As we press deeper into 2021 MLB regular season, pictures are becoming clearer about what we can expect from teams and players moving forward. The Boston Red Sox, for example, look less and less like a mirage every day - their bullpen has been absolutely excellent, most recently polishing off four scoreless innings at Citi Field to top Jacob deGrom and the Mets 1-0. Outside of Adam Ottavino, it’s not a group with a ton of recognizable names - as of now, Garrett Whitlock, Matt Barnes, Phillips Valdez, Matt Andriese and Hirokazu Sawamura have combined to post an ERA below 3.00. While it’s a bit early to suggest that the Red Sox can actually compete with the Yankees for the division title, there’s certainly reason to watch Boston closely for a wild card berth come playoff time in a relatively wide open American League race.
For the Minnesota Twins, on the other hand, the story has read rather differently - Minnesota relievers are 1-8 on the season with a 4.83 ERA, having allowed only two fewer runs and one fewer walk than their starters over 40.2 fewer innings pitched. At 8-15 overall it’s surely been an absolute disaster in the Twin Cities, but does this mean we should be backing Boston night in and night out and fading Minnesota at every opportunity we’re given? Put simply, the answer is no. For the Twins, it’s worth noting that bullpen results tend to operate in completely random ways over limited samples across major league baseball.
The Twins' pythagorean W/L record is actually 11-12 (calculated using run differential), which suggests that they’ve been as unlucky as they’ve been frustrating to watch or bet. Their bullpen is also averaging 10.6 K's per nine innings, which is more than three strikeouts more per nine-inning samples than their starters, who have seen much better results. The Minnesota bullpen has also allowed less than half an extra hit per nine innings than the starters have. The biggest issue for the relievers have been free passes, which is not a small issue to be sure, and there’s reason to believe they can (and will) turn things around.
Back to the case of Boston for a moment though, because the same warning must be issued - bullpens are mostly random. Hirokazu Sawamura and Matt Andriese, who have posted respective 1.80 and 1.42 ERAs this year, are doing so despite identical DRA- numbers at 106 (suggesting that they’ve in fact pitched 6% worse than the average pitcher). Ottavino’s 101 DRA- isn’t exactly stunning, either - and there’s plenty of reason to expect regression in Boston, especially with what we're seeing underneath the surface.
Having said this, let's now turn our attention to the short term, and more specifically to this weekend, where we'll examine a few betting angles worth wagering on on Saturday and Sunday. BOL
Season Picks: 2-2
Last Week's Picks: 2-0
Saturday, May 1
San Francisco Giants +140 or better @ San Diego Padres
Would you believe me if I told you Anthony DeSclafani is a top 10 pitcher in baseball? So far in 2021, DeSclafani’s 60 DRA- (40% better than average) and 0.9 WARP according to Baseball Prospectus both rank in the top 10 in the league, sitting right between Clayton Kershaw and Gerrit Cole on most leaderboards.
While this season is the highest that he’s ascended in his career, it isn’t completely out of the blue - quietly, DeSclafani has been an above-average major league starter in four of six MLB seasons, and he was excellent in his last full campaign in 2019 (81 DRA-). His first start of the season came against the Padres as well, when he posted a solid five innings and allowed one run despite walking three batters - worse than any start since in that category. He’s pitched at least six innings in three of four starts since, most recently tossing a three-hit shutout against the Colorado Rockies on April 26 this past Monday.
Blake Snell, on the other side, has been fine as a Padre but not the elite innings-eater they’d hoped for by any means. He’s yet to push beyond 5.1 innings in a start this season, a fact which surely has Kevin Cash wearing a wry smile in St. Petersburg, FL. He last faced the Giants on April 7, allowing two runs in 5 innings. Most alarming for Snell this season has been his high walk rate - through five starts, he’s yet to post a start with fewer than two base on balls, and he's walking more than five batters per nine innings.
Saturday night is likely to be a low-scoring affair, especially through the early innings - and at 4 or higher, I believe that the under through the first 5 innings is a good look here. DeSclafani is more likely than Snell to pitch into the later innings, however, and the Giants have been playing good enough baseball to make it count if and when Snell starts handing out free passes. It should be a solid matchup, at least early on.
Sunday, May 2
Minnesota Twins -1.5 at +100 or better vs Kansas City Royals
I won’t beat a dead horse on why I believe this Minnesota Twins' bullpen is due for positive regression (you can also read more on that above). I do like Minnesota to jump all over the Kansas City Royals on Sunday for a few other reasons as well. The Royals are a nice story sitting atop the American League Central at time of writing, and they certainly deserve a lot of the praise they’ve received - very little of that praise, however, is intended for Sunday’s starting pitcher Brad Keller. Keller’s 2021 has been a disaster, and it bears out in his peripherals as legitimate. His DRA- of 155 is otherworldly bad, and it’s been both the result of career highs in walks per nine innings and hits per nine innings. He’s a talented kid who has shown flashes in the past, sure, but he’s fade material for now and I'm taking the +100 on the other side.
Jose Berrios, on the other hand, has been excellent for Minnesota this year. His 2-2 record ought to be better given how he’s pitched - but his 81 DRA-, 3.04 ERA, and 2.61 FIP are all excellent indicators of good things to come. He’s posted a career low WHIP and HR%, and a career high K% and K's per nine innings in 2021, all while allowing a .293 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) in 2021 that aligns with his career averages. It’s not a mirage for Berrios either - he’s been legitimately phenomenal so far this season. At some point, both the Twins bats and bullpen will start to click - and this Twins/Royals series feels like a prime opportunity for regression for both teams who have seemingly headed in opposite directions so far.