2019 MLB Opening Day Expert Picks: Our Staff’s 8 Favorite Plays
Kamil Krzaczynski, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Miles Mikolas
You hear that sound? It’s cleats on concrete. It’s the pop of ball-hitting-glove. It’s somebody complaining about pace of play. It’s baseball season.
So, get ready for announcers to tell you that every team — even the Orioles — has a clean slate. All 30 teams are all tied for first place, they will say. It’s adorable, really.
All 30 MLB teams will be in action on Thursday, starting with a pair of games (Mets-Nationals, Orioles-Yankees) at 1:05 p.m. ET and going all the way through the night — or at least until Red Sox-Mariners ends.
While some people may question the MLB’s strategy of dropping Opening Day right in the thick of the Sweet 16, we say bring it on, the more gambling holidays the better.
Here are our staff’s favorite bets for Day 1 (sorta) of the 2019 MLB Season.
Mark Gallant: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies
- Time: 3:05 p.m. ET
- Probable Pitchers: Julio Teheran vs. Aaron Nola
- The pick: Over 8
The wind will be blowing out in Philly for Bryce Harper’s debut and I expect there to be some runs. Citizens Bank Park has been the most profitable ballpark to take the over in when the wind has been blowing out, hitting at over a 60% rate.
Furthermore, I believe Julio Teheran sucks and Aaron Nola is overrated.
Collin Wilson: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees
- Time: 1:05 p.m. ET
- Probable Pitchers: Andrew Cashner vs. Masahiro Tanaka
- The pick: Over 9
Weather conditions in the Bronx can be horrible this time of year, but the forecast calls for it to be 51 degrees with 11 mph winds blowing straight out to left field.
While the Yankees have an outrageous moneyline (-369 and climbing), the over/under suggests there are runs in this game. That’s not surprising given that Andrew Cashner will be pitching against a terrific Yankee offense.
New York’s bullpen could be the best in baseball, but Masahiro Tanaka’s splits indicate Baltimore has a chance at getting some runs across early as the O’s tuned up Tanaka for 23 hits and 10 runs in 23 innings last season.
If Cashner and Tanaka don’t get this game over in the first half of the game, I expect Baltimore’s bullpen — ranked 20th by Fangraphs — to finish the job.
Michael Leboff: Los Angeles Angels at Oakland Athletics
- Time: 4:07 p.m. ET
- Probable Pitchers: Trevor Cahill vs. Mike Fiers
- The pick: Angels +103, First 5 innings
I’m an unabashed fan of Trevor Cahill (and frankly am confused more people aren’t), so maybe I’m looking through this matchup with Cahill-tinted glasses, but I still think the Angels have a sizable edge in terms of starting pitching on Thursday.
Cahill, formerly of the A’s, may not be the type of pitcher who screams, “Opening Day Starter!” but he’s been quietly effective over the past few seasons and I think his lack of name-recognition and pedigree often leads to value when he’s pitching.
Last season Cahill posted a .306 xwOBA in 110 innings and allowed just 3.8 barrels per 100 plate appearances (Brls/PA%), which tied him with the likes of Max Scherzer, Carlos Carrasco, Patrick Corbin and Clayton Kershaw. Cahill is easily the worst pitcher of that bunch, but that isn’t bad company to keep.
Mike Fiers, on the other hand, is being overrated by the betting market. After being a -154 favorite against the Mariners in the Japan Opening Game, Fiers is being flattered again by the moneyline.
Last season Fiers ran hot. His xFIP (4.51) was nearly a full-run higher than his ERA (3.74), indicating he benefited from luck. He also allowed plenty of hard contact, including a 7.7 Brls/PA% and an average exit velocity of 89.3 MPH.
Even though Fiers has the advantage of making his second start of the season on Opening Day, he was not especially sharp during the A’s other season-opener against the Mariners in Japan and I expect more of the same.
All pitchers will admit that it takes a few starts for them to find their form, so betting on a guy who already gives up hard contact on a regular basis and will be without his best stuff doesn’t sound like a good idea.
Steve Petrella: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins
- Time: 4:10 p.m. ET
- Probable pitchers: Corey Kluber vs. Jose Berrios
- The pick: Under 7.5 runs and Under 4 F5
I imagine I’ll be betting a lot of MLB unders this season, so let’s start here, with an excellent pitching matchup, and one bad, bad lineup.
Fangraphs projects the Indians to accumulate 24.1 wins above replacement on offense this season. That’s squarely in the middle of the league. Trouble is, exactly half that is projected to come from superstars Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, who might both miss this game.
Lindor is definitely out, as is Jason Kipnis, who could be the fourth-best hitter on the team. Ramirez is questionable.
