MLB Picks: Cashing in on Max Scherzer's Starts

Jay Pryce

Thursday, May 21, 2015 7:59 PM GMT

Thursday, May. 21, 2015 7:59 PM GMT

The Washington Nationals' new ace and former Cy Young winner is off to arguably the greatest start in his career. How can sports bettors profit from one of the game's elite starting pitchers? We offer you a couple of betting trends to follow. 

As baseball writer Neil Weinberg noted in his recent FanGraphs article covering Max Scherzer's torrid start to his Washington Nationals career, a flip switched in the big right-hander sometime in June 2012, catapulting him into the elite status of starting pitchers. Entering the league with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2008, his 94-95 mph fastball and sharp slider provided him the ingredients for greatness, but he toiled in “above average” respectability for much of his first four seasons. The untimely death of his younger brother midway through the 2012 season may have provided Scherzer with the mental and emotional drive to improve. In addition, many baseball analysts suggest this period is when he figured out how to find consistency in his unorthodox, low three-quarters delivery. Maintaining a uniform release point is critical to throwing balls and strikes, and replicating an unconventional approach can take years to master. Whatever the cause, the Missouri native took home the 2013 Cy Young Award, cementing himself as one of the game's best pitchers. A free agent entering the 2015 season, the Nationals scooped him up on a seven-year, $210 million dollar contract, and he's throwing better than ever.

 

Scherzer's Recent Stats and Profitable Betting Angles 
Over the last three seasons, Scherzer's ERA and walks allowed is down, opponents' batting average is lower, and his strikeout rate is up. Although he is barely 50 innings into his Nationals' career, he is on course for his best year statistically. Jumping leagues, he may be benefiting from facing fresh lineups. There is evidence that more batters are chasing his pitches out of the strike zone, which helps explain why his walk rate to start the season is nearly half his career average. Maybe it's the move to a non-designated hitter league as well, or a better framing catcher in Wilson Ramos, too. Whatever the cause, Scherzer is throwing more strikes, and inducing more swings and misses. Early through the 2015 season, he looks primed to challenge for another Cy Young. How as sports bettors can we take advantage of his efforts?

Dating back to 2008 and Scherzer’s first season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a bettor would have returned nearly a 7% profit at -160 average odds backing the right-hander every time he took the hill as a favorite. The sports world has always prized him as a starter who finds ways to win. Playing the heart of his career in Detroit certainly helped, as the ball-mashing Tigers always aided him with ample run support. Truly eye-popping from a bettor's perspective, is his ability to win games when heavily favored and “expected” to. Since 2012, Scherzer's average closing line as a favorite is -170. When we see odds less than this number, his team's record is 35-5 (87%), returning a 27% ROI over that span. In his career, his Diamondbacks tenure included, he is 43-6 (88%) when heavily favored with closing MLB odds of -170 or less.

Many bettors shy away from the low MLB moneylines one typically sees with quality starting pitchers despite enormous value some can offer, like Scherzer. I've uncovered a few trends, however, that possibly predict when the new Nationals' ace can be played at an easier price with a potentially greater advantage for your MLB picks.

The first angle helps us predict when Scherzer may have a quality start—a game where the starter throws six innings or more and gives up less than three earned runs. A quality start, although not without its flaws as a metric, almost always allows one's team a solid chance for victory. Take out your pad and paper; here is the trend: since 2012, if the total number of strikeouts from Scherzer's last start and his previous matchup start is 15 or more after subtracting the total from the number of walks allowed in these two games, than his team is 44-10 (81%) with an average line of -161. Not much of an advantage from his usual starts at this closing figure, but what is intriguing is the run-line edge, which is 41-13 (76%) with average game-time odds of +100. If we isolate the games where Scherzer is the favorite, establishing his team must win by -1.5 runs, then the run-line record is 34-12 (74%) with closing odds of +117 at sportsbooks like Bovada.

Essentially, this trend may help predict when Scherzer is on his “A”game, and facing an opponent he has had recent success against in causing swings and misses. Basically, it is showing that he is averaging a 7.5 or more K/BB ratio in this scenario, besting his 5.6 average since 2012. Indeed, in our wagered contest, Scherzer averages 7.59 K's and 1.59 walks, maintaining a ratio still slightly above his average. In addition, he typically goes deep into the game, averaging 6.5 innings pitched and 2.24 earned runs (3.10 ERA). Cropping the couple of 2015 starts, the Tigers supported Scherzer and staff with 6.2 runs in these games, feasting on opposing pitchers. We can expect Bryce Harper and company to not be as supportive, and the run-line percentage may go down some, but it should still be profitable. Since 2014, the Nationals have averaged 5.3 runs a contest when favored by -160 or less.

Another angle I keep an eye out for with Scherzer is his home runs allowed tally in a recent spate of starts. Giving up the long ball is killer for any pitcher, but can have a greater impact against elite starters who give up on average three or less earned runs a contest. The best pitchers in the league learn to minimize their mistakes, or find ways to thwart potential damage from them. Since 2012, Scherzer has lowered his home runs allowed rate significantly. Below is a table detailing his averages per game and per innings pitched throughout his career:

 

Season

HR's Per Game Started

HR's Per IP

2008

0.71

0.09

2009

0.67

0.11

2010

0.65

0.1

2011

0.88

0.15

2012

0.72

0.12

2013

0.56

0.08

2014

0.55

0.08

2015 (to date)

0.38

0.05

 

The angle I like to look for is as follows: since 2012, if Scherzer has allowed three home runs or more in his last three starts, than he is 24-3 (89%) in his next game with an average closing line of -149. Well above his .61 home runs allowed average during this time (not counting 2015), Scherzer undoubtedly makes the proper adjustments to avoid giving up more painful round trippers. In fact, he averages .59 home runs per contest in our wagered game, as correction unfolds. Ironically, the two angles presented overlapped 13 times (including as underdogs), for a perfect record on the money line and run line. Without the overlap, they stand alone at 39-12 (76%) on the former and 36-15 (71%) for the latter.

As always, use this information to support your leans, and best of luck.

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