Makinen: The potential big money MLB starting pitchers of 2023

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We are just a week into the 2023 MLB season, but it’s never too early to start recognizing potential storylines that could impact the betting results. One of the best nuggets to find early in any baseball season is the starting pitchers that fit the bill of potential “Big Money Performers.” Over the last two seasons, there have been 23 pitchers that have produced greater than +9.0 units of profit for backers, which has amounted to a Return on Investment of at least 30% in all cases. Clearly, finding these pitchers of note early is a key to lasting success. With that said, I will perform an exercise I like to call “Shared Characteristics” to find out which starters in ’23 are exhibiting signs of being that go-to guy for bettors.

You may recognize this methodology; I use it often for various sports. Most recently, I used it for college basketball where Connecticut’s run to the title didn’t come as a surprise to those who saw their name atop my Potential Champions Qualifier Chart heading into this year’s tournament. In that study, I used 17 different qualifying characteristics to gauge the teams. For this one, it is a bit more rudimentary, as I only have six qualifiers, but as I indicated earlier, catching these pitchers early is the key to success. In analyzing the results of the first week of the ’23 campaign, I could pinpoint seven pitchers that met all six of the criteria and a bunch of others that met five of the six qualifications.

Let’s get into the specific criteria and the pitchers best meeting them right now.

Six Shared Characteristics of Big Money Pitchers over the last two seasons

Again, over the last two seasons, 23 pitchers produced in excess of +9.0 units of profit for backers. Looking back at their first three starts of those seasons, their performances met these criteria. In general, I like to utilize about a 75-80% qualifiers rate for setting my benchmarks.

– 20 of the 23 Big Money Pitchers (BMPs) in 2021 and 2022 won a start as an underdog in their first three outings.

– 18 of the 23 Big Money Pitchers’ teams won at least two of their first three starts. Of course, we don’t know this specifically yet for any of the pitchers, but it is notable enough to follow over the next few weeks, as pitchers get their second and third outings of the season.

– 17 of the 23 BMPs averaged at least 4-2/3 innings per start in their first three outings.

– 16 of the 23 BMPs had an ERA of less than 4.00 after their first three starts.

– 16 of the 23 BMPs have a WHIP of less than 1.300 after three outings.

– 17 of the 23 BMPs had a strikeout rate of at least 7.0 per 9 innings in their first three starts.

Overall, looking at these qualifications, you get a good idea of pitchers that are off to good starts statistically. They are reliable enough to go deeper into games; they keep opposing teams off the bases and from scoring; they strike out hitters at a good rate, and they carry their teams to wins when not expected. Those are all characteristics of pitchers capable of producing big profits over a six-month season.

Using these key six criteria, seven pitchers fit the bill of being a Potential Big Money Pitcher in 2023. Here are my thoughts on each of them. At the conclusion, I will also offer up a list of potential candidates that miss out on one of the qualifications but could prove worthy of consideration.

Potential Big Money Pitchers for 2023 (in alphabetical order)

Dylan Cease (White Sox): Including an upset win at Houston on opening day, Cease has been scintillating in his first two starts of the season, posting an ERA of 1.59 and WHIP of .706, while striking out 18 hitters in 11-1/3 innings. These are stats not only worthy of “Big Money” potential but of Cy Young consideration. This is somewhat of a continuation of last year’s breakout season, and his first two wins have come against opponents’ aces. At this point, it makes a lot of sense to get behind Cease, with a next start expected to come Monday at Minnesota, where he should be attractively priced once again.

Mike Clevinger (White Sox): It’s purely a coincidence that the first two pitchers on the potential BMP list are White Sox. Unfortunately, with a 3-3 record through six games, the Chicago pitchers not named Cease or Clevinger have yet to win. In any case, back in the American League, the chances of Clevinger reclaiming his elite status earned in Cleveland earlier in his career seem realistic. He was 42-22 in 4+ seasons for the Indians from ’16-20, and in his last full season for the Tribe, he put up a WHIP of 1.056 and 12.1 K’s/9. Those are dominant numbers. The best case for Clevinger keeping his spot on this list is that oddsmakers figure to be conservative with him and the Sox in the early part of the season, especially after his underwhelming numbers a year ago. In his only start thus far, this 6’4” right-hander shut out the Astros over five innings, striking out eight.

Zach Davies (Diamondbacks): Qualifying for the BMP list by meeting all six criteria and receiving my official endorsement are two different things. Case in point, Zach Davies, who, in case you missed it, beat the Dodgers this past Sunday as a +170 underdog in his only start of the season. He allowed just one run in five innings and six runners to reach base while striking out four. In other words, he barely met the benchmarks for all statistical criteria. The worry here is that he already used up his best profit start of the year, and those of us who didn’t back him already missed the opportunity. Davis is a veteran in his ninth season, and he has never demonstrated the ability to overwhelm hitters to the point where he would be consistently worth your betting dollar. On a positive note, he is usually an underdog and would produce solid profits if he continues to pitch well.

