Week Four MLB Thoughts
- Updated: May 1, 2014
The first month of the MLB season is nearly over and there are plenty of things to discuss from a betting perspective. Some teams and pitchers continue to be overvalued while other teams remain undervalued and some of the teams that have gotten off to bad starts show indicators that things will turn around very soon. Stats are as of time of writing on 4/29.
Before getting too far into some thoughts on the season, now is a good time to look at the updated division futures market. BetOnline.ag is still offering division futures and there are some very interesting numbers. The American League East is rather interesting as all five teams have payouts of better than 2-to-1 with the Yankees the current “favorite” at +210. The Red Sox are at +270 with the Rays (+280), Blue Jays (+550), and Orioles (+600) rounding out the rest of the division.
Looking at what has transpired so far, the Red Sox and Rays look like teams that could be worthy of a wager. The Red Sox are performing below average offensively with a team weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 94. There are a lot of talented hitters in that lineup that have gotten off to slow starts and things have not gone as expected at Fenway Park. The Red Sox have a -19 run differential and are scoring just 4.38 runs per game at Fenway. Over the last three seasons, the Red Sox have averaged 5.34 runs per game at Fenway with a run differential of +145.
Even though history is on the side of the Red Sox, the Rays may be the more practical pick to win the AL East. The one glaring flaw for the Rays has been the inability of their starters to work deep into games. The starters have worked 144.2 innings in 26 starts. That’s an average of just under 5.2 innings per start. As a result, the Rays bullpen has been overworked, fifth in innings pitched. The injury to Alex Cobb has been a big blow to the rotation, but he is expected to return towards the end of next month.
The rotation has actually been rather unlucky to date, in part due to spotty defense. They have a collective 4.60 ERA but a 3.58 FIP, a 3.69 xFIP, and a 3.79 SIERA. By rank, they are 25th in ERA, 11th in FIP, 16th in xFIP, and 18th in SIERA. They have the fourth-biggest discrepancy between ERA and FIP. This would suggest that the pitchers should improve and most of their metrics are around league average. A league average rotation that will get Cobb back in May is a very attractive futures bet.
Like the AL East, the National League East provides a lot of intrigue. The Nationals are firmly entrenched in the mouth of the injury bug once again. Ryan Zimmerman is on the disabled list until mid-May with a fractured thumb. Bryce Harper joined him with a thumb injury from sliding into first base headfirst. Doug Fister remains sidelined with a lat strain. Wilson Ramos remains out from having surgery on his hamate bone.
Despite all of that, the Nationals are still the favorite at BetOnline at -115. The Braves, who are 17-7, are +110. Everybody else is +1200 or higher. It’s rather interesting that the Nationals remain the favorite. The Braves rotation is doing some rather unsustainable things with a 1.57 ERA, but Mike Minor is expected to return this weekend and the Braves have racked up the most defensive runs saved in all of baseball.
Regression will come for the Braves rotation because of a very high left on base rate and an extremely low BABIP, but it’s hard to see many scenarios where the Nationals can sustain enough good play through the injuries to overcome the Braves. Another stumbling block for the Nationals is first-year manager Matt Williams. Williams drew the ire of baseball writers by making a public show of benching Bryce Harper for not running out a ground ball to the pitcher. He’s gotten by because the rotation has been spectacular, but the manner in which Williams is running the team could get old very quick in the clubhouse.
Another division of interest is the NL Central, where the Brewers are off to a spectacular start. The Brewers maintain the best record in baseball but aren’t the BetOnline favorites to win the Central. That distinction belongs to the Cardinals, who are -115. The Brewers are at +140 and nobody else is lower than +800.
It would seem that bettors are getting a lot of value on the Cardinals. It’s a better number than the preseason odds on the Cardinals and the Reds and Pirates appear to have taken bigger steps back than most people anticipated. If you compare the Cardinals and Brewers side-by-side statistically, they are very similar from a pitching perspective, especially if you consider the regression coming to the Brewers bullpen. Offensively, the Cardinals are in the bottom third of the league in BABIP, while the Brewers are 11th. Extra base hits have been hard to come by for the Cardinals and that has not been the case for the Brewers. When everything normalizes, expect the Cardinals to be on top in the Central and -115 is a pretty good value at this point.
Here are a couple of things to keep an eye on over the next couple weeks:
1. The Phillies are teetering on the brink.
What We Learned
The Phillies looked like they were going to fall well off the pace after dropping to 7-10 in Colorado last week. They finished the road trip with six wins in eight games, including three out of four against the Dodgers, and came home at 13-12. But, don’t be fooled and look for value to go against them. The Phillies currently have the fourth-highest BABIP at .320. Two teams (Red Sox and Tigers) finished with a BABIP of .320 or higher last season. A drop-off from the offense will be crippling for the Phillies, who have a very mediocre rotation and a poor bullpen. They’re also a bad defensive team, currently -9 defensive runs saved.
An interesting Fangraphs article pointed to problems with AJ Burnett as well. Jeff Zimmerman links an article about Burnett vowing to pitch the season with a sports hernia. His velocity and strike-throwing abilities have gone down over his last few starts and it would seem that Burnett will start to decline rapidly if those trends continue, if he even remains on the active roster. Even though the Phillies just got Cole Hamels back, a Burnett injury would put them right back in a tough position.
What To Look For
Expect some regression for the Phillies over the next couple of weeks. Their oft-injured second baseman Chase Utley is having a career year in his mid-30s and that’s probably not going to continue. Utley is really carrying the offense right now, so a drop-off in his production will make life very difficult for an average or worse pitching staff. Of the 917 plate appearances from position players, 56 percent of them have been taken by players 35 or older. That’s not a good sign going forward.
2. The Dodgers are human.
What We Learned
Things aren’t going as easily as the Dodgers expected. The early season injury to Clayton Kershaw hasn’t affected the rotation’s performance too much, however, the strain of losing a 200+ inning arm has hurt the bullpen. Dodgers starters are averaging 5.2 innings per start and the bullpen has logged the second-most innings in baseball. Through 26 games, Kenley Jansen has already made 16 appearances, which puts him on pace for 100 appearances this season. The Brian Wilson experiment has not gone as planned and the Dodgers have been forced to use Brandon League a bit more than they wanted.
What To Look For
While their start has certainly been better than last season’s and Kershaw will come back shortly, the Dodgers are going to be overvalued in the short term because of the names on the team and the expectations that they are expected to meet. They are 7-1 against the lowly Diamondbacks and just 7-11 against everybody else. There may be opportunities to fade them against bad teams on this nine-game road trip to Minnesota, Miami, and Washington. The schedule opens up after that, so a 3-6 trip would create some decent value.