Why Major League Baseball Bullpens Matter

May 13, 2010

In April, I published an article on the importance of quality bullpens when handicapping Major League Baseball.  While the inherent strength or weakness of a team’s bullpen is a critical component to handicapping baseball, I continue to witness sports bettors over-emphasize the matchup between starting pitchers without taking into account the respective team’s bullpens.  In an era of strict pitch counts and free agency, ignoring a team’s bullpen is one of the biggest mistakes a sports investor can make.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is today’s game (5/13/10) between the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals.  At the time of this writing, the Royals are -200 favorites with Zack Greinke on the mound.  At first glance, it would appear that Kansas City is a solid wager as Greinke has garnered an impressive 2.51 ERA and 1.050 WHIP this season, including a 2.29 ERA and 1.068 WHIP at home and a 1.64 ERA and 0.909 WHIP over his last three starts.  In addition, Greinke has a career 3.17 ERA and 1.286 WHIP versus the Indians.  With these powerful statistics in hand, the average sports bettor will run (or sprint) to the ticket window and place a bet on the Royals. 

However, Greinke is averaging less than seven innings per start, which means that Kansas City bettors will have to rely on the Royals’ bullpen for 2+ innings of work this afternoon.  And, that realization makes this investment far less appealing as the Royals’ bullpen has compiled an atrocious 5.25 ERA and 1.693 WHIP this season, including a 6.98 ERA and 1.980 WHIP at home.  Indeed, Kansas City relievers have allowed 67 runs, 121 hits (17 home runs) and 59 walks in just 106 innings of work in 2010.  Not surprisingly, the Royals’ bullpen has blown several games for Greinke over the last several years, including a 2-run lead in the 8th inning this year. 

The moral of the story is simple: take into account a team’s bullpen when handicapping a Major League Baseball game.  In fact, the odds are usually inflated based upon the starting pitchers because the oddsmakers understand that the average bettor simply ignores the bullpens.  As for today, don’t lay -200 with one of the worst bullpens in the majors; rather, find another game on the board that provides better value.

UPDATE: While Greinke pitched a solid six innings (3 earned runs; 8 strikeouts), the Kansas City bullpen nearly blew a three-run lead as they allowed three hits and issued three walks in the final three innings of the game.  The Royals ultimately win the game 6-4, but Kansas City investors must have been extremely nervous when Tejeda allowed three hits, one runs and two walks in his first inning of relief.