MLB Betting: What Does a Profitable Starting Pitcher Look Like?
The MLB betting markets are largely driven by starting pitching. If Team A’s starter has a better statistical profile than Team B’s starter, often times regardless of other factors — bullpen, defense, and offense — Team A is favored. What I was curious to find out is what exactly a profitable starting pitcher’s statistical profile looks like? Or, what stats should we as bettors be using or perhaps ignoring. Below I broke down six different “profiles” of starting pitchers and checked to see how the elite-level performers in each statistic have performed this season from a betting perspective.
Strikeouts – Missing bats is clearly a good thing but it’s a stat that has always been well accounted for. Case in point; the top three K per 9 rate starting pitchers — Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer — are a combined 28-30 -30.4 units. Add Jacob deGrom, who is a well known swing-and-miss arm, and the record drops to 34-43 -45.1 units. Again, striking out batters is the best possible outcome for a pitcher but oddsmakers and bettors know that and you’re clearly paying a massive tax for those that excel at the practice.
Velocity – There’s obviously some cross pollination with strikeouts and velocity. Cole and deGrom rank second and third in average fastball velo — both are in the red. Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard are currently hovering around break even which in theory is an accomplishment given they pitch for the woeful Mets. Los Angeles’ Walker Buehler and Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff rank fifth and sixth with their respective fastballs and have combined for over +13 units. They say that “velocity always plays” which is also true in betting but it helps that said velocity isn’t established (see: Woodruff +9 units).
Ground balls – With balls flying out of the park at historical rates, one would think heavy ground ball pitchers would be crushing it from a betting perspective. That theory, to a certain degree, is correct. St. Louis’ Dakota Hudson leads MLB starters with a 60.1% GB rate and is up +5.7 units. Atlanta’s Mike Soroka (57%) is the second-most profitable starter in MLB at +9.6 units. Toronto’s Marcus Stroman (57.9%), however, is down -6 units but he also plays for a bottom five team. Stroman may offer value if and when he gets traded. Soroka is a great example of what a ground ball artist can offer. He doesn’t miss many bats (7.6 K-rate) which the markets tend not to like but by keeping the ball on the ground he’s allowed only four home runs which come to think about it is likely unsustainable.
Walks – It’s a dangerous era to be pounding the strike zone but the league’s best “no free passes” pitchers have been money earners. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Greinke, and Walker Buehler are your top three BB per 9 IP starters and are a combined +16.1 units. It helps however that all three are also fanning batters at or above a league average rate.
FIP/xFIP/SIERA – If you’re wondering what really drives the market, look no further than these three stats. A pitcher’s ERA could be a billion but if their FIP is elite, they’ll command market respect. One of those most common betting approaches is identifying pitchers with significant ERA/FIP differential. The markets love the guy who has been unlucky due to a high BABIP or left on base rate but that consistently misses bats. They also love to fade the “fortunate”; pitchers with good “old school” stats but poor peripherals. Many of the pitchers we’ve discussed who are profitable — Ryu, Buehler, Woodruff, and Soroka — rank among the top 10 in FIP. Lucas Giolito (+8.3 units) and Lance Lynn (+8.0) also reside in the top 10. In fact, of the top 10 FIP starters, only Scherzer and deGrom haven’t turned a profit — results that speak to their already established elite-level (and overvalued) status.
These statistics are just one piece of the puzzle. No matter how many guys you fan or ground balls you produce, if you play for a bad team that can’t hit, field, or get guys out in the later innings, it’s tough to consistently produce profits. But a good starting point is to identify pitchers that thrive in these areas but also come with a flaw or two. That could be lack of a proven track record (see: Woodruff or Soroka) or simply a poor track record (see: Lynn and Giolito). Ironically, the most profitable starting pitcher in MLB in Baltimore’s Andrew Cashner (+12 units). Cashner played (he was just traded to Boston) for the worst team in the league and doesn’t rank above average in any bettor-friendly statistical category. All he’s done is pitch slightly better than his career numbers while being consistently priced as big underdog. MLB, man.
The point to this is understanding the importance of trying to find the next Soroka, Woodruff or Giolito. Obviously a majority of MLB’s yearly FIP leaders are going to be profitable. But not every one was projected to be a FIP darling or strikeout machine. And it doesn’t always need to be season-long stats. Identifying pitchers who perform well within these statistical attributes for only a few starts — favorable matchups, improved mechanics, etc. — can be profitable as well.