Five Ways to Know When to Fade an Ace Pitcher

by Chris Scheeren
on July 11, 2017

Betting against an ace pitcher is a perilous proposition. More than in any other major American sport, the margin between the best and worst teams is slimmest in Major League Baseball. The biggest variable every day is the starting pitcher. The old axiom, “momentum is only as strong as the next day’s starting pitcher” is an absolutely accurate one. The team with the better pitcher on the mound usually wins.

But not always. And unlike other sports, where point spreads dominate the usual wagering landscape (yes, money lines exist as well), baseball is not a “point spread” betting sport. It is a VALUE betting sport. And there are few better values than being able to spot that instance where a star pitcher might be a little vulnerable. Because of the extreme value placed on starting pitching, a game line is largely predicated on the star pitcher getting often extremely slim odds. It’s not odd for Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale or Corey Kluber to be in the -250 to -350 range on a given night. But in the case of Scherzer and Sale, their respective teams are just 7-3 in their last ten starts – solid, but not invincible. The Indians are just 5-5 in their last ten games with Kluber on the bump.

That leaves some room for some solid profits if you are daring at the right time…

In the case of Kershaw, the Dodgers have won 12 straight games in which he has started, so perhaps there is no good time to fade Mister Clayton Koufax Kershaw (what about October!?!? Shouts the smart jokester in the crowd… to which I tip my cap and say, ‘your joke, not mine’ I’m a Kershaw guy…but well played…)

So how do you know when it might be time to roll the dice and fade a superstar pitcher?

Here’s Five Warning Signs:

#1. Pitch Velocity

Nothing portends some future trouble like a noticeable dip in average velocity. Two to three miles and hour off the fastball changes everything for a pitcher, and it affects their confidence as well as the way they can approach batters. If hitters can get around on the fastball, it limits the effectiveness of the change-up, there’s less pressure to get around. It also is an obvious sign of potential fatigue, which besets just about EVERY player over the course of an 162 game season. If a guy, like Scherzer, who clocked in last year with an average fastball velocity of 94.3, and you see him scuffle through a game dotting highs of 92 and 93 most of the night, it could be time to consider a fade in the next start, provided the matchup is right… which brings us to number two…

#2. Opponent Trends

Certain pitchers own certain teams. Likewise, nearly every pitcher has an opponent and ballpark they tend to struggle in. Take advantage of the trend. The line won’t usually reflect that pitcher’s history against a particular team unless it is glaringly bad. Pay special attention to divisional matchups where there is a little larger sample size. Again, remember, when fading an ace, we aren’t looking for sure things – there is a REASON why a pitcher IS an ace, there are very few sure things. We are looking for VALUE. So, if I can get a guy who has a four-plus ERA after six or seven appearances against a certain team, and the opponent has a quality guy on the mound, maybe I can sneak in for a nice +175 or more payday.  We want sneaky under the radar type trends, slight blips in the norm that sneak past casual handicappers and add a little hidden value.

#3. WHIP, WHIP it Good

ERA is sneaky. Wins and losses are useless. But I like WHIP. It is a true measure of how much trouble a pitcher is getting himself into on an average night. Once that WHIP creeps up over 1.20, we aren’t talking true DOMINANT ace any longer. There are some big name pitchers with BIG reputations toting WHIPs in the 1.30-plus range this season that are still often favorites in Vegas. Guys like Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta all own WHIP’s north of 1.30. Those make for some real nice value fades. Meanwhile, sneaky lesser-named guys like Dan Strailly (1.08 WHIP) and Michael Fulmer (1.12 WHIP) have been some real nice values on the aces who aren’t priced like aces front.

When you spot a guy whose WHIP is a little higher than his corresponding ERA indicated it should be, there is some fade potential lingering. It goes hand in hand with number four…

#4. K to BB ratio

In today’s dual outcome binary approach to hitting, home run or strikeout, missing bats is more important than ever. The more a pitcher avoids contact, the better his odds of keeping runs off the board. It is that simple. Pitchers with good ERA’s but low K/BB ratios (under 3:1) are ripe for a rough regression to the mean. If you put free batters on base and you aren’t fortifying that given advantage with high dosages of punch-outs, trouble is brewing.

Keep an eye on a pitcher’s trend line in the strikeout and walk department. It is an indication of more than just an ability to miss bats. It is a primary indicator of how locked in he is in the control department. High walks and lowered strikeouts usually mean a loss of command, which will eventually lead to more balls in play, which leads to more hits, runs, you get the point.

#5. Fielding Independent Pitching

I am going to try to avoid getting too mathematically geeky on you here, but if you are going to dabble in one advanced Sabermetric, consider FIP. It is a great way to measure what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing. Now, you can contend that not all defenses are AVERAGE and that some teams are better in the field than others. There is little denying that last year’s Cubs defense was exceptional, and greatly helped their pitching staff have above average seasons. But FIP is a nice way to gauge what a pitcher’s ERA SHOULD be, all things, and luck factors, being even.

If you see a well-regarded pitcher with better normal stats than his FIP indicates, there is an opportunity to explore a fade. It means a regression to the mean is likely. It means some nice fade opportunities for guys like Jason Vargas, whose 2.62 ERA is absurdly better than his 3.79 FIP, and Robbie Ray 2.97 ERA to 3.67 FIP.

It also lends some real value to guys who are prone to being faded (and I did to profits in April, but times have changed) like Adam Wainwright, who owns a 5.20 ERA but a pretty respectable (19th in MLB) 3.80 FIP. Likewise, for another frequent punching bag, Jeff Samardzijia, who’s 4.58 ERA is ugly, but 3.44 FIP is 13th in all of Major League Baseball.

More than “fading” and ace, I like to look for value when a player is particularly overpriced.

Again, aces are aces for a reason; they win far more than they lose. But with the escalating lines, certain trends can open the door for some nice high profit opportunities.

MLB’s Regular Season resumes Friday, July 13th – good luck hunting down some nice plus-money underdogs!

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