Bryce Elder (Braves): Elder was called up from the minors to fill in for Max Fried in the Braves’ rotation earlier this week and put up an impressive start against the Cardinals, beating them 5-2, going six innings and not allowing a run. He was a +110 underdog in the game. The biggest question here is whether he will receive additional starts after the strong outing. There is room in the Braves rotation with Fried and Ian Anderson on the DL. In my opinion, Elder has earned more work, as his big outing in St. Louis was a continuance of a good start to his career in 2022. He started nine games a year ago and posted a WHIP of 1.241 while striking out 7.8 hitters per 9 innings. While not dominant numbers, he is a pitcher that doesn’t figure to be going against the huge numbers from oddsmakers that the other Braves’ hurlers do. That is a “Big Money Advantage” when backed by the potent Atlanta lineup.

Hunter Gaddis (Guardians): One of the keys to being a Big Money Pitcher in any given season is avoiding the scrutiny of oddsmakers for as long as possible. Hunter Gaddis of Cleveland is a pitcher that has already won his first two starts of 2023 while producing +2.5 units of profit. He pitched fantastically in one of the starts and was extremely fortunate to win the other. That said, he should still be flying under the radar in the near future. What gives me the most hope for a pitcher like Gaddis going forward? His Minor League stats. If you get the chance, look them up. In his 53 starts at various stops, his WHIP was about 1.100, and his strikeouts averaged about 12 K’s/9 innings. He is a huge guy at 6’6”, 250. The intimidation factor is real, and Gaddis has it, without the price of a more decorated pitcher. He has great potential with a team that thrives in the underdog role.

Jesus Luzardo (Marlins): If there is one particular pitcher I have at the top of this seven-man list for being the potential biggest earner for bettors this season after early results, it’s Jesus Luzardo. He has enjoyed two great outings thus far, allowing just one earned run in 12-2/3 innings while striking out 15. What’s best is that he was an underdog in one of the starts and a very short -110 home favorite in the other. Were these results flukes? By no means, as this left-hander started coming on last season and hasn’t yet caught the full eye of oddsmakers. In ’22, Luzardo posted 18 starts, accumulating 120 strikeouts in 100-1/3 innings with an ERA of 3.32 and WHIP of 1.037. He was only 4-7 in decisions, leaving plenty of room for improvement for bettors. Slowly becoming one of the faces of the Miami franchise, keep an eye on this southpaw going forward, starting with a next expected start Tuesday in Philly.

Marcus Stroman (Cubs): Stroman outdueled Corbin Burnes and Milwaukee in an opening-day start, holding the Brewers scoreless through six innings of work. Considering what the Brew Crew has done since, it was quite an impressive outing. Now the assumed Cubs ace, there is a lot of pressure on Stroman to perform. To his credit, he has been solid over the last two seasons, posting WHIP numbers of 1.145 and 1.147 with strikeout numbers in the high 7’s/9 innings. Is he ace worthy? Probably not, but he won’t get priced like one either and should be a good candidate to back each time he takes the mound as an underdog or short favorite. Because the Cubs were rained out Wednesday and not scheduled on Thursday, we still await Stroman’s second start of the year, now scheduled for Friday at home versus Texas.

Other top candidates for Big Money Pitchers not meeting all six characteristics

Jon Gray (Rangers): In a more fitting lower role in the Rangers rotation, he had a strong outing versus Baltimore in his first start.

Mitch Keller (Pirates): Two underdog wins already for a Pirates team that could be better than expected.

Tylor Megill (Mets): Big body, big arm for a team expected to contend in NL East, but not priced like a top-line starter.

Jack Flaherty (Cardinals): The former Cardinals’ ace is looking to regain form after injury. He had a great first outing and takes on Milwaukee as an underdog on Friday.

Kyle Muller (A’s): Now one of the top starters for the A’s after leaving Atlanta, the 6’7” left-hander has been impressive in both starts so far and will never be highly-priced for Oakland.

Anthony DeSclafani (Giants): DeSclafani’s first outing of ’23 was closer to the impressive version of himself from ’21 before injuries doomed his ’22 campaign.

Jeffrey Springs (Rays): Springs had a great season last year for Tampa Bay but nothing at the level of dominance he displayed against Detroit in his first start of ’23, when he struck out 12 and allowed just one hitter to reach base (a walk) in 6 innings. An emerging pitcher on a solid team equals a good recipe.

Kenta Maeda (Twins): The much-anticipated return of Maeda this past week after he missed all of 2022 was all anyone could ask for. He struck out nine in five innings and allowed just three hits at Miami. Unfortunately, his team lost 1-0. Could mean he’ll be better priced in the very near future.

Kodai Senga (Mets): Anyone who has seen Senga pitch knows his stuff can be nasty. How it transfers from Japan to MLB over the long haul will define his profit-making potential for bettors. Early returns are solid, though, as he struck out eight in 5-1/3 innings in his first outing victory at Miami.