@FastMoneyLabs’ MLB Best Bet - 4/19

I’ve been treading lightly with 1st inning bets but have been itching to play one, and when I saw this pitching matchup, I had to write about it! For this pick, I’m targeting a matchup scheduled for a 7:40 PM ET first pitch in Windy City.

Tampa Bay Rays (5-6) at Chicago Cubs (6-4)

Last year, Left-Handed Pitchers (LHP) posted an impressive 46-19 (70.8%) No Run First Inning (NRFI) record vs. the Tampa Bay Rays. So far in 2022, they’re off to a perfect 2-0 start. Can we trust Cubs southpaw Justin Steele to keep the trend going tonight?

Since joining Chicago’s starting rotation in August 2021, the 26-year-old Lefty has shown flashes of brilliance --- especially in early innings.

  • In 11 career starts, he’s 10-1 NRFI overall and 5-1 at Wrigley Field.
  • His only blip was a 2-run home run served up to Colorado on August 25th.
  • Since then, he’s a perfect 8-0 NRFI. This year, he’s 2-0.
  • Steele has yet to face any batters on the Rays current roster. I usually prefer to have data on the pitcher / batter matchups, but when I don’t, I view it favorably from an NRFI perspective. These situations tend to favor the pitchers, at least in the early innings.

Steele’s effectiveness tends taper off after the 1st inning, as shown below in his Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP) statistic, split by inning:

  • 1st Inning WHIP: 1.22
  • 2nd Inning WHIP: 1.33
  • 3rd Inning WHIP: 1.44
  • 4th Inning WHIP: 1.67

It’s never fun fading the Rays offense, but if there’s a time to do it – it’s against a Left-Handed Pitcher in the 1st inning. Admittedly, it could get a little sweaty since Steele has a weird tendency to allow exactly 1 hit in the 1st inning. But when he does, he’s proven effective at managing out of trouble, and that’s what counts.

Assuming we’ll make it through the Top of the 1st, here’s what I expect in the bottom half of the inning:

The Rays are one of a few teams that occasionally use relief pitchers as starters. It’s an unconventional strategy that’s designed to throw off opponents. Managers like to optimize their lineups based on the starting pitching matchup, but when a reliever starts, it adds uncertainty and complexity to the lineup construction process. Tonight, Tampa is deploying that strategy by sending 29-year-old relief pitcher Matt Wisler to start the game.

  • While he’s not a traditionally starter, it won’t be his first rodeo.
  • He didn’t make any starts last year, but since 2019, he’s a perfect 12-0 NRFI.
  • In 50% of those starts, he pitched a perfect 1/2/3 inning (meaning he faced the minimum 3 batters and no more).
  • On average, he’s allowing just 0.75 baserunners per inning across the 12 starts, which is very good. Less baserunners = less sweat for NRFI bettors.
  • He’s yet to appear in the 1st inning this year, but in 5 relief appearances, he’s posted a solid 1.93 ERA and 0.86 WHIP with 6 strikeouts through 4.2 innings.

This year’s Cubs offense is certainly improved, scoring at a 50% clip in their 1st frame through 10 games, but is that hit rate sustainable? I don’t think so.

  • Last year, even the best-of-the-best scored just 38.7% of the time (STL Cardinals).
  • This year, the average team is scoring 28.2% of the time (27.2% median) – both in line with last year.
  • Taken together, these trends suggest the Cubs are due for a downward correction with respect to 1st inning scoring. It’s starting to pull through (only 33.3% 1st inning score rate last 3 games), but there’s still room to run.

Also supporting the NRFI is the weather forecast which, according to BallParkPal.com, is favorable for Pitching tonight, based on the cold temperatures and wind considerations. I’m comfortable betting to win a unit on this pick, but I’d be remiss to not mention:

NRFI hit rates have been slightly down to start this season, which gives us reason to be cautious. I don’t suggest betting too heavy on these. When they go wrong, it really stings. That said – when they go right, oh does it feel good, and that’s the feeling I’m going for tonight!

$FML Pick

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RAYS/CUBS NO RUN FIRST INNING @ -114

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