2018 MLB Season Win Totals/Futures Manifesto

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Gill Alexander is going to take Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers going over a 95.5 Win Total.
© USA Today Sports Images

And now, for those remaining in their seats post-Super Bowl, for the truly woke, as the kids would say, that time of year has finally arrived…

It is a fact that the greatest fundamental advantage that sports bettors have over bookmakers is having the luxury of choosing what and what not to bet. This is not only true as it relates to selecting which if any games to bet on a daily basis, but also applies to making choices with props, futures, in-game wagers, and season win totals across the landscape, as well. It also stands true, though, by extension, that to capitalize on the above axiom, it’s incumbent upon the bettor to recognize where value resides, as well.

And that’s where Major League Baseball season win totals come in. No betting market consistently provides more opportunity and, just as importantly, more inherent ability to overcome variance than does this annual menu of 30 clubs, each spread out over 162 courses. 

Simply put, with apologies to the anti-drug campaign of years gone by: Betting on baseball is your brain. Betting on football or March Madness, for that matter, is your brain on crack.

First, for context, before diving in to my MLB season win total best bets (and I’m a selective 12-5 over the last five seasons on these plays, including 2-1 on them last season, as seen in this space), one quick note on the market itself. There are 2430 games played — or for our purposes, wins available — during the Major League Baseball regular season. Across sportsbooks in Las Vegas and offshore, regardless of shop, the sum of season win totals among all 30 MLB clubs is almost always higher than what is actually possible.  

Last year, the consensus season win total sum across sportsbooks was 2,443. This year, there hasn’t proven to be quite as stark of a contrast between market and reality, but still, CG Technology checked in at 2,433 wins, the Westgate tallied up to 2,435, and the South Point Hotel & Casino MLB win totals came to 2,439.5 wins on release. That speaks to an inherent optimism with sports bettors that we observe throughout the calendar year and should, at the very least, have us approach the market, in general, with the notion that bookmakers are well aware of this characteristic and therefore shade lines accordingly. Otherwise put, going on, say, an “over" spree across the board as a bettor is unlikely to net long-term returns.  

One more preliminary note.  As I discussed on “A Numbers Game” on VSiN at the time, while the Atlantis Casino in Reno has, in recent history, released MLB season win totals before anyone else, this year with former sportsbook director Steve Mikkelson now at the Rampart in Las Vegas, CG Technology seized the opportunity to become the first to release, a particularly curious gambit with its earlier-than-ever Feb. 7 release date, and because of a free agent market so historically slow to move and so marked by uncertainty that MLBPA Union Executive Director Tony Clark artfully danced around a charge of collusion among owners.  

For our purposes, whether at Atlantis in previous years or at CG this season, those who release first take on the inherent burden of posting numbers that will be the most subject for exploitation by sharp bettors, and part and parcel with that, those very numbers often won’t traditionally serve as a true reflection of widespread availability once bet into. This season is no different.  As an example, I can no longer give an under play on the Kansas City Royals at 76.5 as one of my official picks because, well, even though that’s precisely what I bet on Feb. 7, that number isn’t only gone, it can’t even be seen in the rearview mirror anymore, as the Westgate opened them at 67.5 less than three weeks later.  

(As a 15 minute audio aside, please check out the retelling of my experience trying to bet into CG Technology’s opening MLB season win totals market on February 7th.  Let’s just say, it wasn’t easy.)

Instead, I’ve listed my next three best selections.  As always, all totals quoted herein are derived from a current consensus throughout Nevada and offshore. With all of the above tucked away in our brains, here are my three favorite plays in the 2018 MLB Season Win Totals market:

Colorado Rockies 82 Under (-120)

Our easiest MLB season win total winner last season was the call on the over on the Rockies’ 79.5. The Rox got off to a 47-26 start and on the night of June 20 actually still found themselves atop the NL West.  Y’know, just as the Dodgers were going into full Dodgers mode. After that point, it didn’t matter that Colorado went 40-49 the rest of the way to finish with 87 wins, as we didn’t exactly cruise home to the ticket window, but certainly never broke a sweat.

Though we were easy winners, the question is, were we winners because of the handicap or did we win despite that? The answer leans decidedly to the latter.

The primary tenets upon which I based that bet were the Rockies’ seemingly newfound understanding of how to tailor their starting pitchers’ skill sets to Coors (finally!) and what appeared to be the Rockies brass addressing the franchise’s eternal pitch framing problem (finally again!). First, with regard to their starting staff, the club addressed the two most important traits necessary to maximize success at Coors, erasing batters via the strikeout and inducing groundballs, therefore keeping the ball out of the air and preventing Coors from wreaking havoc with its widest dimensions of any MLB ballpark. While Jon Gray fit the bill according to my expectations, posting the second best K rate of his career (24.3%) while limiting free passes to a career best 6.5% and hard contact to a solid 28.4%, the stellar Rockies pitching that I expected indeed manifested, but was authored by a cast of characters no one could’ve anticipated. Kyle Freeland’s 53.9% GB rate, Jeff Hoffman’s mid-90s heater and largely unhittable curveball, German Marquez’ 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and even Antonio Senzatela’s fairly credible innings eating given his previous pedigree were all revelations that went a long way toward helping the Rockies end the season with the 7th best mark in park adjusted ERA.  

