Just bet on the better starting pitcher.
This may be the simplest — and, arguably, the best — advice any novice Major League Baseball bettor can receive, provided their primary concern is making a modest profit instead of really beating the odds. But over the past five seasons, the average amount of innings per start has taken a nosedive, bottoming out at an all-time low of 4.8 innings per start during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.
“You used to get the pitcher ready to go nine on Opening Day, then it was, ‘Get the pitcher to go seven on Opening Day,’” said Rotowire columnist Joe Sheehan, a founding member of The Baseball Prospectus. “Now it’s almost like you’re trying to get them through five. But a lot of teams aren’t looking at innings anymore; they’re just looking at times around the order.”
This philosophy was on galling display during last year’s World Series. Leading 1-0 with one out in the sixth inning of Game 6, Tampa Bay yanked ace starter Blake Snell after just 73 pitches — or two times through the Dodgers’ batting order — only to watch its bullpen collapse. The Dodgers went on to win the World Series.
All of which begs the question: Do starting pitchers matter as much to baseball bettors nowadays? It depends on how you look at it.
Change in betting habits
According to sportsbook operators, professional gamblers, and industry analysts alike, baseball sharps have migrated toward “First 5” plays, where they’re only wagering on outcomes that occur during a game’s first five innings instead of the full nine.
“I’m finding far more action than ever on the first five innings of the game rather than its entirety,” said Robert Kowalski, who runs the sportsbook at Baldini’s Casino, located between Sparks and Reno in Nevada.
Las Vegas-based professional gambler Teddy Covers is seeing a similar trend.
“Just about every baseball bettor I know is using the five-inning line as part of their repertoire, and that wasn’t the case 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s starting pitching versus starting pitching, in theory.”
Said Sam Panayotovich, a sports betting analyst for FOX Sports: “The sharp bettors I know want to take the bullpen entirely out of the equation. I had a guy tell me he paid off the mortgage on his house betting First 5 unders on the aces.”
Blurred line between bullpen and starter
But what if a “starter” doesn’t even start the game? The last few years have seen the increased prevalence of so-called bullpen games and openers — when relievers start a game with a short stint, only to yield to another reliever or a proper starter at a predetermined juncture.
“First 5 bets used to be a way of getting around the bullpen,” said Sheehan. “This year, you’re seeing a lot more teams do tandem starts, where you’re trying to get three or four [innings out of a couple different pitchers]. You’ll have a lot of times now where the starter isn’t designed to go five.”
Yet just as First 5 bets are increasing in popularity, the shift in how managers are using their pitchers could threaten the very existence of another type of wager involving listed starters. Traditionally, a bettor could opt to “list” a starting pitcher, meaning that if, for some reason, the listed starter didn’t start the game, the bet would automatically be refunded. But in 2020, the combined forces of the COVID-19 pandemic and bullpen openers led some sportsbooks to stop listing pitchers altogether.
“During the pandemic, we did away with the starting pitcher being listed — one because of COVID, but [also because] teams like Tampa and the Angels started starting relievers,” said Dave Sharapan, a former sportsbook official with CG Technology, which was purchased in September 2020 by William Hill. “They called them the ‘opener’ and it started to lessen the importance of listing the starting pitcher, so people started betting on teams instead of starting pitchers. This year, every book is taking its own approach to it. Some are going back to listing pitchers, some may never go back.”
Starters have more value than running backs
Westgate Las Vegas has pledged to never go back.
“It was just creating too many issues — guys getting scratched at the last second, guys not going five innings,” said John Murray, Westgate’s executive director of sportsbook operations. “There were a lot of question marks surrounding COVID. We have no intention of bringing it back. There was no backlash, nobody really complaining about it. We never let you list quarterbacks in football and goalies in hockey and people still bet into all those sports.”
A baseball betting shake-up: No more “listed” pitchers at the Westgate and South Point: https://t.co/IfeaDIE1tr
— Jim Barnes (@JimBarnesLV) July 16, 2020
Speaking of football, there’s now broad consensus that running backs aren’t worth much of anything when it comes to NFL wagering. So, are starting pitchers the new running back?
“Running backs in football are the least valuable players on the team because of their replacement level. The backup is as good as the starter; you see that in the contracts,” said Covers. “The differential is really small, whereas the elite starting pitchers are worth everything.”
“I had a bookmaker tell me there are only three running backs — Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, and Ezekiel Elliott — who really move the meter anymore, and those guys are only worth a point or a point-and-a-half to a bookmaker,” said Panayotovich. “I think a rock-solid ace or a really solid No. 2, those guys are still worth their weight in coin. The ace is so much better than the third, fourth, and fifth starter. If you look at the Baltimore Orioles’ Johnny Means, he’s a legit ace — and we couldn’t pick their three, four, and five guys out of a lineup.”
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