The rest of the lineup is quite frankly atrocious, especially in the outfield, and it’s only slightly better than the Orioles and Marlins lineups when you remove the two stars.
I expect a step forward this season from Twins starter Jose Berrios, and he’s been drastically better at home than on the road in his career (3.64 ERA at home, 5.31 on the road).
Corey Kluber should be his excellent self against an improved Twins lineup, and the bullpens are both top half of the league if you’re betting the full-game total.
John Ewing: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays
- Time: 4 p.m. ET
- Probable pitchers: Justin Verlander vs. Blake Snell
- The pick: Astros (-135)
Favorites are usually a bad bet in baseball.
Since 2005, a $100 bettor would be down $66,296 wagering on the favorite in every game. But on Opening Day that isn’t the case.
Players are as healthy as they will be all season, aces are on the mound and managers have a full complement of arms in the bullpen.
Since 2005, favorites in the first game of the season have gone 132-80, +13.19 units. The optimal situation to bet favorites on Opening Day is when they are facing an opponent that didn’t make the playoffs the previous season.
The Astros are a match for this system with Justin Verlander taking the mound as a short road favorite against the Rays.
Evan Abrams: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres
- Time: 4:10 p.m. ET
- Probable pitchers: Madison Bumgarner vs. Eric Lauer
- The pick: Padres (-109)
Yes, Madison Bumgarner is on the mound for the Giants, but I like the Padres in this one.
Surprisingly, Bumgarner’s numbers at PetCo Park aren’t all that great. He owns a 3.97 ERA and the Giants are 6-9 in his 15 starts in San Diego. Things haven’t looked great for him recently, either. In his last 27 innings pitched in America’s Finest City, Bumgarner has allowed seven home runs and 14 earned runs.
The Padres lineup, which now features Manny Machado, is going to score runs and I like San Diego’s bullpen to close the door.
Stuckey: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers
- Time: 2:10 p.m. ET
- Probable pitchers: Miles Mikolas vs. Jhoulys Chacin
- The pick: Cardinals (-110)
The Cardinals are a team I’ll be looking to ride early and often. I’m very high on the Redbirds after what they did in the offseason. In fact, they are the only preseason World Series future I bet coming into this season.
While I’ll be looking for any opportunity to back this loaded lineup, I’m taking the opposite approach with Jhoulys Chacin.
Chacin is at the top of my ‘fade-list’ after a very fortunate 2018 season. Look no further than his 4.47 xFIP in comparison to his 3.50 ERA. He just doesn’t strike enough guys out and walks too many.
Yes, he has a devastating slider but the Cardinals have seen it plenty and have had no issues smacking around the Brewers ace.
In 11 games (10 starts) against the Redbirds, Chacin is 2-7 with a 5.72 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP.
The Cardinals will counter with Mikolas on the bump. And while he also doesn’t have the world’s best strikeout stuff, unlike Chacin, he won’t give up any free passes. In fact, Mikolas led all qualified starters with a 1.30 BB/9 ratio last year. I love backing pitchers with control that don’t walk batters.
I make the Cards a very slight fav here and think they kick off a special 2019 season with an Opening Day win.
Sean Zerillo: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals
- Time: 4:15 p.m. ET
- Probable pitcher: Carlos Rodon vs. Brad Keller
- The pick: Royals (-110)
Brad Keller joined the Royals as a Rule 5 draft pick last offseason and had a surprising amount of success during his rookie year in the big leagues.
Keller improved the swinging strike rate on his slider from 9.9% through July, to 19.1% over the final two months of the season — suggesting that he now has a legitimate weapon to get hitters out.
Keller struck out a modest 6.16 batters per 9 innings, with seemingly subpar command (1.92 K/BB) in 2018, but the full season numbers mask some late-season improvements for the 23-year-old.
What Keller does do well is avoid the longball — generating a 54.4% groundball rate with a 0.45 HR/9 rate in 2018 (backing up low home run rates in the minors).
In 64.1 innings over those final two months, Keller generated a 51/18 K/BB ratio, while continuing to burn worms at a tremendous rate. He faced the White Sox three times during that run through August and September, with the following results:
- (L) 6.1 IP, 5H, 2R, 3BB, 9K (4 GB, 9 FB)
- (W) 5.0 IP, 7H, 1 R, 0BB, 5K (12 GB, 4 FB)
- (W) 7.0 IP, 4H, 1R, 2BB, 6 K (15 GB, 4 FB)
My projections suggest an edge of over four percent on the Royals, both on the five-inning line and for the full game. Odds stand at -110, while my fair odds suggest a line somewhere between -130 and -133.