Well, it was an interesting day of Division Series baseball. All four series will be in action today, so baseball will run for about 11 hours, give or take, here on October 7. It’s an awesome time of year, when there’s something hanging on each and every pitch. There’s a lot to consider for today and a lot of matchups to look at, so let’s dive right in.
Remember what I said about variance in the playoffs? The Toronto offense destroyed Cole Hamels and Cleveland played Home Run Derby against Rick Porcello and then cobbled together the final 13 outs with some unconventional (and awesome) bullpen usage to take Game 1. Porcello hadn’t given up three HR in an inning ever. Cody Allen and Andrew Miller both threw over 40 pitches.
As far as yesterday’s picks went, Marco Estrada’s changeup was on point, so he was excellent against the Rangers and the Blue Jays offense took off and hung a 10-spot. The bullpens never came into play and it’s big for Toronto to get a win without having to use or miss Roberto Osuna. The first five over was the top play in the Indians/Red Sox game and that hit easily.
This is the last day that I’ll re-post my five tips for betting MLB, so get them while they’re hot!
Bet numbers, not teams – This is a strategy that most professional handicappers employ regardless, but it’s not necessarily something that I preach for Major League Baseball. Postseason variance is wild and crazy. For me, it’s all about line value in the playoffs because anything can happen. You can make a strong case that all sporting events are like that, but I feel like I can get a better handle on variance during the regular season. There aren’t a whole lot of situational spots. All of these teams are good. Line value is always important, but it goes up a few notches at this time of the year.
Live bet whenever possible – Feel free to take a pregame position, but live betting is the best way to approach the MLB playoffs. You can pick up on things throughout the game that you cannot handicap before the game. Is a pitcher losing his release point and becoming erratic? Well, he just got out of the inning, but the heart of the order is coming up next inning. Maybe that’s the time for a live bet. Also, bullpens and managers really increase in importance. The managers that can best leverage relievers usually win games. The better bullpen usually wins games and series. Starters don’t go as long and often get pulled at the first signs of danger in the middle innings.
Don’t overvalue experience – Many people believe that past playoff experience matters because of the nerves and the high stakes. Read this from Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus. It will surprise you.
Valuing home field advantage – Since 1995, home teams are 41-43 in the LDS round and 21-21 in LCS round. In a general sense, it seems like home field advantage is worth about 25 cents for a regular season game, give or take based on park factor. Look for situations where the playoff HFA seems to be too big or too little.
Be responsible – As I mentioned above, variance in the playoffs is huge. Since 1995, the 27 teams to have the best record or be tied for the best record during the regular season have won the World Series four times. Twelve of them failed to win a round, including the St. Louis Cardinals last season. It’s a small sample size of games. Be responsible with your money. Make smart plays when you feel like you have an edge. It’s okay to pass on a game. There’s a lot other stuff going on.
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Toronto at Texas (-125); Total: 9
JA Happ and Yu Darvish are the listed starters for Game 2 of the ALDS between the Blue Jays and Rangers. After getting blown out on Thursday, it’s hard to call this anything other than a must-win for the Rangers. People don’t like to use “must-win” unless it’s an elimination game and, as we saw last season with Toronto, going down 2-0 is hardly a death sentence, but it certainly feels like the Rangers need today’s game really, really badly.
They have the right guy on the hill for it. Yesterday, I gave Cole Hamels too much credit, although I did point out his splits against right-handed hitters and how that could be an issue. It definitely was. Yu Darvish doesn’t have that problem. Interestingly, his splits were actually higher against righties this season than against lefties, but there was a bit of sample size bias in there since he only worked about 100 innings. It was a different story back in 2014 and 2013, when he held righties to a .164/.251/.292 slash. I was actually a little bit surprised that Jeff Bannister didn’t flip Darvish and Hamels to give him two starts in the series, since the Rangers will rely on Martin Perez and Colby Lewis in the games at Rogers Centre, but he didn’t and he may end up paying for it.
JA Happ is an interesting guy to peg for the playoffs. He won 20 games with a 3.18 ERA, so the expectation is that he’ll be solid, but Happ had a 3.96 FIP and a 4.18 xFIP. The Blue Jays are a quality defensive team, so maybe there’s more than batted ball luck to his .268 BABIP against, but his 79.7 percent strand rate as a guy with a league average strikeout rate is not endearing to me. He actually had a higher fWAR last season with a 3.61 ERA because his FIP was 0.55 runs lower.
