Is It Beneficial to Look at MLB Spring Training Pitching Stats When Betting?

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James-Jones Pitcher Spring Training 2020

I used to closely track pitching statistics in spring training to try to get a jump on my early season handicapping. It took me several years to learn that this was a mistake. Spring training pitching stats, especially for veteran pitchers, are almost worthless.

I still follow spring training closely, but I’ve learned that the stats aren’t what’s important. Learn how to evaluate pitchers in spring training from a handicapping perspective and how to use this information when you start betting on MLB’s early regular season games below.

Spring Training Stats Are Deceiving

15 to 20 years ago, when a player destroyed spring training, he usually came out and dominated in almost every game he played in. He would earn a spot on the opening day roster. His stats were so good in spring training that there was no doubt he was going to make a big impact during the regular season.

He ended up back in the minors within a month and never came close to the same production again.

When I evaluate spring training pitching stats now, I group the players into one of three groups. The first group includes veterans that are going to make the team no matter how well or bad they pitch in spring training, as long as they’re healthy.

The second group includes mostly young pitchers who can make the team with a strong showing, but are likely to start the season in AAA and might be called up during the season. The third group includes veteran pitchers who’re fighting to make the team, but aren’t guaranteed a spot.

MLB Spring Training Field

Spring training stats for the first group don’t mean anything. These pitchers are putting in the work and getting ready for the regular season. They’re working on stretching their pitch count and innings out so they’re working at a top level when the season starts. They also might be working on a new pitch.

The second group needs to have a strong performance in spring training, but pitchers in this group usually don’t get as many opportunities. They might pitch early in the spring, but as the season gets closer, they lose opportunities to guys that already have a spot and need to get ready for the season.

Stats in spring training for pitchers in the second group are more important than for guys in the first group, but it’s still dangerous to put too much faith in their numbers. A pitcher that’s coming in later in spring training games isn’t facing many major league hitters, so his stats can look better than they’re going to be in important situations.

Pitchers in the third group need to have decent stats in the spring if they hope to make the team, but one bad outing can skew spring stats. A guy that pitches an inning or two in eight games can have seven great outings and one bad one and still have a bad spring statistically.

The bottom line is that spring training pitching stats don’t correlate to regular season stats. Several things are more important, including everything covered in the following sections.

Pitch Counts

Starting pitchers are almost always on a pitch count in spring training. As spring training progresses, the pitch count and innings limit are stretched out to get them ready for the opening week of the season. Ideally, starting pitchers go five or six innings in their last spring training start and throw around 100 pitches. This is what they’re going to be expected to do when the season starts, so this is a good place to end the spring.

  • Relief pitchers are a little different, but it’s still important for them to reach pitch counts in spring similar to what they’re going to be expected to do in the regular season. A closer and set-up man need to be ready to come into two or three games in a row and get three outs each time.
  • Middle inning relievers who aren’t specialists need to stretch out a little more because they might need to pitch two innings when the season starts. Long relievers aren’t used as often, but they need to be ready to throw three or four innings when they are used.
  • Specialist relievers used to only need to be ready to face one or two guys, so they didn’t have to worry too much about getting stretched out. But now, there’s a three-batter rule, so even specialists need to be prepared to go an inning for two or three days in a row like everyone else in the bullpen.

Sometimes, it can be challenging to find pitch count statistics for early spring training days, but you should try to track the pitch counts for every pitcher throughout the spring to make sure they’re ready when the real games start.

Velocity

Average fastball velocity is one of the best ways to track the health of pitchers in spring training. But even this can be somewhat misleading. A veteran pitcher is often just getting ready for the regular season in spring training and doesn’t dial up the last two or three MPH on his fastball until the real games start.
MLB Pitcher Angels

On the other hand, pitchers that are trying to earn a spot on the opening day roster are letting everything loose in spring training.

Average fastball velocity is hard to find for spring training games. This is one area where it helps to watch as many games as possible late in spring training to see how guys are throwing.

Track Record

I know I’ve mentioned the difference between veteran pitchers and everyone else a couple times already, but it’s so important that it needs its own section. A veteran pitcher with a long track record isn’t worried about making the team. He’s working on getting ready for the season and might be working on a new pitch.

The place to work on a new pitch is when the games don’t count, because when you make a mistake with a new pitch in spring training, the results aren’t very important. Pitchers don’t test new pitches during the regular season often.

It’s also helpful to track the performance of pitchers in the spring year after year. Some pitchers simply aren’t good statistically until the games matter. A poor performance in spring from a pitcher like this means nothing. But a pitcher who’s getting older and has a track record of good spring performances that is suddenly getting hammered should raise some red flags.

Age

Age is important for evaluating pitchers, but it’s also difficult to use effectively. Most pitchers start declining in their early 30s and most are out of the game by their mid-30s. But a few guys are able to adjust their game and continue pitching well in their mid-30s. Some even play into their late 30s.

This isn’t a scientific number, but over the years, I’ve learned to start taking a closer look at pitchers in spring training once they turn 33 years old. As long as players are healthy, I don’t worry about their age much at 32 and under.

Power pitchers don’t age well in general, because when they start declining, they lose velocity. Unless they can adjust, the loss of velocity can turn a good to great pitcher into a bad one overnight.

As pitchers play in spring training at 33 and older, I try to keep a close eye on their velocity. It’s helpful to have information from their velocity in previous springs, but if you haven’t been tracking them in the past, it’s hard to get this information. But you can access average velocity from the previous regular season, and this is a good place to start when comparing their spring velocity in the current season.

The older a pitcher is, the closer I look at how he gets outs. Does he have a history of getting a double play ball when he’s in trouble, or can he be relied on to strike someone out in a tough spot? Remember, a smart control pitcher has a better chance of keeping his team in the game as he ages than a power pitcher losing velocity on his fastball.

Conclusion

It’s challenging for MLB handicappers to effectively judge pitchers on spring training performance. Some bettors don’t bet on early regular season games because it’s so hard to make good decisions. I recommend evaluating pitchers in spring training, but don’t rely too much on statistics.

When you’re betting on baseball, focus on pitch counts, velocity, and age in spring training. Veteran pitchers don’t care as much about stats in the spring as getting ready for the season, but fringe players and young pitchers need to perform at their best. This knowledge can help you do a better job at handicapping MLB regular season games.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...

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