Place premium on pitching before stepping up to the plate

It doesn’t matter if your football team has a Hall of Fame left tackle, a 1,000-yard rusher, a 6-foot-7-inch receiver blessed with sprinter’s speed and magnetic hands, and a defense that’s stingier than Tiger Woods come tip time. If it doesn’t have a competent quarterback, it’s likely not going very far.

In basketball, a team may put the quickest, most athletic team on the floor night after night, but if the point guard treats the ball like a hand grenade in late-game situations and doesn’t have a big man to protect the rim, it can kiss its championship hopes goodbye.

Even in individual pursuits such as golf (putting), tennis (second serve), boxing (defense) and rapping (multiple arrests), there’s always one key component that ultimately draws the fine line that delineates success and failure.

Which brings me to our national pastime. Of all the subtle nuances that go into determining the outcome of a nine-inning baseball game (and 162-game season), the most important is always pitching. And now that baseball’s leadership has finally banned performance-enhancing drugs—ridding the game of three-dimensional cartoon characters who for years launched balls over the wall at record rates—the guys holding the horsehide and standing 10 inches above everyone else on the field have become more important than ever.

Nobody is more aware of this fact than professional sports bettors, whose summer income is directly tied to staying ahead of the pitching curve. With that in mind, let’s review the pitching moneymakers through the season’s first five weeks (all statistics are as of May 9) and forecast what to expect in the coming weeks. (Note: My bankroll stands at $7,486.)

ARMED AND DANGEROUS: Most casual fans know Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Verlander and Chris Carpenter. For those who wager on baseball, however, those names are taboo. The reason? When top-notch aces take the mound, they’re almost always such a prohibitive favorite that they’re a very risky bet. To wit: Of that group of aforementioned All-Star pitchers, only Halladay was profitable on the season (Philadelphia was 6-1 in his first seven starts, and $100 bettors made a total of $400 betting those games).

Conversely, Lee, Jimenez, Verlander and Carpenter had cost a $100 bettor a combined $2,002, as their respective teams went a cumulative 6-20 in their starts.

The lesson: It’s imperative to quickly identify the under-the-radar quality pitchers and ride them until the opposing hitters and/or the oddsmakers figure them out. So far, the unknown hurlers who have made bettors a small fortune this season include the Cardinals’ Kyle McClellan, the Pirates’ Kevin Correia, the Royals’ Bruce Chen, the Tigers’ Max Scherzer, the Indians’ Justin Masterson, the Rays’ James Shields, the Diamondbacks’ Ian Kennedy and the Mets’ Dillon Gee.

Those eight hurlers (along with the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano at No. 5 and Halladay at No. 9) comprise the top 10 in terms of profitable starting pitchers. How profitable, you ask? If you had wagered $100 every time those pitchers took the ball, you would be 56-10 and have cleared more than $5,000.

If I were to invest in some of these pitchers to sustain their success, I’d bet on Scherzer and Masterson (both highly touted prospects who have finally figured out how to pitch in the majors), as well as Shields (likely to be traded to a contender in late July) and Kennedy (an ex-Yankees prospect pitching in a weak division).

MOUND PRESENCE: Earned-run average is the main barometer of a pitching staff, and entering the second week of May there were seven clubs that boasted an ERA of 3.25 or lower, led by Oakland (2.67), Atlanta (2.85) and San Diego (2.95). However, of that trio, only the Braves had converted strong pitching into profitable results. The teams that have managed to turn the double play (top-10 ERA and top 10 on the money list) are the Indians (tied for sixth with a 3.25 ERA, first on the money list); Phillies (fourth with a 3.09 ERA, second on the money list); Marlins (10th with a 3.41 ERA, fourth on the money list); Rays (fifth with a 3.23 ERA, sixth on the money list); Angels (tied for sixth with a 3.25 ERA, seventh on the money list); and Braves (second with a 2.85 ERA, 10th on the money list).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Diamondbacks (4.44), Cubs (4.53), Twins (4.73), Orioles (4.78) and Astros (4.97) have the five worst ERAs in baseball, and not so coincidentally, all are operating in the red from a betting perspective, with Baltimore (21st), Chicago (23rd), Houston (25th) and Minnesota (27th) all ranking in the bottom third on the money list.

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