I do a lot of regression analysis in my handicapping. It’s not easy to predict regression in a one-game sample, but when I see some indicators, I play the percentages and err on the side of regression happening. Maybe Happ goes out there and throws a gem, but I’m skeptical. His control wavered late in the season as he kept reaching new career highs in innings pitched and the stakes are definitely raised here in the postseason. He actually had two of his lowest average velocities of the season in his final two starts. Perhaps he was pacing himself. Perhaps there’s some fatigue there. The extra rest should help him, but there may be some fire to this smoke.
I also think this is a bad spot situationally for the Blue Jays. They got their win to take away home field. This will be their third high-pressure game in about 66 hours. The early start may not help either team, but I think it hurts the Blue Jays in this situation. The blowout loss allowed everybody to relax, but I feel like that helped the Rangers. Complacency can set in for a team. The Rangers have more incentive today and more desperation.
I’ve been waiting for the Rangers to fall off for a while now. Maybe they’re going to do it in the postseason. I don’t think it happens today, so I’d lay Texas and the low price. I don’t think Happ vs. Darvish is a virtual pick ‘em on a neutral field, so I think there’s line value on the home team and I also like the situational spot.
Boston at Cleveland (OFF)
At time of writing, there is no line for Game 2 between the Red Sox and the Indians. Considering the Indians used Andrew Miller and Cody Allen for 40 pitches on Thursday, my guess is that the line is shaded to the Red Sox a little bit and the sharp betting action will be as well. It’ll be David Price against Corey Kluber for this one.
It was a weird season for David Price, who still showcased elite swing-and-miss stuff, but his command was hit or miss. Price allowed a career-high 30 home runs in his 230 innings of work and his 102 earned runs allowed were also a career high. He had a 3.99 ERA with a 3.60 FIP and a 3.52 xFIP. He’s a workhorse and it will be interesting to see if the ball is carrying on a warm October day in Cleveland.
The Indians had good numbers against lefties, but I am still skeptical of their lineup. Their switch hitters are mostly better, especially from a power standpoint, from the left side of the plate. The general approach for Terry Francona has been to use Rajai Davis as the leadoff man against lefties, but he’s been a well-below-average hitter this season and especially over the last four months. The margins are so important during the playoffs and a Davis/Kipnis pairing at the top is going to make it hard for the Indians to score runs in this game. The Red Sox used Koji Uehara in last night’s game, but Craig Kimbrel and Brad Ziegler did not work, so their bullpen is clearly in better shape.
We don’t really know what to expect from Corey Kluber. I’m not one for small sample sizes, but he hasn’t had success against Boston because they’ve been willing to take his cutter and curve to the opposite field. A lot of teams pull off of those pitches and hit weak ground balls to the pull side or lazy fly balls. Kluber hasn’t worked in 10 days with a quad injury, so rust could be a factor, although, probably not a big one. Boston’s approach has been exquisite, though, so that’s the worry for me in this spot with the Indians.
Without knowing a price, it’s hard to advocate a pick, but I feel like we’ll see a slightly-inflated total based on yesterday’s outcome. You can reach out to me on Twitter, @SkatingTripods, and ask about this line when it opens if you’d like.
Los Angeles (NL) (-150) at Washington; Total: 6
I’m happy to see sharp players and early bettors undeterred by the small sample size numbers of Clayton Kershaw in the playoffs. This number actually opened in the -135 range and has gone up to its current price point. Over 1,760 innings of regular season pitching, Clayton Kershaw is a three-time Cy Young Award winner and a guy that would probably make it into Cooperstown if he retired tomorrow. Who cares if he has a 4.59 ERA in 64.2 innings of postseason baseball? He’s struck out 77 in those 64.2 innings and he’s held opponents to a .219/.290/.363 slash line. He’s been a victim of sequencing luck and variance. He’s still the same elite pitcher. He’s just gotten unlucky with batted ball in big spots.
