Baseball has become a highly-specialized game over the last couple of decades with an increase in things like platoons, matchup relievers, and strongly-defined bullpen roles. As steroids were phased out of the league during Bud Selig’s witch hunt, pitching became the dominant force and hitting took a backseat. The ever-changing landscape of baseball has forced teams and pitchers to adapt to a much different game.
Let’s look at a few things to kick off this week’s MLB Starting Pitcher Report before going in-depth with a few pitchers that need to be discussed. Handicappers obviously take the starting pitching matchup into consideration, but do they pay enough attention to bullpens? In this Moneyball era of baseball where on-base percentage takes precedence to batting average, hitters are more patient, more selective, and are working starting pitchers harder than ever before.
The paradigm shift is pretty evident in looking at starting pitcher workloads over the last 20 years.
1994 (strike year): 3,200 games, 19,471.1 innings = 6.08 IP per start
2004: 4,856 games, 28,437.2 innings = 5.85 IP per start
2014: 1,956 games, 11,610.1 innings = 5.93 IP per start
1994: K%: 15.3%, BB: 8.4%
2004: K%: 16%, BB: 8.1%, 3.73 pitches per plate appearance
2014: K%: 19.5%, BB: 7.4%, 3.82 pitches per plate appearance
The reason offense is down in Major League Baseball has something to do with steroids, but has more to do with strikeouts. In 2004, the average fastball velocity of a starting pitcher was 89.7 mph. Now, it’s at 91.2 mph. When talking about a large sample size, a 1.5 mph jump is pretty significant.
But, the biggest transition has been with bullpens. It used to be that hitters wanted to get a starting pitcher out of the game and get into the bullpen, but that may not be the case anymore. In 1996, relievers made 11,058 appearances. In 2013, the number had ballooned to 14,336. The highest amount of relief appearances was in 2007 when there were 14,432 appearances. This is the specialization in the game with matchup relievers.
But there’s another element to it as well. It’s not just a matter of lefty/lefty or righty/righty that has improved overall bullpen performance. It’s also velocity. In 2002, average reliever fastball velocity was 90.2 mph. In 2014, it is 92.3 mph, following consecutive seasons of 92.5 mph. Strikeouts have as much to do with pitchers throwing harder as it does to the Moneyball generation of working counts. In 1994, the overall bullpen ERA for the league was 4.43. This season, it’s at 3.57, the lowest in that span.
Starting pitchers still pitch almost two-thirds of the game on average, but bettors need to start paying closer attention to the bullpens. Knowing what relievers are available is one way to get an edge over the oddsmakers. Use the specialization of the game to your advantage.
Looking at some pitchers to keep an eye on, the big story in baseball right now is the precipitous decline of Justin Verlander. Verlander is having the worst season of his career. The workload of seven consecutive seasons of over 200 innings pitched may have something to do with it, but Verlander is proof-positive of how a decline in strikeouts can hurt a pitcher.
Verlander’s strikeout percentage has fallen from well above average at 23 percent in 2013 and 26.5 percent in 2012 down to 16 percent this season, well below average. That has coincided with an increase in walk rate that has been building over each of the last three seasons. It’s now at 9.6 percent, well above average.
Verlander’s previously high BABIP was due to a combination of a smaller sample size because of his strikeout rate and a terrible team defense behind him. The defense is better, but still not good, and Verlander’s BABIP remains about the same at .315. The difference is in his actual batting average against, which has risen from .251 to .270. Verlander’s career batting average against is .235.
For the fifth straight season, Verlander’s average fastball velocity has fallen. It peaked in 2009 at 95.6 mph. It now sits at 92.4 mph. By PITCHf/x data, Verlander is throwing the lowest percentage of pitches in the strike zone of his career at 49 percent.
Verlander has been a guy over the last couple of seasons that has shown the ability to flip a switch and get his velocity back, like he’s pacing himself to last the duration of the season. With the Tigers in freefall mode, one would think that Verlander would have stepped it up, but maybe it’s just not there. He hit 99 on the gun in his last start, but his control was not there. It’s hard to see this turning around quickly, but a special pitcher with a great track record can turn it around in any given start.
Something seems to be going on with Michael Wacha. His velocity fell for the fifth straight start, although it has fluctuated throughout the season. With a season Zone% of 50.5 percent, four of Wacha’s last five starts have seen Zone% data in the mid-40s. In his last start against Tampa Bay, he walked four and failed to strikeout out a batter for the first time in his career and only has 14 strikeouts over his last five starts after recording 62 in his first nine starts.
With Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright dealing with some elbow discomfort, this has to be a bit of a concern for the Cardinals. It’s entirely possible that Wacha is just fine, but bettors should monitor him closely over the next couple of starts.
The highest FIP among qualified pitchers belongs to Marco Estrada. Estrada has allowed 20 home runs in just 79 innings so far this season and 14 in 47.1 road innings. That’s a surprising development because Miller Park is a very good hitter’s park for home runs. Estrada’s command was fine in April and has gradually gotten worse since.
There aren’t any injury indicators for Estrada, though his velocity is down from last season. This seems like nothing more than a command issue and it’s important to realize that Estrada’s full season numbers for 2013 were skewed by a great second half after a bad first half. Bad fastball command is a killer for a pitcher and it certainly has been for Estrada this season. With the Brewers leveling off, Estrada may be a fade candidate at a decent price.
As a guy that should be on the upswing, take a look at Wade Miley. Not only are the Diamondbacks playing a lot better, but Miley has been victimized by an unusually-high home run rate. His 3.53 xFIP and 3.63 SIERA are much lower than his 4.57 ERA and 4.35 FIP. Miley is setting career highs in K% and swings and misses, which means that the stuff has been good. He’s also getting ahead in the count nearly 65 percent of the time. Good things are on the horizon for Miley.
This is a good time to remain baseball bettors about park factor and certain pitchers being bad fits for certain ballparks. Now that warm summer weather is here, bringing heat and humidity with it, the ball is going to carry better in a lot of Midwest parks, as well as the usual parks like Texas, Baltimore, and Yankee Stadium. Be wary of fly ball pitchers in parks that become launching pads as the weather heats up. Places like Chicago see an uptick in offense during the summer months.
Keep all of the intangibles fresh in your mind when making wagers, including the state of a team’s bullpen, the park factor, and, of course, the starting pitcher matchup.