I’m not going to lie. It was really nice to step away from the baseball handicapping grind for a week. On the other hand, I missed it. It was for the best to take the entire week off and to take things easy going into the All-Star Break. That being said, it’s time to get back to work and we have 11 games on the Monday night slate to consider. Heartfelt thanks to those that reached out over the Break to tell me that they missed the written content and also BangTheBook Radio. It’s the first week I’ve taken off at BTB since I started almost three years ago and I’m excited to get back at it.
Our focus, as it always is, will be on the games that provide a lot of line value and those that give us the opportunity to dig deep and find the wagering angles and betting tips that will produce winners.
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Per usual, the games with big lines will be overlooked, unless there is something particularly noteworthy about them or a play on the underdog is a possibility. Also, day games are usually skipped due to the lead time of the article. That will not be the case on Thursdays or Sundays when there are a lot of day games.
Miami (-200) at Philadelphia; Total: 7
One of the themes we’ve been running with here of late is looking to play against extremes. Aaron Nola was extremely bad going into the All-Star Break and this number certainly reflects that. Nola threw six shutout innings while scattering eight hits on June 5. Little did we know that was the start of the collapse. The BABIP gods reared their ugly heads and Nola hung a 13.50 ERA with a .515 BABIP against over his last five starts of the first half.
Oftentimes, we look at struggles and try to explain them from a physical sense. It’s an arm injury for a pitcher. A nagging knee or back for a hitter. Sometimes, it’s simply mental. Nola wasn’t hurt physically, but he was hurt mentally. There comes a time when you question yourself on every pitch. You don’t throw anything with conviction. There’s a scene in Major League 2 where Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) is talking to a sports psychologist. The psychologist asks, “What goes through your mind when you throw your fastball?” Sheen responds, “I wonder if it’s gonna end up in the catcher’s mitt or in some guy’s den.”
This is a scene in a movie, a comedy movie at that, but it describes Aaron Nola’s final five starts. Nola’s fastball command was non-existent and he throws it over 57 percent of the time. The All-Star Break can really help a guy like that. The proverbial slate is wiped clean and he probably isolated some mechanical changes that will give him a sense of optimism.
It would be a much better spot to back Nola if he wasn’t facing a surprisingly-strong Marlins team or Jose Fernandez, one of the game’s best starters, but we wouldn’t be getting this price in a different situation. I’m only looking at the Phillies here in this spot. They may lose. Nola may get shelled. This price is still too high.
New York (NL) at Chicago (NL) (-150)
Overshadowed by righties with power arms, Steven Matz just continues to put up numbers for the Mets. The lingering bone spur issue in his elbow is a concern, but it seems like he’s found a way to pitch through the pain. Matz ended the first half with 96 innings of 3.38/3.42/3.44 ball with better peripherals across the board. The only question for Matz at this point is health because the stuff clearly plays and he’s gotten better in Year 2 of his MLB career.
It feels like Jon Lester doesn’t get the credit he deserves. This is a guy coming off of back-to-back 5+ fWAR seasons. This season hasn’t been ideal for him, as a high home run rate has hurt his FIP, a major component of Fangraphs’s WAR calculation. Outside of the HR/FB% bad luck, Lester has been terrific. His peripherals look great, he’s stranded a ton of runners, and owns a 3.01/3.95/3.57 pitcher slash.
There are a few things to chat about here. For one, Lester’s high LOB% is directly correlated to the fact that he has allowed a lot of runs to score on home runs, which can help a LOB%. Nick Tropeano, discussed further down the article, is an example of this. Another is that Lester’s .266 BABIP against is a career best, but his HR rate is the worst it has been in any full season. Home runs don’t count for BABIP, as we know.
So, there are some dueling regression things for Lester. His HR/FB% should come down in the second half, but his BABIP should come up. With that in mind, we’ll look at opportunities to fade Lester against offenses that are capable of stringing hits together and those that don’t have to rely on the long ball.
Against lefties, the Mets are 18th in SLG and 18th in wOBA. Is this a lineup capable of doing some damage? Possibly, but it’s a tough sell. The Cubs are clearly superior in this offensive split, ranking second in wOBA against LHP and fifth in SLG. I don’t think that this number is in playable range yet, but the initial move did hit the Mets. The Cubs haven’t been the world beaters they were early in the season. The Cubs were 31-14 over their first 45 games. They are 24-22 since and have still been lined like a team locked into the World Series.
I do feel like the Break helped. Expectations got high and guys got caught up. I’d expect a little bit of a run from the Cubs here over the next week or two as they look to put some more distance in the NL Central race. I’m buying the Cubs if the price is right. Today’s could get there with another five or 10 cents.
Baltimore (-120) at New York (AL); Total: 9
If the Orioles are going to hang on to this thing, Kevin Gausman needs to be better. His second half starts at Yankee Stadium on Monday night. Gausman has had a very strange season. After the Orioles dicked around with him last season, moving him around the minor leagues and the bullpen and the MLB rotation, Gausman has made starts at four different levels this season, but at least they’ve all been starts.
