Well, today was supposed to be Opening Day. A celebration of the end of winter, the beginning of a new season, and the start of 162 games to push to the playoffs.
We get none of that. There are no celebrations. No fanfare. No pomp and circumstance. The 15 stadiums set to host today’s games are empty and quiet. Naturally, here in the Cleveland area, we would have had about the nicest Opening Day weather we’ve had in a very long time.
There are much bigger things at stake in the world and we all understand that. These disruptions to our sense of normalcy and our routines are going to continue to feel uncomfortable for however long this all goes.
People are dying and families are stressed. People are losing their jobs and are stretched to the limits. Opening Day wouldn’t have changed that. But, for many, sports are an escape. Something to distract from the daily hardships and difficulties of life. We don’t have those for the time being and it sucks.
I thought I would take a look at the odds that we did have for Opening Day and put together some thoughts on how I would have handicapped the games. At some point, baseball will return and hopefully this article will do the same.
These odds would have changed with the announcements of Opening Day starters and whatnot, but Westgate Superbook had Opening Day odds in early February. I’ll handicap a few games where I would have known the Opening Day starters, just to give you an idea of how I do things so that you know what to expect when baseball returns over the summer. If baseball returns over the summer. Or for 2021. Or for 2022 after the labor stoppage. Sigh.
Real quick, last year I used a percentage betting system either 3% to win X (or X to win 3%) on dogs or X to win 3% on favorites. This season, I’ll just use units to make it easier for everybody and standard plays will be 1u to win X or X to win 1u. I also got my backside handed to me last season, so let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.
Here are the MLB picks & tips for March 26, 2020:
Chicago Cubs (+115) at Milwaukee Brewers (-125); Total: 8
What should be a very competitive NL Central race hits the ground running on Opening Day with a matchup between the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers. It will be Yu Darvish for the visitors and Brandon Woodruff for the inhabitants of Miller Park with a short favorite price for the Brewers.
The full-season numbers from 2019 don’t tell the whole story for Darvish. He finished with a solid 3.98 ERA and an excellent 3.39 xFIP. His 4.18 FIP was a byproduct of allowing a lot of home runs. He gave up 33 in 178.2 innings of work. However, it truly was a tale of two halves for Darvish. The right-hander had a 5.01 ERA in the first half of the season with a .225/.326/.433 slash against and a .323 wOBA against. In the second half, Darvish spun a stellar 118/7 K/BB ratio with a .199/.228/.384 slash against and a .254 wOBA against.
Darvish figured something out. His K% went from 26.5% to 37.8% and his walk rate plummeted from 11.7% to 2.2%. His 5.31 first-half FIP fell all the way down to 2.83. Darvish, in a lot of ways, is actually a Cy Young candidate in my estimation for this season.
He still allowed 13 home runs in 81.2 innings over the second half, but with the expectation that the ball plays a little fairer this season, I’m not overly concerned about that. Darvish did have a home run problem in his 40-inning cameo in 2018, but homers weren’t a huge issue for him previously.
The worry I do have about the Cubs is their bullpen. We’ll see if Craig Kimbrel can bounce back, but this is a very unproven bullpen. The Cubs passed on four of their top five pitchers in appearances last season, so they’re going to rely on guys like Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan, and Jeremy Jeffress, who was DFA’d by the Brewers last season. This is the one area of the club that could really hold the Cubs back and will also make full-game betting a challenge with them.
On the Milwaukee side, breakout star Brandon Woodruff takes the hill for the first time on Opening Day. Woodruff was limited to 22 starts and 121.2 innings last season, but they were excellent. He had a 3.62 ERA with a 3.01 FIP and a 3.36 xFIP. All of the peripherals were solid for Woodruff, who had a 29% K% and a 6.1% BB%. He also only allowed 12 home runs in his 22 starts.
Unfortunately, Woodruff was also limited to 13.2 innings in the second half because of injuries. It wasn’t an arm problem for Woodruff, though. It was the dreaded oblique. Despite the loss of Woodruff, who only threw four innings in September and faced 13 batters, the Brewers still made a huge playoff push. They were also without Christian Yelich.
Woodruff did start a tad slow last season before settling in. He had a .288/.355/.432 slash against over 31.1 innings in March and April. Once he got comfortable, he was excellent. I do wonder if it will take him a little while to settle in, given that his 2019 season was cut short. He was seventh in Hard Hit% against among pitchers with at least 250 batted ball events last season at 30.2%, so he does stay off the barrel and limit walks, which is important against this Cubs lineup.
The Brewers have the clear bullpen advantage in this one with Josh Hader, Freddy Peralta, and Corbin Burnes ready to eat up innings. Keep in mind that starters are going to be limited in early games, so bullpens are going to have that much more importance. Something else to consider is that lefties hit 19 of the 33 homers that Darvish allowed and had a .465 SLG against him. The Brewers made a lot of moves to provide versatility to the lineup and that includes a lot of difference platoon bats.
