Jeremy Hellickson, the reigning American League rookie of the year, is coming off a fine season in which he went 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays, striking out 117 batters in 189 innings.
Ricky Romero established himself as the ace of the Toronto Blue Jays’ staff last season, recording 15 wins with a WHIP of 1.14.
Joe Saunders recovered from an 0-5 start in 2011 to win 12 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, then signed a one-year, $6 million deal that makes this season an all-important “contract year” for the big left-hander.
Despite their solid credentials, I’ll be looking for spots to wager against — yes, against — all three pitchers during the early part of the 2012 major league baseball season, which I define as the months of April and May, when inefficiencies tend to abound in the betting marketplace compared with later in the season.
My reasoning is that the three pitchers belong to an exclusive club: They were the only major leaguers whose Fielding Independent Pitching figure (FIP) exceeded their ERA by more than 1.0 in the 2011 season.
FIP uses a scary-looking formula (see below) to rate a pitcher’s raw performance discounting elements that are beyond his control, such as the fielding skills of the players on his team.
It stands to reason, then, that a pitcher whose FIP exceeds his ERA by a substantial amount could be overrated, or at least overachieving, and therefore primed for a fall. Regression to the mean, she is a harsh mistress.
This betting strategy appeals to me for a couple of reasons. First, rather than banging my head against the wall trying to identify great teams or players who will allow me to cash tickets thanks to their excellence (which somehow, magically, isn’t accounted for in the betting line, right?), I much prefer to spot weak teams or players, and fire away against them.
It’s like the poker maxim that states most of your profits don’t come from your own brilliant play but instead from the poor play of weak opponents.
Second, and on a related note, this could be a rare instance of some lines being off due to information that’s not already “baked in” to the collective opinion of oddsmakers and the betting market.
Recent past performances back up my assertion.
Let’s take a look at the past three baseball seasons:
Heading into 2011, three pitchers were coming off 2010 seasons in which their FIP exceeded their ERA by at least 1.0: Clay Buchholz, Tim Hudson and Trevor Cahill. Betting against those three in April and May of 2011 yielded a profit of two units. (Throughout this analysis, I’m assuming a bet size of one unit when wagering on the underdog and enough to win one unit when wagering on the favorite.)
In the 2009 season, four pitchers fit into this category: J.A. Happ, Kevin Millwood, Jair Jurrjens and Matt Cain. Betting against those four early in 2010 yielded a profit of six units.
In the 2008 season, two pitchers qualified: Armando Galarraga and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Betting against them in early 2009 yielded a profit of 7.4 units.
All told, that’s a net gain of 15.4 units.
Hellickson, Romero and Saunders appear to be good candidates for early 2012 fading. Hellickson had an ERA of 2.95 last year but a FIP of 4.44. Romero had an ERA of 2.92 with a FIP of 4.20. Saunders finished with a 3.69 ERA and a 4.78 FIP.
I wouldn’t be surprised if wagering against Hellickson, Romero and Saunders in the early part of this season yielded a net profit of between two and seven units.
I don’t endorse blindly following any system at the expense of rigorous handicapping, of course. When devising your baseball betting strategy, however, it certainly couldn’t hurt to mostly avoid backing the broad subset of guys with high FIP figures relative to their ERA.
Nor do I advocate completely dismissing intangibles or factors outside the realm of hardcore new-age stats. Hey, even as a longtime devotee of sabermetrics, I was a bit taken aback when Felix Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young Award with 13 wins and 12 losses. And I respect viewpoints like this, from a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area who calls FIP his “arch-enemy,” even if I ultimately disagree: http://baybridgebaseball.com/2011/05/another-chance-to-bash-my-arch-enemy-fip/.
In fact, the never-ending debate centering on baseball statistics reminds me of George Carlin’s classic routine about license-plate slogans. At one end of the spectrum is New Hampshire’s dramatic and inspirational “Live Free or Die.” At the other end is Idaho’s somewhat more pedestrian slogan: “Famous Potatoes.”
The truth about America, and baseball handicapping, probably lies somewhere in between.
(Here’s the formula for FIP, courtesy of fangraphs.com:
FIP = ((13*HR)+(3*(BB+HBP-IBB))-(2*K))/IP + a constant, which is usually about 3.20.)
Based in Sin City, Haney maintains an archive of previously published work at sophisticatedmaniac.com.