A Sunday set of matinee games feature a lot of interesting lines around Major League Baseball. The Yankees, Cardinals, Cubs, Royals, Pirates, Braves, and Phillies are all vying for sweeps. Some handicappers will go against the sweep on principle, since it is widely assumed that sweeps are hard to do. Blindly betting against a sweep is not a good approach to take, as every situation needs to be assessed differently.
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This seems like one of those situations where people will bet against a sweep, even though the Blue Jays are on a tear right now. This is a big game for Toronto because it’s the difference between picking up one game or three games in the standings. There are some compelling reasons to go against Toronto, but betting against a sweep is not one of them. The Yankees clearly have a pitching matchup advantage in this one and they have their best matchup of the series. RA Dickey is a knuckleballer and those can be tough to hit and of course David Price is tough to hit.
But, let’s look deeper into this game. Marco Estrada has thrown the ball well enough as a starter to post a 3.67 ERA with a 3.82 FIP and a 4.68 xFIP. There is some regression in the xFIP because of a below average strikeout rate and some batted ball luck with a fly ball rate north of 50 percent. Estrada has always been a fly ball guy, but his curveball has been more useful this season than it has been in any other season and he has made significant strides with his fastball command. In all honesty, this may not be a mirage, despite the ugly xFIP. He has regularly posted some decent numbers with a slight HR problem in a good hitter’s park.
Masahiro Tanaka isn’t the same guy this season. The command just isn’t there. He has already given up more home runs in 93.2 innings than he did last season in 136.1 innings. The strikeout and walk rates are where they should be, but Tanaka’s stuff is less sharp this season and it has shown in his increased ERA and FIP. His fastball command has been bad in his 35 starts, though he has a lot of other pitches in his arsenal. It’s really hard to know what to expect from Tanaka right now, and certainly too hard to price him at -140 against the best offensive team in baseball.
The Blue Jays are the value side. Will they win? I don’t know, but I have a hard time laying -140 with Tanaka’s inconsistency against a Blue Jays offense that has been extremely consistent in hanging big numbers this season.
John Lackey continues to be one of the best bargains in baseball with a league minimum salary and a 2.85/3.41/3.96 pitcher slash. The strikeout rate is down considering, but so is the home run rate, so it’s really interesting to see how Lackey has evolved as a pitcher. His velocity is still there, unlike others that have traded in a four-seamer for a two-seamer. He’s throwing nearly 88 percent fastballs per PITCHf/x since his slider/cutter is labeled as a cutter, which is a variation of a fastball. It’s been effective for him and having an elite defense doesn’t hurt.
As I’ve said in the past, I like Jimmy Nelson. The upside is there to become a quality middle of the rotation arm with a frame to throw 200 innings. The walk rate is up a little bit this season, but it’s not too far out of control. His command is definitely passable, especially in a good hitter’s park, and his chase rate is up as he has developed a better feel for pitching. He’s an underrated guy stuck on a bad team.
There are, however, two reasons why the Cardinals are an easy pick here. Nelson has allowed a .286/.360/.463 slash to lefties as opposed to a .195/.276/.289 to righties and Lackey has held righties to a .272 wOBA this season with a 7.2 K/BB ratio. The Brewers lineup is full of right-handed bats and the Cardinals have a lot of left-handed sticks in theirs. The Brewers have played better since Craig Counsell took over, but this is a very bad matchup for them.
Jose Quintana is pretty damn good and not a whole lot of people realize that. He just keeps improving. This season, things started out a little bit slow, but Quintana has only had marginal increases in his ERA, FIP, and xFIP considering that he has a .335 BABIP against. He is showing some of the best control of his career and has the best swinging strike rate of his career. He’s also throwing nearly 70 percent of his first pitches for strikes. That’s a great thing against most lineups, though against the aggressive Royals, it remains to be seen if that is a good trait or not.
What Quintana has been able to do in the American League with a defense like this in his career is pretty spectacular. The interesting part about this start is that Quintana has held lefties to a .197/.260/.319 slash on the season. This has been his best season against same-side hitters, which is something worth paying attention to against a Royals lineup that will send out quite a few lefties.