That ain’t your mom and dad’s Rockies.

But, while I remain bullish on Gray, I don’t buy the sustainability of the success of the rest, all of whom sport component stats that cause alarm. Just as a smattering, opposing batters posted a .344 wOBA against Marquez away from Coors. Freeland’s wOBA against away from the unfriendly confines was .363.  Tyler Anderson’s was .370.  Chad Bettis posted a decidedly unmenacing 15.0% K rate in 2017.  Senzatela, a 4.55 SIERA. (Hoffman and his 4.88 SIERA in 2017 is currently battling a shoulder injury in spring training that threatens his availability at season’s start).  

Then there’s the pitch framing matter. As noted in last season’s manifesto, I fully expected Tony Wolters to help the Rockies get to what would have been only the club’s third season in history with an above league average performance in framing runs, as Wolters projected as a top 10 receiver inside the zone and top 5 out of it. Instead, Wolters cost the Rockies 16.3 runs below league average, 9th worst in MLB.  Jonathan Lucroy, acquired in a midseason trade from the Rangers last season, also saw his previous stellar pitch framing career stats tank. Per Baseball Prospectus, all told, Rockies catchers’ poor receiving abilities cost them 20.5 runs in 2017. Only the Tigers were worse. 

The Rockies hope in part to address this chronic matter in 2018 with their acquisition of Chris Ianetta.  While Ianetta may provide some home run punch on offense, he’s had exactly two solid pitch framing seasons (2015 and 2017) in a career of framing that is lowlighted by a stretch from 2011-2014 that cost pitchers a total of 50.6 runs.  So, yeah.

And all of the above may constitute a burying of the headline when assessing a season win total play here. That is, that the Rockies’ notorious home/road split on offense is still a thing.  On the heels of a 2016 season during which the Rockies scored 845 runs, but only 337 on the road, it was more of the same in 2017, with only 336 (11th out of 14 in the NL) of the Rockies’ 824 runs produced away from Coors and a .302 road wOBA (10th out of 14 in the NL) to go along with it. Though road comparisons are somewhat uneven because of unbalanced schedules, it’s more than an adequate prism through which one can discern the deficiencies in the Rox offense that Coors cleverly masks.

Finally, when it comes to BaseRuns, a measure of run production and prevention based on the sequencing of events, the Rockies’ 87 win campaign in 2017 represented a 5-game over-performance when viewed through the lens of vagaries inherent in said hit sequencing. Only the Red Sox and Royals were more fortunate. Given the expectation that 1-run outcomes will eventually even out over time, adding to that a 21-14 record in 1-run games in 2017 with only the Mariners, Royals, and Nationals more games above .500 in such outcomes, and you have a team that really got the best of it, even given a confluence of much starting pitching smoke and mirrors success.

I lied. One last thing. I have the Rockies in 4th in the NL West. If that manifests early enough, Colorado has a couple prime pieces that other clubs will want at the trade deadline in free agents-to-be Charlie Blackmon and DJ LeMahieu. If the Rockies are forced to go into sell mode mid-campaign, that certainly wouldn’t hurt our cause here either.

The over on the Rockies worked out for us last year. We won’t tempt fate again with that. Instead, we’re content going the opposite way, sitting back, and letting the Rockies prove us wrong in 2018.

Los Angeles Dodgers 95.5 Over (-115)

If you listened to the audio clip posted above or heard me discuss it on “A Numbers Game” on VSiN, the only other season win total that I was permitted to bet on release at CG Technology back on Feb. 7 besides the under on the Kansas City Royals win total was the over on the Dodgers. With the Royals now more of a massive middle vehicle for me, that matter is a moot subject for our purposes here. But not where the Dodgers are concerned. That’s still very much in play, if for no other reason than their win total being in a lofty enough stratosphere that it will almost always have a pseudo-mechanical resistance on the high side.

The Dodgers won 104 baseball games during the 2017 regular season on their way to a National League title.  Unlike with the applicable metrics discussed in the Rockies write-up above, the Dodgers didn’t overperform in any truly discernible way when viewed through the prism of Bill James’ tried and true Pythagorean theorem, BaseRuns, or 1-run/extra inning outcomes.  “But they’re not gonna go on another otherworldly 56-11 midseason tear, man?” Nor will they go on an equally stunning 1-16 run as they did after that during the 2017 campaign.

95.5 is a lot of wins. As a rule, one shouldn’t make it a habit to casually bet the over on that number, regardless of club or season. (The same can be said for being too anxious to bet the converse, the under on a club with a season win total in the low 60s.) But the Dodgers, who haven’t posted fewer than 91 wins since the 2012 campaign, are the rare exception.   