While I’m not high on the Brewers for this season, I do like them today. Unless second-half Darvish shows up and is razor-sharp, he’s likely to run that pitch count up quickly and expose the weakest part of the Cubs team. With the skill set of Woodruff and a clear-cut advantage on paper for the late innings, the short price is enough for me to take the Brewers.
Pick: Milwaukee – 1.25u to win 1u
Boston Red Sox (-140) at Toronto Blue Jays (+130); Total: 8.5
So, play the pretend game with me here because this line probably wouldn’t be -140 with Eduardo Rodriguez vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu. This line would have been posted before we found out that Chris Sale needed Tommy John surgery. A line of Rodriguez vs. Ryu on the road without Mookie Betts would probably be more like Red Sox -115 or something in my mind. It could even have the Blue Jays favored. I don’t know. I’m just trying to pretend today is a normal day.
Anyway, I’m a big Eduardo Rodriguez guy. Unfortunately, the secret is out about him across the board after last season. He used to be something of an afterthought because he had never worked more than 137.1 innings. He’s coming off of his first 200-inning season with 203.1 across 34 starts last season. He had a 3.81 ERA with a 3.86 FIP and a 4.10 xFIP.
Rodriguez has some pretty nice peripherals. His walk rate is a touch elevated and that probably scares some people, but he has an above average strikeout rate and above average home run rates. He added a new wrinkle last season with a 48.5% GB%. It did drive his BABIP up to .317 by inducing more worm-burners, but it also lowered his HR/9. He did post the highest HR/FB% of his career at 13.3%, but the ball was also spring-loaded and he induced more ground balls. The more ground balls, the more likely your HR/FB% is to be because you have a smaller sample size of fly balls.
Rodriguez is just a solid arm from the left side. He had an increase in his swinging strike rate last season (SwStr%) and it came from swings and misses on pitches in the zone. That is a sign of how good his stuff was last year, especially because he is primarily a fastball/changeup/cutter guy.
Rodriguez finished third in Hard Hit% against at 28.5%. The guy that finished 13th is actually his counterpart in this one in Hyun-Jin Ryu. Ryu was better overall in average exit velocity against because he allowed fewer barreled balls. I talked a lot about barreled balls on Monday’s edition of The Bettor’s Box if you want to circle back and give that a listen.
Ryu is a tough guy for me to evaluate coming into the season. He posted a 2.32 ERA with a 3.10 FIP and a 3.32 xFIP last season. With a league change and some of his peripherals, my mind instantly goes to negative regression. Ryu posted a LOB% above 81% for the third straight season and continued to carry a very low BABIP at .278. But then you consider all the weak contact he induces and he should be able to carry a low BABIP and a high LOB%. Ryu also doesn’t walk people. His BB% the last two seasons has been 4.6% and 3.3%.
There is also something else interesting about Ryu now that he is in the AL and pitching at Rogers Centre. Last season, Ryu’s GB% spiked to 50.4%. It was the highest one he has had since his rookie year in 2013. I’ve talked about this before, but Rogers Centre has been an outlier in terms of ground ball batting average. The unique playing surface actually plays up for ground ball pitchers.
Last season, the batting average on ground balls at Rogers Centre was .228. That ranked fourth-lowest among the 30 MLB stadiums. Only Busch Stadium, Oracle Park, and Oakland Coliseum were lower. Notice that two of the stadiums are in that cooler marine air, where the grass is probably a bit thicker. In fact, in the Statcast era, which goes back to 2015, Rogers Centre has been a top-five ground ball environment for pitchers. It actually ranks fourth when we combine AT&T Park and Oracle Park, since they are the same venue.
That is something that could also allow Ryu’s skill set to play up in his home starts. My fears with a move from Los Angeles to Toronto were threefold. The first is that the Dodgers are an elite defensive team just about every year. The second is that Ryu goes from facing the pitcher to facing the DH. The third is that he goes from the NL West, with parks like Dodger Stadium, Petco, and Oracle to the AL East with Rogers Centre, which is a great fly ball and line drive environment for hitters, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, and Camden Yards.
Regression will come for Ryu over the course of the season, but what that regression looks like may not be as severe as I had originally thought.
In any event, as far as today’s (hypothetical) game, I’m looking at the 1st 5 under. You’ve got two really good lefties on the hill and pitchers are generally ahead of hitters early in the season. Both Rodriguez and Ryu are masters of inducing weak contact and Rodriguez’s GB% bump from last season, if it sticks around, at least for this start, could be a huge boon for him. Ryu was third in average exit velocity and Rodriguez was seventh.
Like I’ve talked about a lot, the fewer hard-hit balls, the fewer chances to score runs. We saw a deader ball in Spring Training, which should also help pitchers with some of their early-season command concerns. These are two wildly-talented lineups, even without Betts on the Red Sox side, but I think both lineups struggle to make quality contact today.
