One of the hardest things for baseball handicappers to handle is rookie pitchers, particularly those making one of their first starts in the major leagues. Many handicappers will simply pass on those games and wait until the pitcher has thrown a few games and wait to see how he performs. There’s nothing wrong with that theory and in theory, it’s probably one of the better ones out there.
Others will go against them in their MLB debut, using the assumption that they’re going to be nervous and won’t be at their best, which is also hard to disagree with. We’ve seen plenty of rookie pitchers this season struggle a bit in their first game before settling into a groove. Colorado’s German Marquez is a good example, as the highly touted rookie was on the losing end of a 15-12 game in his debut. Since then, the Rockies have allowed 11 runs in his next five starts.
One handicapper I know waits until their second start. If they threw well in their debut he backs them their next start and continues to do so until they have a poor outing. If they were roughed up in their debut he goes against them until they have a decent game. The logic is a pitcher doing well has confidence, which is key for a young player, while those struggling may begin to press and start thinking about being sent down to the minors.
Dealing with rookie starters is also difficult for statistical handicappers and I’ve struggled with how to handle them. Right now, I assign them a 6.00 for runs surrendered, which is the highest figure I’ll use, even if a starter allows more runs than that. Whether or not to use 5.00 as a starting point is something I’ll examine after this season, as I make some minor modifications to the system, but at a quick glance, that 6.00 may not be too far off, although there are always going to be exceptions.
A quick glance at all of the rookie pitchers used so far this year, shows a number who have allowed six or more runs in their first couple of games and many times it’s hard for them to work their way back. Too many managers would rather send a Jered Weaver to the mound, despite the fact the Padres allow almost eight runs a game with him on the hill, than give another start to Zach Lee, who was sent to the minors after 5.1 scoreless innings against the Rockies in his Padres debut.
All pitchers were rookies at one time and even Clayton Kershaw had to make a debut. And some very good pitchers struggled early on, such as Corey Kluber, who dropped his first six starts, while the Indians allowed fewer than seven runs in just one of them.
As a rule, hard-throwing rookies will fare better than off-speed rookies, as major league hitters are better at handling off-speed pitches than minor leaguers. But a hard-throwing rookie has a bit of an advantage over hitters who have never seen him before. Many of your better off-speed pitchers were one-time hard-throwers, who had to adjust due to arm troubles or finally learned how to pitch, as opposed to just throw the ball.
Rookie pitchers will always be a bit of mystery box and for every Chris Sale or Stephen Strasburg there are many more who we’ll see for a few games and that will be the extent of it. Don’t be afraid to go against struggling rookies, but remember, it can turn around for them very quickly and don’t be too slow to react.