I’ll keep this one simple. The Dodgers totaled the most DL stints during the 2017 season and while that is as much a tribute to the Dodgers’ skillful gaming of a system that allows clubs to place a player with a hangnail on the 10-day DL, LA did indeed suffer from a bunch of missed time among the club’s most superstar players. Ace Clayton Kershaw was limited to 175.0 IP in 27 starts in what was actually the least Kershawesque season of his career (3.07 FIP, 2.84 xFIP, 29.8% K rate - horrors!) and arguably the three most potent bats in the Dodgers lineup, Justin Turner (130G), Cody Bellinger (132G), and Corey Seager (145G) combined to miss nearly half a season of player games.

And yet, they still won 104 games.  

Beyond Kershaw in their starting rotation, Rich Hill, limited himself to only 135.2 IP in 25 starts, posted a 3.72 FIP and 3.88 xFIP along with an elite 30.1% K rate.  After a sublime start to the 2017 season, Alex Wood (3.32 FIP, 3.34 xFIP), who logged an unsatisfying 25 starts, as well, went from spectacular to merely perfectly serviceable from the first half of the season to the second, as his .174/.243/.233 slash line along with a sick .214 wOBA against before the break gave way to a .259/.306/.462 slash with a .321 wOBA after it. At their season rates, though without enough innings to qualify, both Hill and Wood would’ve been Top 20 MLB pitchers in SwStr%, as well, joining Kershaw’s elite 14.1 SwStr% clip. With perhaps baseball’s finest closer in Kenley Jansen on the back end, a defense that finished second in runs saved last season, and an offense that had the pesky nerve to complement its relentless ability to hit for both contact and power up and down its lineup with the best BB% rate in the majors (10.5%), the Dodgers simply have no true weakness.

It’s the rare over at 95.5.

Milwaukee Brewers 84.5 Under (-125)

Each of baseball’s 30 clubs projects on a spectrum in any given season ranging from everything breaking a team’s way to everything seemingly breaking against them (along with every possibility in between). To say that the Milwaukee Brewers had everything break their way in an 86 win campaign in 2017 wouldn’t be entirely true, but when it comes to their starting pitching staff, the statement definitely applies.  With a season win total set an ambitious 84.5, that’s enough to put me in “sell” mode here.

Chase Anderson of the 2.74 ERA but 4.33xFIP, 80.6% strand rate, and unconvincing spiked 23.4% K rate, Zach Davies, who saved his season from a disastrous .355 wOBA against in the season’s first half with a monster bounce back post All-Star Break but whose overall 15.2% K rate still inspires little confidence in any sustained success, Jhoulys Chacin’s 4.63 SIERA as a member of the Padres while playing home games at pitcher friendly PETCO, and Junior Guerra of the 6.58 FIP and 13.7% BB rate all represent profiles from last season that have me anything but bullish on the projected rotation. And last year’s bonafide ace, Jimmy Nelson, isn’t walking through that proverbial door for at least the first two months of the season after undergoing right shoulder surgery in September.  And that might be a generous timetable.

It’s not all bad in Milwaukee. The bullpen is sneaky solid and the acquisitions of Christian Yelich by trade, courtesy of the Jeter Yard Sale in Miami, and Lorenzo Cain in free agency, key defensive cog of the Royals World Series runs in 2014 and 2015, give the Brewers lineup a pair of dynamic players at the top of the order.  But at 84.5 in a tough pitchers park, I’m quite comfortable fading the Brewers here and am happy to tip my cap to the starting staff if they can buck their component stats again.

St. Louis Cardinals to Win NL Central: 4-1

I don’t love betting futures before the regular season starts in baseball or in any other sport for that matter, as quite often, equal or better value can be found on the same clubs at varying points in the season and even just prior to the postseason.  But, if I’m compelled to recommend one, it’d be to bet on an improved Cardinals club to overcome the Cubs in the NL Central.

With the Reds hard-pressed to get to .500, the Pirates in full firesale mode, and my bearish opinion on the Brewers discussed above, this truly is, for the first time in many years, a mano a mano division between the Cardinals and Cubs.  

The Cardinals were an 83 win team in 2017 but underperformed per Pythag by 4 wins and per BaseRuns by 5 wins.  They also lost 14 of 19 to the rival Cubs, and all 7 games played against AL East perennial powers, Boston and New York. Can’t get a whole lot worse than that 5-21 subset.  

That helps inform our play here even before considering that the Cardinals project favorably across the board in 2018, with a lineup that figures to be consistent up and down the order and mash with the addition of Marcell Ozuna in the cleanup spot (thanks again, Jeter) a solid bullpen, and a rotation that might just stack up with any other 1-5 in the bigs, with bonafide ace Carlos Martinez as an anchor, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha as reliable veterans, and Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes ready to break out.

I’m certainly not suggesting that the Cubs will go down easy, but with some component stat concerns for Jon Lester and the always-dicey profile of Kyle Hendricks headlining a pitching staff that has more than its share of question marks, I’ll put a little something on this one future, and this one alone.

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