If there’s anything that you can point to with Kershaw in the postseason, it’s that his control hasn’t been quite as good. He’s walked 23 in those 64.2 innings. He walked 31 in 198.1 innings in 2014, 42 in 232.2 innings in 2015, and 11 in 149 innings this season. So, walks have hurt him and that’s something he’ll have to fix. He draws a Nationals lineup that is limping into this series. Wilson Ramos is out for the season with a torn ACL and other knee damage. Bryce Harper is clearly hurt. He’s batted .226/.336/.373 since the All-Star Break and hit 19 of his 24 home runs prior to the Midsummer Classic. He’s had a myriad of injuries, the latest, a thumb problem. He’s also a below league average hitter against lefties this season. Daniel Murphy has been hurt for a while. It’s set up nicely for Kershaw.
The Nationals will counter with their ace. Max Scherzer turned in yet another fine season. He had some homer problems, but he also struck out 284 batters in 228.1 innings, which set a new career high. He had some walks as well, but that’s what you get with a guy that has explosive stuff that has great life. Sometimes hitters just lay off because they can’t do anything with it and it dives out of the zone. Scherzer is still an uncomfortable plate appearance for a lot of people. The Dodgers do hit righties very well as a team. They were second in wRC+ at 109 in that split and sixth in wOBA. wRC+ is park-adjusted, so it factors in Dodger Stadium, which is obviously not a great offensive venue.
I don’t see line value either way in this game. I agree with Kershaw as a favorite on a neutral field. I think we’ll see some public players dive in on the over, with Kershaw’s playoff “struggles” and Scherzer’s regular season home run rate. If you have to have action on this game, the over is about the only play I think you can consider.
From a bullpen standpoint, as I talked about in my series preview, the Nationals have better depth and the Dodgers will need to piecemeal a bridge to Kenley Jansen together. Joe Blanton will play a big role in that. With two horses on the mound here, I don’t think it’s a major concern in this game, but it will be as the series goes on.
San Francisco at Chicago (NL) (-180); Total: 7
If you can stomach betting against the Cubs, there’s some line value on Johnny Cueto tonight. I’d also wait because there will probably be more of it with the Cubs tied in money line parlays later tonight. Look, the Cubs are the best team in the playoffs on paper. As I’ve said, the best teams don’t always win and they certainly don’t always win Game 1. The Giants have already done this once this season and a lot this decade. Experience doesn’t necessarily mean a ton, but I think there’s something to be said for not getting caught in the moment of Game 1. Also, the Giants played two days ago. The Cubs haven’t played since Sunday. Teams that played the Wild Card game are now 6-3 with Toronto’s win on Thursday in Game 1 of the Division Series since the Wild Card game was added to the mix in 2012. It’s not a big sample size, but you can make of it what you will.
Johnny Cueto is still so underappreciated. It’s probably because he doesn’t light up the radar gun and hasn’t racked up a ton of strikeouts in his career, but his control is so good. He induces a ton of weak contact. He hasn’t posted the ultra-low BABIPs of 2013 and 2014 over the last two years, but he’s still be a well above average hurler and there’s no reason to expect anything different from him going forward. I think he has a good arsenal for a Cubs lineup that wants to work a lot of deep counts. Cueto forces hitters to put the ball in play. He was rattled in a big way in the first Wild Card game between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, but he was just fine in winning the World Series with the Royals last season.
The obvious concern for the Giants in every game moving forward is the bullpen. Defensively, the Giants are as close as you can get to the Cubs, who were historically good. The Giants offense isn’t great, but they play a lot of low-scoring games as a general rule, so the lower run environment in the postseason won’t be a giant concern (pardon the pun) for them.
Jon Lester had a terrific season with a 2.44 ERA and a 19-5 record. His advanced statistics weren’t as great, but a 3.41 FIP and a 3.47 xFIP is hardly a problem. It is far to point out that those are his highest marks since the 2013 season when he spent the entire thing in the AL, and, more specifically, the AL East with Boston. His K rate went down and his BB rate went up. He posted the lowest BABIP in a full season of his career by 30 points. That’s a testament to the Cubs defense. They were terrific in all facets and they should be in the playoffs as well, although, again, variance is a factor.
The Cubs have a lot of things going for them with the bullpen, the offense, and the defense, but this line is definitely a little bit inflated and I think it only goes up. Maybe the sharper, more influential players hit the underdog, but I’m not sure how involved they will get. They may be expecting a similar increase in the line and then they’ll play back on the value closer to first pitch. So, from a value standpoint, it’s the Giants or nothing here.