Gausman has a 4.15 ERA with a 4.28 FIP and a 3.76 xFIP. He’s been weird in that he has strong K/BB rates, a high strand rate, a home run problem, and significant reverse platoon splits. Lefties are batting .240/.276/.389 off of the right-hander, but righties are swinging it at a .292/.343/.510 clip. The reasons why are pretty clear. Gausman has clustered his pitches on the outside corner and off the plate against lefties. Against righties, too many pitches have been over the middle of the plate and inside the zone.
For whatever reason, his same-side mechanics haven’t worked out for him. That’s a change that the Orioles may have tried to work on over the Break, but this was a major problem for Gausman last season as well, when lefties hit .224/.283/.360 and righties hit .275/.317/.526. Basically, Gausman is a spot play. Teams that utilize a lot of platoons or are left-handed heavy are good matchups for him. The Yankees have gotten 2,130 PA from LHB and 1,164 from righties. That seems like a pretty good matchup for Gausman, even with the short porch.
Atlanta at Cincinnati (-130); Total: 9
Matt Wisler and Brandon Finnegan meet in a battle of 23-year-olds on teams going nowhere. Full rebuilding processes in Atlanta and Cincinnati have been interesting to watch and the timing is great for both teams, since it’ll be a while before they can compete with the upper echelon teams in their respective divisions.
The total is my focus for this game. Honestly, it should probably be 9.5 or 10, right? You have two of the worst bullpens in baseball, including one that is historically awful. You have a starter with a 4.47 ERA and another with a 4.71 ERA. Doesn’t this total look low to you?
That’s precisely why I like the under. Let’s dig deeper here. The Braves are sending Wisler to the hill with a 4.47 ERA, 4.40 FIP, and a 4.80 xFIP. Wisler gave up 29 runs in his final 38.1 innings of the first half, which appears to be a sign of fatigue in his first full MLB season and perhaps a sign that the league has made some adjustments to him throughout the year. We’re playing against extremes.
Finnegan walks a lot of guys and has given up far too many home runs, but he is a guy capable of inducing some weak contact. Home runs don’t count towards BABIP, as we know, but he’s only given up 107 non-HR hits in 156.1 career MLB innings. When he hits a barrel, it’s bad, but he doesn’t hit them all that often.
We know that the Braves are horrendous against lefties, with a .343 SLG, the worst in baseball, and a .281 wOBA, the second-worst in baseball. The Reds are similarly terrible against righties, with a .295 wOBA, which ranks 28th, and a .296 OBP, which is also 28th.
There shouldn’t be a lot of traffic on the bases for either of these starters. Home runs are very possible, but big innings will be tougher to come by. If the bullpens can keep this thing to a three-alarm fire instead of a five-alarm fire, we could be looking at a sneaky little under play.
Texas at Los Angeles (AL) (-120); Total: 8.5
Since I started beating the Texas Drum of Regression, the Rangers are 4-11. Of those losses, nine of them are by two runs or more, so they’re not just getting unlucky or falling victim to variance. This is regression and it was definitely coming. The betting market picked up on it pretty quickly and the lines have been reflective of the lack of confidence in the Rangers.
The Rangers still have plenty of regression to go. They are 48-45 by Pythagorean Win-Loss. They are now 45-48 by BaseRuns because they’ve been getting blown out so often. I don’t pull this stuff out of nowhere. I play the numbers. I play the percentages. None of this surprises me.
It was a pretty telling opening number when the Angels, who are 40-52, 14.5 games worse than the Rangers, opened -130. It’s also pretty telling that the betting market, which wouldn’t bet on the Rangers with Donald Trump’s money, has been betting on the Rangers overnight and this morning.
This is a good park for AJ Griffin, an extreme fly ball guy, similar to Angels starter Nick Tropeano. The two guys actually have a ton of similarities in performance this season. Griffin has a decent K rate, a poor BB rate, some home runs allowed, and a 3.81 ERA with a 4.33 FIP and a 4.79 xFIP. Tropeano has a good K rate, a terrible BB rate, some home runs allowed, and a 3.12 ERA with a 4.73 FIP and a 4.83 xFIP.
There are two reasons why I like the Rangers. The first is defense. Texas has two fewer defensive runs saved than the Angels, but rates extremely well in UZR and UZR/150, much better than the Angels. The other is that Tropeano is rocking a 90.8 percent LOB%. With the bases empty, hitters are slashing .316/.385/.520. With men on base, the numbers drop to .185/.284/.374. There’s a BABIP difference of 176 points. I don’t view that as sustainable.
I’ll roll with the Rangers tonight, which you know is significant since I’ve been so down on them over the last several weeks.
Be sure to catch today’s edition of The Bettor’s Box, my MLB betting podcast and tune in on Wednesday and Thursday for live editions of BangTheBook Radio. The Bettor’s Box can also be heard on Fridays over the next couple of weeks.