Pitcher Workload Trends, Shane Bieber’s Spin Rate and Injuries Woes in Chicago

Each week during the MLB season, Action Network’s Anthony Dabbundo will compile a weekly notebook of observations, analytical findings and actionable information to help bettors find an edge in betting the daily grind of a 162-game season.

Shortened Spring, New Rules Bring Uncertainty

There’s more uncertain than usual in projecting the start of an MLB season for a variety of reasons.

A shortened spring training led to many pitchers beginning the regular season on shorter pitch counts. Many are not fully stretched out and may not be for the entire first month of the season.

We’ve seen this to varying degrees across the league, with some starting pitchers going just 60-70 pitches regardless of effectiveness in their first outings.

Here’s some notable pitch counts:

  • Robbie Ray 96
  • Yu Darvish 92
  • Zack Greinke 84
  • Max Fried 84
  • Tyler Mahle 84
  • Framber Valdez 84
  • Corbin Burnes 83
  • Kyle Hendricks 83
  • Adam Wainwright 81
  • Shohei Ohtani 80
  • Nathan Eovaldi 76
  • Aaron Nola 76
  • Patrick Corbin 76
  • Shane Bieber 72
  • Gerrit Cole 68
  • Tylor Megill 68
  • JT Brubaker 68
  • Madison Bumgarner 68

Beyond the pitch counts, there’s also the impact of the humidors being used in all 30 MLB ballparks. The effects on the run environment and the baseballs remain unclear at this point until we’re able to gather more data.

Unders have started the season 26-19-4 with a 9.7% ROI and a 0.39 average cover margin thru Sunday. There’s a good chance that it’s entirely random variance, but what if it’s not?

Everyone assumed that the pitchers would be at a disadvantage due to the short spring, but hitters are also affected by fewer reps to sort out timing. And because pitchers aren’t throwing as deep into games due to pitch count limits, that’s meant that hitters aren’t getting to face a pitcher three times in one game, which historically has led to a spike in run scoring.

Look no further than Tampa Bay for this. The Rays swept Baltimore and held a decent Orioles lineup to just four runs in three games despite not having a single pitcher complete five innings all weekend.

The three starters – Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Corey Kluber – all threw four innings before turning it over to the bullpen to piece together the last 13-15 outs of the game.

Four days of baseball isn’t nearly enough of a sample to measure much of anything conclusive, so be careful of anyone with strong takes on the state of the league, the pitch counts or the run scoring environment.

What to Make of Shane Bieber

Bieber made an Opening Day start for the Guardians and there were troubling indicators when you look at his underlying numbers. For starters, remember that most of Bieber’s market respect and accolades were built on the 2020 season, in which he pitched to a 1.63 ERA and won the AL Cy Young. Cleveland only played other teams in the Central divisions that year and those lineups did not hold up at all once the playoffs came around that October.

What has Bieber done outside of that? In 2019, Bieber had a 3.32 FIP and 3.86 xERA; good, but not elite numbers. He dominated in 2020, but the sample is just 77 innings. In 2021, his FIP was 3.03 and his xERA sat at 3.30. Once again, good, but not elite.

Perhaps most important about 2021 is that Bieber got hurt prior to the crackdown on sticky stuff and foreign substances that occurred last summer. The pitching environment changed after that and Bieber’s spin rates were very down on Thursday’s game.

Here’s the Statcast report on his start:

Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Immediately, the huge drop off in his spin rate is alarming. His best pitch – the curveball – lost 410 rpm relative to last year numbers before the sticky stuff crack down. The result: He generated just four CS + Whiffs (called strikes and swings and misses) on 17 curveballs.

His fastball lost both spin rate and velocity as he was sitting at 90.6 mph and did not generate a single swing and miss with the heater.

If Bieber isn’t going to be able to miss bats with his curveball – a 24% CSW% is alarming – the Guardians’ ace doesn’t have the elite velocity to make up for that. I’d expect his velo to rebound, but I’m not sure that the spin rates will bounce back given that this is the first time we’ve seen him in the new pitching environment.

Bieber’s next start is scheduled for Tuesday in Cincinnati against Tyler Mahle and the Reds. I’m willing to bet against Bieber against an upward-trending pitcher in Mahle. The Reds are short home underdogs across the board as of Monday night.

Injuries Piling Up for White Sox

Chicago took two of three in Detroit over the weekend despite a bullpen implosion on Opening Day, but the lineup and pitching rotation sure does look depleted just three games into the season.

The White Sox lost their best starter / reliever swing man and one of their top young arms in Garrett Crochet to Tommy John surgery before the season began. Ace Lance Lynn has a tear in his knee and probably won’t pitch for a month or two. Lucas Giolito started Opening Day and pitched well for four innings, then left with an abdominal issue and is going to miss at least a start or two. Throw in injuries to Yoan Moncada and now AJ Pollock and the White Sox could be in some trouble.

The current rotation is reliant on lefty Dallas Keuchel (5.28 ERA, 6.15 xERA, 5.23 FIP in 2021) and Vince Velasquez (6.30 ERA, 5.30 xERA, 5.88 FIP). Outside of Dylan Cease, there’s no other reliable starter who’s recently completed a full season.

The only other healthy option is Michael Kopech, who pitched well in four innings on Sunday. He has a lot of upside but hasn’t ever completed a full season as a starter. The swing man is now Reynaldo Lopez, who can provide length but hasn’t had much success as a starter so far in his career.

Velasquez is starting at home against Seattle on Tuesday and even though I’m much lower than the market and the public on the Mariners as a whole this season, I bet Seattle at +110 or better with young phenom Matt Brash making his MLB debut on the mound.

Minnesota did lose two one-run games at home to Seattle in the opening weekend, but you can still invest in them at +500 to win this division. Their health and pitching depth could make them a high floor challenger to the White Sox in the AL Central. If Byron Buxton is healthy, Minnesota is a real threat. That, of course, is a big “if.”

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