his brief career. His ERA of 2.87 was remarkably close to the 2.85 level of ’18, and his WHIP was even better (1.115 from 1.245). The southpaw became the ace of the Rockies’ staff in 2018. Perhaps he can reach that level again this season.

Most Devalued Starting Pitchers

1. Jordan Lyles (Texas). BOY Effective PR: 58, Current: 24, CHANGE: -34

After a fantastic late-season surge for the Brewers in 2019, Lyles moved on to Texas, where he has been the starting pitching world’s biggest disappointment, according to my strength ratings dropoff. His ERA was 9.25, his WHIP was 1.890 and he is just not worth your betting dollar on a team that is struggling to hit the ball.

2. Luke Weaver (Arizona). BOY Effective PR: 64, Current: 33, CHANGE: -31

After essentially being lost for the season with an injury in late May 2019, the Diamondbacks

anxiously anticipated Weaver’s return to the rotation this year. But 2020 hasn’t gone as he would have hoped. In six starts he had been hit hard (1.603 WHIP/7.77 ERA) and has become a play-against starting pitcher.

3. James Paxton (New York Yankees). BOY Effective PR: 72, Current: 48, CHANGE: -24

It’s not unlike the Yankees to overpay for a highly regarded pitcher and then not get the expected performance out of him, right? Paxton has dropped off further after a 2019 season that was below his standards. In 2020, the left-hander had started five games but had gone only

20 1/3 innings and owned a humbling 6.64 ERA. New York must have some buyer’s remorse already.

4. Robbie Ray (Arizona). BOY Effective PR: 55, Current: 31, CHANGE: -24

After a phenomenal 2017 season, Ray’s steady decline has continued. His ERA since that season has risen from 3.93 to 4.34 to a hideous 8.33 so far in 2020. It’s not a small sample size, either, as he had already pitched 27 innings. Ray had allowed nine home runs, and his control had escaped him as well, as 25 walks had contributed to a 2.00 WHIP. Hopefully you’ve left this train at the station already, but if not, it’s time.

5. Madison Bumgarner (Arizona). BOY Effective PR: 65, Current: 42, CHANGE: -23

With Weaver, Ray and the newly acquired Bumgarner, Arizona had the makings of an elite starting staff. That has not worked out. Bumgarner’s stats in four games (9.35 ERA, 0-3 W-L) were not worth the money the Diamondbacks shelled out to get him.

6. Mike Minor (Texas). BOY Effective PR: 56, Current: 36, CHANGE: -20

Minor had 200 strikeouts last year and became a crucial part of the Rangers’ rotation. His ERA of 3.59 and WHIP of 1.238 were highly respected numbers, especially pitching at the Ballpark in Arlington. Now, at the more pitcher-friendly Globe Life Field, Minor has struggled with a 6.75 ERA. His strikeout numbers were still good (29 in 29 1/3 innings), so he has some potential to break out of the funk. Until that happens … fade.

7. Anibal Sanchez (Washington). BOY Effective PR: 50, Current: 30, CHANGE: -20

Let’s keep this short and sweet. Sanchez was pretty good for the world-champion Nationals in 2019. But for the Nationals who were in fourth place in the NL East in 2020, he has not been

good (6.48 ERA/1.720 WHIP).

8. Sean Manaea (Oakland). BOY Effective PR: 62, Current: 43, CHANGE: -19

Manaea’s numbers got increasingly better from 2017-19, to the point where he was being counted on to be a key part of the talented Oakland rotation. While that group is struggling in general, Manaea has posted the worst decline, having allowed 21 runs in 25 ⅓ innings. His WHIP (1.461) was nearly double what he posted last year (0.775) in five starts.

9. Mike Fiers (Oakland). BOY Effective PR: 53, Current: 35, CHANGE: -18

Another underperforming member of the Oakland rotation, Fiers has seen his Effective Strength Rating drop by 18 betting points in his six starts, as he had posted an ERA of 5.81 and a WHIP of 1.548. Strangely, he had gotten enough run support to sport a 3-1 won-lost record. That could be fool’s gold.

10. Julio Teheran (Los Angeles Angels). BOY Effective PR: 45, Current: 27, CHANGE: -18

The Angels counted on Teheran to fill a key spot in the rotation, backed up by a very talented and highly compensated offensive group. None of that is really working out in 2020, as Teheran owned an ugly 10.38 ERA through three starts.

7 Young Starting Pitchers Who Should Be on Your Handicapping Radar

1. Aaron Civale (Cleveland). As if Cleveland needed more riches in its rotation, Civale has stepped up with the departures of Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber and has looked the part. He had struck out 32 hitters in 34 innings and owned an impressive 0.971 WHIP. He had not yet commanded the full respect of oddsmakers, though, so take advantage.

2. Triston McKenzie (Cleveland). Obviously it’s a very limited sample size, but did you see what McKenzie did to the Tigers in his first career start last week? He struck out 10 in six innings and dazzled by throwing four pitches consistently for outs.

3. Cristian Javier (Houston). Javier’s ascendance up the Astros’ system was well documented, and expectations were already high with his arrival in the big leagues. His numbers were good so far (1.066 WHIP, 26 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings), but there’s certainly potential for even more in a rotation void of Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in 2020.

