Handicapping any sport requires the analyzing of numbers, and baseball is arguably the biggest ‘numbers’ sport out there. Predicting the outcome of a baseball game requires breaking down all kinds of different numbers if you want to have the best chance to win in the long run. I’m going to go over the important stats that I use when handicapping a baseball game.
ERA – This is the most common stat when it comes to determining how good a pitcher is. ERA is the number of earned runs a pitcher allows per nine innings pitched. You have to be careful when using this stat because sometimes the ERA can be inflated, or better than it should be depending on how ‘lucky’ the pitcher has been.
WHIP – This stat is defined by the amount of walks and hits per inning pitched. A good WHIP is anything at 1.20 or below. A pitcher with a low WHIP and a high ERA has an inflated ERA, therefore he has been unlucky. A pitcher with a high WHIP and a low ERA has simply been lucky. The more hitters a pitcher allows to reach base, the more chances he has to give up runs.
Ground Ball/Fly Ball Rate – This stat is defined by the amount of ground balls per fly ball. A pitcher with a 1.00 GB/FB rate gives up one ground ball for every fly ball. A 1.50 GB/FB rate means a pitcher gives up more ground balls than fly balls, and vice versa for a 0.50 GB/FB rate. You want to back ground ball pitchers because they have less chance of giving up a home run, especially in hitter-friendly parks.
K/9 – This stat is defined by the amount of strikeouts a pitcher records every nine innings pitched. The elite starters will have a K/9 of 9.00 or higher. You certainly want to back strikeout pitchers against teams that are prone to the strikeout. However, if you can find a team that doesn’t whiff very often, that team can actually have an advantage against a good strikeout pitcher because of their patience at the plate.
HR/9 – You certainly want to be backing a pitcher with a low HR/9 rate. This stat is defined by how many home runs a pitcher gives up per nine innings. Obviously, the more home runs you give up, the more runs you will allow.
Run Support – This is a “luck” stat that can be very helpful in the second half of the season. If a starter was getting above-average run support in the first half, it’s probably a good idea to fade him in the second half. Or, vice versa, if a starter had terrible run support in the first half that produced his poor record, he’ll be undervalued in the second half. He’s likely to get better run support and more wins because of it provided he keeps pitching well.
BABIP – This stat is defined by batting average on balls in play. It’s another “luck” stat just like run support. Pitchers with a high batting average on balls in play have been unlucky, while pitchers with a low batting average on balls in play have been lucky. BABIP tends to even out.
Recent Starts – It’s usually a good idea to back a starter that has been solid in his last three starts, and fade one that has been rocked in his last three starts. You can ignore one bad start sometimes, but if a starter has three in a row, that is a trend that will likely continue.
Head-to-Head – Seeing how a starter has fared against his opponent throughout his career is usually a good indicator of how he will do in his next start against that same opponent. However, you have to be careful to not factor in starts from 5-10 years ago. The most important head-to-head stats are ones that have been within the last few years as teams change constantly.
Bullpen – This is probably the most overlooked pitching stat. A team’s bullpen numbers are extremely important. A lot of times the difference between a team winning or not is the bullpen because so many games are decided by one run. That was never more evident than in 2012 as the Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs by winning 90-plus games despite getting outscored on the season. That’s because they won a ridiculous percentage of their close, one-run games, which can almost solely be attributed to their bullpen.
Batting Average – This is the most common stat used for hitters. You want a team with a high batting average for sure, but teams with low batting average can put up big runs as long as they hit more home runs than almost any team in the league.
On-Base Percentage – This may be even more of an important stat than batting average. Just look at Oakland general manager Billy Beane, who was made famous for taking guys with high on-base percentages that almost every other organization overlooked. If you get on base, you have a good chance to score a run. It’s as simple as that.
Righty/Lefty Splits – This stat is readily available and could be huge. A team with a right-handed heavy lineup will likely struggle against right-handed pitching, but tear apart left-handed pitching. And vice versa, a team with a left-handed heavy lineup will likely struggle against lefty starters and dominate right-handers.
Runs Per Game – While batting average and on-base percentage is important, the bottom line is how many runs a team is scoring per game. It doesn’t exactly matter how you score runs, it just matters that you do. Some teams will live by the long ball, while others will rely on small ball to score runs.