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Five Takeaways From Opening Series

Five Takeaways From Opening Series

Five Takeaways From Opening Series
By David Malinsky

With the opening series of the 2014 MLB season now in the books, let’s break down some emerging issues that can help you build up your handicapping portfolio.

The Flailing Mets: Washington pitcher Jordan Zimmerman actually had two maladies to deal with on Thursday – the flu that kept him from taking the mound against the Mets, and subsequent heartache at not being able to face that lineup.

Earlier in the week there was a take on how Stephen Strasburg struggled more on opening day than the usual takeaway would have been from reading that box. The fact that the Washington bullpen out-pitched Stasburg that afternoon created an intriguing comparison, and there was more food for thought when Gio Gonzalez and three relievers combined for 13 K’s, vs. only three hits and two walks, on Wednesday.

But while the pitching was indeed sharp, much of this was about the offense. The Mets became the first team since the 19th century to open a season with more than 30 strikeouts in the first two games, and it was 39 K’s when the series ended. Making matters worse is that only three of them came from pitchers having to bat. But it is nothing new – the New York offense rated #27 in the Major’s in K Rate in 2013, fanning 22.3 percent of the time. Sometimes you can excuse those whiffs when it is a circumstance of power, but this is among the worst possible combinations – they were tied for #25 in HR’s in 2013. Pitchers with good K Rates can bring solid value against these bats until the markets recognize their level of futility, generating outs without the ball being in play, and with little fear of mistakes being hit out of the park.

Yankees - C.C. Sabathia: For Sabathia to fare poorly on opening day was not news – his last win in an opener came in 2007, and since then it has been an unsightly 0-3/7.82. It is what comes next that may be “news”. Sabathia has rebounded from those awful openers to sport a 3-1/1.77 the last six seasons in start #2, not allowing a run in four of those games. But should you be looking for a similar bounce-back this time?

Sabathia’s Tuesday struggles came against a Houston lineup that may be MLB’s worst. His fastball only averaged 90 mph, which continues a steady decline that would make it four straight seasons of a drop in velocity. When combined with a changeup that averaged 83.7, there is a dangerously thin gap between those pitches that can greatly reduce the effectiveness of the latter. As he approaches the 3,000 inning plateau, the physical tools won’t get better.

But do all of those innings bring the savvy to adjust, and learn to work the strike zone to induce the hitters to get themselves out? Can he slow down his change-up to re-establish the gap with his faster stuff? It isn’t that easy. A focus on pitching more to contact to contact creates little reason for optimism given the defense behind him – Baseball Prospectus rated the Yankee defenders #26 last year (park-adjusted), and now the infield is even older, with zone ratings that will hover near the bottom. There will be Play-Against value to be found if Sabathia continues to be priced on past reputation, instead of current reality.

Phillies - Jonathan Papelbon: The Phillies are in one of the most dramatic free-falls in MLB history, from 102-60 in 2011 to 81-81 in 2012, and then last year’s 73-89. It may trend worse before it can get batter - the lineup sports five players that are 35 or older, and there are not enough young prospects to generate excitement for the future. One of the few constants they had hoped to count on was Jonathan Papelbon as the closer, having invested more dollars than sense into an aging performer. Which had to make his Wednesday implosion at Texas especially painful to watch.

The warning signs were already there – since 2011 his K’s-per-9 have fallen by an alarming 34.5 percent, while his HR’s-per-9 have more than doubled. His ERA since the 2013 All Star break is 4.81, with eight blown saves in the last 24 opportunities. There is little reason to expect a turnaround; at best, he may be enough of a competitor to merely slow the rate of decline. If you do want to play on the Phillies, and there are times when Cliff Lee or a healthy Cole Hamels will entice, it might be savvy to focus on the First Five Innings line, and not have to rely on the latter stages to play out well.

The Cubs - Leadoff/Left on: For the Cubs to struggle offensively at Pittsburgh was not a shock - an offense that only out-scored the Marlins and White Sox in 2013 may not be any better. But in managing 1.6 Runs-per-9 in that 1-2 opening, there really is something to file away. The top of the order may have had the best series any team will have this season. And the runs were still scarce.

The top two Chicago batters went 16-30 against the Pirates, adding three walks. But after reaching base 19 times, they were only brought around to score on three occasions. Journeyman Emilio Bonifacio likely had the best series he will have in his career, reaching base 12 times and stealing four bases. This speaks volumes about the “power” spots of the lineup, with the #3-4-5 hitters going 5-37, with eight K’s and only two walks. It is a combination of uncertainty (two different players at #3, and a different #5 in each game), and general lack of punch (clean-up Anthony Rizzo was #22 among First Baseman in slugging percentage in 2013, and had more K’s than hits in Pittsburgh).

To get a dream ride from the top of the order, and still struggle so mightily to score, is an early harbinger of bad news for an offense that shows precious little upside.

Mariners - James Paxton: How tough is his Power Rating to set? After simply dominating the Angels, who only managed two hits and could not even muster a fly ball out, Paxton now sits at 4-0/1.16 over five MLB starts. That includes tough September settings last year at St. Louis and Detroit, when those teams were in the heart of pennant chases. The base peripherals certainly back it up, with 30 K’s over 31 IP, vs. only 17 hits and nine W’s.

But this is coming from a guy that worked to an 8-11/4.45 in his only season at AAA, with a Walks-per-9 that was 40.6 percent higher than his MLB sample. He was not even guaranteed a rotation slot when Spring Training began, and was nowhere to be found near the top of major Fantasy draft boards. Yet on Tuesday he was hitting 98 on the radar guns, including a 97 reading in the 7th inning. And it was not just his raw stuff, but his ability to be deceptive – while the box score will show 64 strikes over 99 pitches, only 42 were in the strike zone. The Angels were swinging, and missing.

Is this too good to be true? Of course – a BABIP of .191 won’t hold up. But what should you put under the magnifying lens? How about those swinging strikes at pitches outside of the zone – once scouting reports get out, and MLB hitters can look at video of his delivery, the Walk Rate should regress. In the meantime, it will be fascinating to see how the markets react to a guy that has been an average underdog of +148 through those first five starts.

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