Pick: 1st 5 Under 4 (+100) – 1u to win 1u
Detroit Tigers (+245) at Cleveland Indians (-280); Total: 8
We’ve got Matt Boyd for the Tigers and Shane Bieber for the Indians as things get underway on a stunningly nice day at Progressive Field. I made the conscious decision to snap my Home Opener streak at 15. I’ve been through a lot of shitty weather. Maybe I would have gone today to start a new streak. Hell, tickets hadn’t even sold out by the time the start of the season was delayed. The Indians have never failed to sell out a Home Opener since Jacobs Field opened in 1994 and it usually sells out in the blink of an eye.
Fans that would have been in attendance would have been treated to a good one between Matt Boyd and Shane Bieber. Or so we think. Boyd finished up with a 4.56 ERA, a 4.32 FIP, and a 3.88 xFIP in his 185.1 innings of work last season. The southpaw had a tale of two halves. Really, it was more like a tale of two months and four months. Boyd got a ton of buzz for his March/April and May performance. He only allowed 23 earned runs on 59 hits in 72.2 innings of work. He also only allowed seven home runs.
Then the weather warmed up. Over his first 12 starts, Boyd had a 2.85/2.87/3.67 pitcher slash (ERA/FIP/xFIP) with a stellar 88/15 K/BB ratio in 72.2 innings of work. Over his final 20 starts, Boyd had a 5.67/5.26/4.02 pitcher slash. He still had a strong K/BB ratio at 150/35 over 112.2 innings of work, but he gave up 32 home runs in that span. To me, the oddest part of the profile for Boyd was that he gave up 26 of his 39 homers at Comerica Park, which is a notoriously tough home run park. The batter’s eye in Detroit is among the best in the league, so that benefits hitters, but the outfield is expansive and the ball really doesn’t carry all that well early or late in the year.
Boyd allowed a .525 SLG at home compared to a .411 SLG on the road. The ironic thing is that his ERA was 4.59 at home and 4.55 on the road. It seemed like Boyd maybe tried to pitch to the park a little too much. At home, his K% was 26.4%, opting to let the spacious outfield be his Sherpa. On the road, Boyd’s K% was 33.6%. And yet, with that elite K% on the road, his LOB% was just 66.8%.
On a team with very little to be excited about, I think Boyd is something of a bounce back candidate. I’m not sure how the command completely evaporated like it did, but the K% and BB% marks stayed elite no matter what. He would be one of the biggest benefactors of a deader ball. We’ll see if he has one throughout the season.
The Indians have Ace A and Ace B with Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger. Clevinger may have drawn the Opening Day assignment, but a torn meniscus sidelined him for most of Spring Training. Bieber may have been the choice anyway, but there was no choice to make after Clev went down.
One of 2019’s breakout stars, Bieber posted a 3.28 ERA with a 3.32 FIP and a 3.23 xFIP. He also won the All-Star Game MVP in Cleveland by striking out the side in his only inning of that pitcher’s duel. Bieber had an elite 259/40 K/BB ratio over his 214.1 innings of work. He also allowed 31 home runs and a ton of hard contact.
A good number of scribes and fantasy minds expressed concern about Bieber coming into the season. Among pitchers with at least 250 batted ball events last season, Bieber ranked 147th out of 152 in average exit velocity. He ranked 144th out of 152 in Hard Hit%. He did allow a lot of hard contact last season, as evidenced by the lofty HR rate. Bieber did do a better job last season of throwing fewer strikes and mixing up his pitches better.
I’m guessing we see more mixing this season. Bieber had a 43.5% Whiff% on his slider and a 48.7% Whiff% on his curveball. We’re going to see fewer fastballs this season from him. We already saw a drop from 57.4% to 45.7% usage from 2018 to 2019. With Bieber working more on a changeup this offseason, we should see more of that fourth pitch.
Like a lot of righties that throw a lot of strikes, Bieber had some platoon splits. Lefties had a .414 SLG compared to a .374 SLG for righties. The Tigers are a very right-handed-heavy lineup. Six of their nine usual starters are right-handed. Two are switch hitters and there is only one pure lefty. Niko Goodrum had an 80 wRC+ against righties last season and a 96 wRC+ against righties in 2018, so that could be considered his weaker side of the platoon. In other words, the Tigers offense is bad and especially bad against elite righties.
It will be warmer at Progressive Field than most Home Openers, but that lake breeze still knocks the ball down more often than not. It is a park that will play very big in March and April. Balls that get mauled die at the warning track.
We’ll see what happens in the late innings, as the Indians bullpen is iffy at best in my estimation and the Tigers bullpen probably won’t be very good. We also have the three-batter minimum this year, something Terry Francona has already complained about, so I’m curious to see how he handles that.
Nevertheless, I don’t expect either offense to set the world ablaze in the early going of this one.
Pick: 1st 5 Under 4 (-125) – 1.25u to win 1u