Danny Duffy hasn’t been very good this season. In 89 innings, he has a 4.04 ERA with a 4.72 FIP and a 4.89 xFIP. His ERA would be well over 4.50 without the Royals defense. Fortunately, he takes on a White Sox lineup that has spent the majority of the season being the worst in the league against left-handed pitching. That makes this game a really tough one to handicap, because Duffy is clearly a below average left-hander. Do the White Sox struggle against all left-handers or can they handle one like Duffy?
The way to play this game is probably the under. Quintana should throw the ball very well against Kansas City given his splits this season and performance to date. This is a way to play on Quintana but avoid having to hope the White Sox can get out of their own way and help cash a ticket.
A tricky line here as the Houston Astros look to split the series with the Oakland Athletics. This will beMike Fiers’s first start with the ballclub after having to sacrifice for the good of the team in Houston’s loss to Texas last week. Fiers was very effective with Milwaukee and was a guy that influential money played on a lot. He’s got good strikeout upside, though his increased walk rate this season is a bit of a concern. So is his high BABIP against that seems to ignore the elevated home run rate.
On the other side, you’ve got Chris Bassitt, a fly ball pitcher working in a park that is ideal for his skill set. As a starter, Bassitt has actually shown a little bit of swing and miss upside. Most of my handicapping is done by sabermetric analysis, but Fiers and Bassitt are guys that make it really hard. Because they are both fly ball pitchers, their xFIPs are almost never going to be close to their ERAs. Fly ball pitchers will give up home runs, but they also give up fewer hits. Bassitt doesn’t have the swing-and-miss upside of Fiers, though pop ups are effectively strikeouts and he has induced his fair share of those.
Bassitt is basically a throwaway starter for most handicappers, yet the Astros aren’t favored against an Athletics team that has played poorly most of the season? This line seems fishy, doesn’t it? It truly seems like Oakland is the play here, but the idea of Fiers in a good pitching environment is nice as well. There are better games on the board, but Oakland would be the lean in this one.
There aren’t a lot of great lines on the board for Sunday, with quite a few big numbers. Here’s an interesting situation. The Pirates have shown how adept they are at winning close games with their results in the first two games of this series. Will the tide turn in Sunday’s finale? The Dodgers are sending Alex Wood to the mound against Charlie Morton.
Wood is an interesting guy. His strikeouts and velocity have gone down this season, not because of an underlying injury, but because he made 11 relief appearances last season that skewed some of the numbers. That means that you really have to evaluate him differently as a full-time starter. Here’s what we do know about Wood. His BABIP against should probably see some positive regression. The Braves traded away some good defensive outfielder talent and Wood’s BABIP ballooned to .332. Part of the reason for this was an increased line drive rate against. Another reason is because his fastball command has taken a big step back. Opposing batters hit .248/.315/.382 on fastballs last season and have hit .300/.349/.427 this season. That’s a different of over 50 wOBA points from 2014 to 2015. It takes a deeper arsenal to be a full-time starter and Wood’s is very shallow.
Charlie Morton is an extreme ground ball guy and he has found a home in Pittsburgh, where they shift a ton. Morton got a late start to the season and has seen a pretty substantial drop-off in strikeouts this season. But, he’s still essentially the same pitcher from a batted ball standpoint. It’s safe to say that last season’s strikeout rate was the anomaly, but he’s never been as low as he has been this season. Hitters make a lot of contact against him and relying on batted ball luck is scary as a bettor.
It should be a great environment in Pittsburgh, but I think this line is telling us something. Oddsmakers have been shading Dodgers lines against RHP for a while, but it may truly be justified here. Wood takes on a Pirates lineup that is middle of the pack against LHP and the Pirates have called upon the key relievers in their bullpen quite a bit of late. Whatever happens, look to fade the Dodgers on Monday night, for reasons I will expect on tomorrow’s edition of The Bettor’s Box.