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What to look for as Spring Training games begin

Spring Training is an exhibition for MLB players. The games don’t count. The stats don’t count. The teams’ records are meaningless. The Texas Rangers were 12-10 in 2020 with 2nd most run differential (+17) in the Cactus League. They were 22-38 in the season finishing as the worst team in the American League. Teams have different goals than winning. Yes, they like to win, but most players are working on specific adjustments to make themselves better for the season ahead. So what do we want to pay attention to if we are not going to look at the won-lost records?

The primary objective for our research on the players is pitchers. It does not have to be just starting pitchers but they are the most important to us. We are looking for one thing specifically and will carry forward for their first several starts of the new season too. It is velocity. We need to measure the velocity change from this season compared with last season. Velocity drops and gains will indicate more wagering opportunities for us. These changes will take the market longer to catch up with so we have an early edge over the books.

Refer to the chart above. The left side is the batting average and the bottom is the velocity. It is very apparent to see the harder a pitcher throws, the less the hitter has success. It is also true to the opposite. The softer a pitcher throws, the more successful the hitter will be. We can use this to our advantage. The MLB batting AVG middle ground was .244 last season. The chart shows that is what a hitter bats against 95-96 mph fastballs. Look for jumps or large variances in small mph changes. The batters AVG against a 93 mph fastball rises up to .275 for example. They hit soft tossers at nearly .300! This is what we are looking for from Spring Training games! How hard is the pitcher throwing and is there a variance from his previous year?

Veteran pitchers often lose velocity as they are getting older. You have heard a phrase similar to “he has learned to pitch now since he can’t throw the ball past hitters anymore”. We want to find these guys. Make a list of them. We are looking to bet against them. I have found that losing 1 mph does not affect a pitcher’s performance. He seems to be able to disguise the velocity drop and appear to the batter much as he has in the past. It takes 2-3 mph drops. These pitchers do overcome their drop as their pitches are now much easier for the batter. We do need to define that though. If a pitcher goes from 98mph to 96mph, then his result velocity is still in the area where batters do not succeed, so this pitcher even though he dropped in velocity is not on our list. We want the guys who drop from 94mph to 91mph! Those guys get roughed up!

Pitchers who are recovery from injury also fit into this mold. The most common injury for pitchers today is “Tommy John” elbow surgery. This injury then recovery period is 12-18 months! However, do not just assume these pitchers are losing velocity. If fact, they rehab so well they will gain velocity sometimes. We are wanting to find guys with shoulder issues. They are the ones who will not be able to gain velocity and will suffer a reduced spin in the ball, thus causing less movement. The less movement equals easier for batters.

Currently, as the players are reporting to camp, we should be identifying pitchers who spent their off-season with third-party pitching analysis places like Driveline. A perfect example of this is Clayton Kershaw.

The chart above is Kershaw’s velocity and usage over his many seasons. He spent his off-season with Driveline after the 2019 season. The result was gaining velocity he hadn’t seen since 2018. His velocity went up on all of his pitchers. An ACE quality pitcher can make the most of small velocity gains and you can also see his usage was marginally different. Usage is a different topic and does not apply that often to what we are doing. The harder a pitcher throws a breaking ball, the more it breaks. Kershaw saw the highest GB% of his career and an ERA of 2.16! Yes, pitchers can gain velocity and we need them on a different list as we are going to look to support them. Often team beat writers will disclose some of these pitchers.

The velocity drop is an issue that will carry forward as well. We should monitor velocity from start to start during the season. We can sometimes see a variance that indicates a pitcher is “off” which could mean he is trying to pitch trough an injury. Teams will not disclose that kind of information, but we can gather it if we know what we are looking for.

Pitchers will often work on improving specific pitches in the spring. We don’t need to get too involved with this at this point. Once the season starts, a pitcher will either use what he has developed or he will discard it altogether, hence we don’t need to jump the gun trying to look at usage changes because there might not be any.

Batters will work on their swings and swing paths. They might hit for a miserable batting average in the spring. Do not play into that as the batter could be changing his stance, his grip on the bat, or trying to keep his head still. Who knows, the point is, all the players are working on something. The only ones who are not are the players trying to make the team as rookies or older players making their last stand to maintain a career.

We do not care about Spring Training wins and losses. We do care about specific changes that will affect a player’s result thus give us wagering opportunities. Don’t spend your time trying to figure out what team will win these games, the teams themselves really don’t care. It is WAY more important to pick up on a couple of situational edges that you can use once the season starts!

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Jeff Dawson

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