By Dalton Brown
Last week saw this article get back in the win column as the Nationals offense backed Max Scherzer enough to cash their first 5 innings runline for us. Generally speaking, I believe first 5 innings bets can be a good way to gain an advantage when betting on MLB. Bullpens are notoriously random, and avoiding that randomness when your handicap is rooted in the starting pitching matchup can be a good way to avoid needless losses. The Chicago Cubs bullpen is an example of why, having led the league in ERA for most of April, May and June - in July, they posted the worst FIP in the league at 6.22 as the Cubs season has taken an aggressive downturn most believe will lead to selling. If you intend to bet on the Cubs today or tomorrow, I’d probably play the first 5 innings.
This isn’t to say that first 5 innings bets are always the right way to go. If a team’s bullpen is in the midst of a hot streak, playing a full-game line can provide additional ways to win games late if the starter you backed did not live up to expectations. As an example, if the Cubs played the Giants (5th best reliever FIP in July) tomorrow and I liked the Giants, I’d play San Francisco on a full-game line to add the bullpen advantage to my likelihood of winning. Fangraphs has great resources that you can use to parse out splits on bullpen performance, and I’d highly suggest using them when deciding how to approach betting baseball.
This week, I have two picks I feel good about as I try to build on last week’s 1-0 mark. Let’s jump right in.
Last Week: 1-0
Friday, July 23, 7:10 PM ET
New York Yankees (Gerrit Cole) @ Boston Red Sox (Eduardo Rodriguez)
The Red Sox have owned the season series with the Yankees this season, a trend that continued Thursday night when Boston walked off the Bronx Bombers with a walkoff win on a wild pitch. Boston has now won 8 of the 10 games between the teams this season and currently hold a 1-game lead in the AL East over the second-place Tampa Bay Rays.
Gerrit Cole and Eduardo Rodriguez have already faced off once this season as starting pitchers: on June 27, Rodriguez would pick up the win as the Red Sox demolished New York, 9-2. Each pitcher is very familiar with their foe on Friday - since the start of June, Rodriguez and Cole have combined to start 5 games in the rivalry series already. Cole is having the much better season overall, and has figured it out lately after two ugly outings on June 27 (at Fenway Park) and July 4. Eduardo Rodriguez has already faced New York three times this season, going 2-0 with a 2.65 ERA - for his career, he’s 8-6 against the Yankees with a 3.68 ERA over 19 starts.
In the case of Friday’s matchup, I believe there’s value backing the much-maligned Yankees and Gerrit Cole at Fenway Park. At a basic level, I’m inclined to back both the Red Sox and Yankees to trend back toward expectation in the second half of the season. Looking back at June 27 when Cole and Rodriguez faced off at Fenway, the Yankees entered the game a -170 favorite in the first 5 innings. On Friday night, the Yankees are +100 - a full 70 cent adjustment to the line on the same pitching matchup we saw a month ago. While the Yankees are banged up and Gerrit Cole has seen Fenway struggles in the past, he enters the game having just thrown 15 innings of 1-run ball against the Astros and Red Sox, the two top offenses in the American League in 2021.
Given Gerrit Cole's track record and Baseball Savant metrics (top 10% in xwOBA, xBA, xERA, K%, BB%, Chase Rate, Fastball Velocity, and Fastball Spin), his recent success feels more like a sustainable return to form than a hot streak. Cole has been pitching with a ton of emotion his last two starts as well, and the animated approach has been working well - in Houston, he refused to leave the game en route to a complete game shutout.
I do want to isolate the first 5 innings in an effort to avoid another potential Yankees bullpen meltdown - look no further than Thursday night’s matchup at Fenway to understand why. Gerrit Cole being offered at +100 while running hot and against a pitcher he’s been better than for their entire careers is just too nice to pass up.
The Pick: Yankees First 5 Innings (+100)
Saturday, July 24, 7:10 PM ET
St. Louis Cardinals (Jake Woodford) @ Cincinnati Reds (Luis Castillo)
Luis Castillo’s 2021 season has really been two seasons rolled into one. As of May 29, Castillo was one of the worst starting pitchers in the league, posting a 1-9 record with a 7.22 ERA. There were legitimate concerns as to whether he’d ever get back to the pitcher he was, a projected ace among what in 2020 was an excellent rotation in Cincinnati. In 9 starts since then, he’s gone 2-2 with an outstanding 1.76 ERA, lasting more than 6 innings on average per start.
As is the case with Gerrit Cole above, I’m more inclined to buy into stretches like these when they come from pitchers who have a track record of success over multiple seasons, as Castillo does as well. The Cardinals are also 24th in average and 27th in wRC+ against right handed pitching, leaving them ripe for the picking as Castillo tries to continue his midseason turnaround. He’s also posted slightly better numbers at home than on the road this year, a surprising development when said home field is the bandbox known as Great American Ball Park.
The Cardinals will counter with Jake Woodford, a young right handed pitcher now in his second call-up with St. Louis this season after spending time both at the Cardinals alternate site as well as in Triple-A with the Memphis Redbirds. Woodford has worked mostly in relief while with St. Louis this season, although he’s clearly moved into a starting role since his most recent call-up on July 19. He’s pitched fine, producing a middling 4.06 ERA over 18 appearances. He won his most recent start over the Cubs as well, pitching 5.2 innings while allowing only 1 run on 6 hits.
Woodford has only pitched at Great American Ball Park twice, and it hasn’t gone well as he’s allowed 4 runs in 2.2 innings of work, allowing more than half of the batters he’s faced (8 of 15) to reach base. The Reds have been a meat-grinder of a lineup for right handed pitchers all season, ranking in the top 10 in MLB in wRC+, batting average, and home runs against them. At home, their 60 home runs against right-handed pitching are the most of any team in the league. I don’t think Jake Woodford is a bad pitching prospect, by any means - especially considering the Cardinals track record of developing pitching, there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll have a successful career. On Saturday, though, I’m just not seeing a very wide path to success for St. Louis over the first 5 innings against a hot Luis Castillo with a young righty on the mound.
The Pick: Reds First 5 Innings (-0.5, up to -135)