4. Framber Valdez (Houston). Valdez is another young, underrated pitcher the Astros will be relying on in September and likely beyond. He has been a spot starter in his first two years in the big leagues but will have the opportunity to become a rotation anchor, and he had posted a

WHIP of 1.085 and ERA of 1.72 in the early going.

5. Dustin May (Los Angeles Dodgers). May is one of the most entertaining young pitchers in the game, and his numbers match the excitement. He figures to be a steady contributor to the Dodgers’ staff for many years.

6. Randy Dobnak (Minnesota). Dobnak isn’t the prototypical power pitcher who commands the respect of folks like me and other oddsmakers. He’s a crafty right-hander who has become one of the most important pitchers on one of the AL’s best teams. In 58 2/3 innings over two seasons, he boasts an ERA of 1.69.

7. Kwang Hyun Kim (St. Louis). Kim was much sought after coming over from the KBO. He

isn’t a big power pitcher, but he works fast and has gotten guys out in the early going. In his first

10 2/3 innings in MLB, he had an ERA of 1.69 and a WHIP of 1.031.

Strongest Unexpected Bullpen Performances

1. Cleveland. BOY Effective PR: 42, Current: 58, CHANGE: + 16

Cleveland’s entire pitching staff has been stellar, allowing just 3.0 RPG in the first 28 contests. Brad Hand is the closer, but James Karinchak has been the most dominant arm. He had struck out 28 hitters in 14 2/3 innings, allowing just one earned run. The seemingly ageless Oliver Perez has also been sharp.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers. BOY Effective PR: 47, Current: 60, CHANGE: + 13

The best team in the league also had the highest bullpen rating, according to my numbers. The Dodgers’ bullpen WHIP had been 0.962, with an ERA of 1.82. Kenley Jansen had been his usual dominant self, but he was one of six L.A. relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched and an ERA under 1.00.

3. Kansas City. BOY Effective PR: 37, Current: 46, CHANGE: + 9

It might not be the dominant bullpen that carried the Royals to the World Series in back-to-back

years in the middle of this decade, but Kansas City and manager Mike Matheny have again

built a reliable relief staff. Trevor Rosenthal seems to have revived his career as the closer,

while Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont have put up impressive numbers in the earlier innings.

4. Detroit. BOY Effective PR: 32, Current: 39, CHANGE: + 7

Detroit’s bullpen effort has been abysmal in the last few seasons. But this year that group is much improved. The WHIP of 1.168 ranks fifth in MLB. Although the Tigers had faded of late with a 2-10 record in their last 12 games through Sunday, the performance of the relief corps gives hope to a September filled with meaningful baseball.

5. Oakland. BOY Effective PR: 50, Current: 57, CHANGE: + 7

Oakland has been one of the league’s most impressive teams in the early going, and nothing has played a bigger role than the surprisingly productive bullpen. In fact, closer Liam Hendriks

has to be considered a Cy Young contender, having saved nine games while boasting an ERA of 1.17. He isn’t the only stud in that group, however. Jake Diekman hadn’t allowed a run in 11 innings, Burch Smith owned a WHIP of 0.667 in 12 innings and four others had ERAs under 2.40 in double-digit innings. This group is deep and productive and a big reason the A’s lead the AL West.

Worst Unexpected Bullpen Performances

1. San Diego. BOY Effective PR: 55, Current: 35, CHANGE: -20

San Diego is quite fortunate that its offense has been so explosive as its highly respected bullpen has not been holding up its end of the bargain. The Padres had the third-ranked bullpen in my strength ratings at the outset of the season. They had dropped to 23rd now. Kirby Yates, who was untouchable in 2019, is on the injured list after being hit hard in his first six outings. Javy Guerra and Emilio Pagan have also unexpectedly struggled.

2. Boston. BOY Effective PR: 46, Current: -9, CHANGE: -15

Nothing has gone right in Boston in the early going, and the Red Sox’s chances of reaching even an expanded postseason look dim. Through 29 games, the Red Sox’s bullpen had a collective ERA of 5.75 and a WHIP of 1.518. Several relievers had already been called on to start games as well, a sign of a struggling staff.

3. Philadelphia. BOY Effective PR: 41, Current: -14, CHANGE: -15

No team’s bullpen stats are uglier than those of the Phillies, who had a WHIP of 1.978 and

ERA of 8.00 through 24 games. A vastly improved effort in that regard could have a huge impact, as Philadelphia’s offense has been impressive. Manager Joe Girardi has been backed into a corner of having to extend his starting pitchers’ usual innings load. I’m not sure how long that strategy can last.

4. Arizona. BOY Effective PR: 45, Current: -6, CHANGE: -11

Arizona’s bullpen was expected to be a reliable contributor to a respected pitching in 2020. It hasn’t worked out that way. The team had allowed 5.1 RPG and the bullpen had an ERA of 5.16 as of Monday. Stefan Crichton and Taylor Clarke have done their fair share and may wind up being elevated to more key roles as the season wears on.

5. Milwaukee. BOY Effective PR: 56, Current: 6, CHANGE: -10

The Brewers had the No. 2-ranked bullpen in my Effective Strength Ratings at the outset of the

season. While the numbers were not horrible (4.19 ERA, 1.258 WHIP), the way the team was hitting the ball, it needs so much more from this group. Josh Hader had yet to be scored on in a smaller-than-usual workload, and Devin Williams is emerging as a star, but the offense is leaving this relief staff no room for error.

 

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