LAS VEGAS — Here’s one baseball fans might not have bet on: At least one prominent oddsmaker thinks starting pitchers will go deeper into games this season.
Eric Biggio, baseball lead trader for Caesars Sportsbook, thinks Major League Baseball’s new rules - including a pitch clock and limits on infield shifts - could hedge the trend of managers going early and often to their bullpens. That goes against conventional thinking that a clock meant to hurry pitchers would likely aid hitters.
Starters’ innings have been drastically reduced in recent years in favor of a parade of hard-throwing relievers. The strategy has contributed to a decrease in scoring and lack of action in games, part of what prompted MLB to make the changes.
There were some indications in spring training that pitchers may try weaponizing the clock, which gives players 30 seconds to resume play between at-bats, 15 seconds between pitches with nobody on and 20 seconds with runners on base. Batters must be alert to the pitcher with 8 seconds left.
Some, including Mets ace Max Scherzer, tried turning the clock into a cat-and-mouse game during spring exhibitions. Biggio is wagering pitchers can find an upper hand there.
Starters are “going to dictate the tempo of the game and they’re going to be able to frustrate the hitters,” Biggio said. “So I think, especially in the early part of the year, you might see starters stall a little bit longer. The pitch count will be lower. They’ll be putting more balls in play.
PHOTOS: Oddsmakers skeptical of scoring spike from MLB's new rules
“On the flipside is relievers that traditionally took a little more time, they might take a little to adjust.”
Biggio anticipates the effect to be minimal but still enough that those expecting more scoring may need to adjust their thinking this season, which began Thursday.
Even with infield shift limits that could boost batting averages, Hal Egeland, senior sports trader for BetMGM, is also skeptical about a rise in scoring.
He noted teams are still allowed to employ an outfield shift, such as moving a left fielder into center or even right field.
“There are people that believe that it’s more important the outfield shifting than actually the infield shifting,” Egeland said. “The outfield shifting data-wise shows a greater difference between the batting average on balls in play.”
No longer having infield shifts could affect player proposition bets, both operators said, and both referred to Minnesota Twins slugger Joey Gallo as a test case. The left-handed hitter will likely hit leadoff against right-handed starters, and he has always batted deeper in the order before signing with the Minnesota Twins in December.
Gallo is the poster child of the modern-day analytics player, one who ends the majority of his plate appearances with either a home run, strikeout or walk. He is a career .199 hitter but has a .325 on-base percentage and has topped out at 41 homers in a season. Gallo faced the outfield shift in spring training in which left field was vacated, but its unclear how it will play out if defenses position themselves creatively against him for a full season.
Another area to watch is stolen bases, especially since baserunners will be able to better time pitchers, who are limited to two pickoff attempts per batter. Larger bases have also slightly shortened the distance between bags. Baserunners were 21 of 23 on stolen base attempts across the 15 opening day games Thursday, compared to 5 for 9 in seven games on the first day of last season.
Analytics might still win out, to where the numbers of stolen bases don’t increase as much as expected.
“That’s the one market that I think we’re going to have the most difficulty early on in deciphering how much of an increase,” Egeland said. “We don’t want to overadjust, where we push these overs so far out. That’s the one that’s going to be the most difficult for us early on and I think for teams as well. I think teams are still trying make sure it’s worth it to steal because some analytics suggest that stealing a base isn’t really worth it.”
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