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2020 MLB season win totals, futures manifesto

March 27, 2020 04:26 PM
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Nolan Arenado
© Imagn

Well, here we are. Call it surreal, a sci-fi movie or whatever, this is the world in which we live now. I wrote the introduction to this piece before the impact of the coronavirus global pandemic took full hold (you’ll note the cheerier tone), so please take it in the context in which it was intended — the one in which every MLB club plays 162 regular-season games with standard scheduling. Perhaps we’ll end up with a truncated season, in which case we can scale back these thoughts based on equivalent win percentages. Whatever transpires, in my attempt to maintain some sort of normalcy in a suddenly unfamiliar world, here’s this season’s version of my annual baseball manifesto.

And now, in what has become a yearly tradition, while we wait to find out who this season’s NFL offseason champion will be in free agency, here comes my fourth annual VSiN “Point Spread Weekly” Baseball Season Win Totals Manifesto. Move over, betting on service games in tennis! Get out of my way, first to 15 in hoops! If you have six months to marinate on some winners, you’re in the room where it happens.

But seriously, as a public service to first-timers, here’s why we do this. The greatest fundamental advantage sports bettors have over bookmakers remains the luxury of choosing what and what not to bet. This is true not only as it relates to selecting games to bet on a daily basis. It also applies to making choices with props, futures, in-game wagers and season win totals. But it’s also true that to capitalize, it’s incumbent on the bettor to recognize where value is.

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 spread out over 162 courses.

Let’s all say it together: Betting on baseball is your brain. Betting on football or March Madness is your brain on crack.

First, for context, I’m a selective 16-8 over the last seven seasons on these plays, coming off a 3-0 cruise job a year ago. A full regular season features 2,430 games, or, for our purposes, wins available. Across regulated and unregulated sportsbooks, regardless of shop, the sum of season win totals among all 30 MLB clubs is almost always higher than what is actually possible.  

At initial release, PointsBet had a whopping total season wins pool of 2,467, FanDuel checked in Jan. 8 just under that at 2,461, Caesars tallied up to 2,450 total wins Jan. 13 and the Westgate opened Jan. 18 at 2,440. That speaks to an inherent optimism with sports bettors of which bookmakers are well aware and shade lines accordingly. Going on, say, an Over spree across the board is unlikely to net long-term returns.  

As I’ve discussed on “A Numbers Game” on VSiN and on the “Beating the Book” podcast many times, the Atlantis Casino in Reno had historically released MLB season win totals before anyone else, typically in mid-February. Those numbers would often have no correlation to what would subsequently be offered in Las Vegas in March. With Atlantis’ former sportsbook director, Steve Mikkelson, having moved to the Rampart in Las Vegas, CG Technology seized the opportunity to become the first to release in 2018, a particularly curious gambit with its earlier-than-ever Feb. 7 release date. Last year’s release then mocked those of the previous year, as Matt Lindeman at Caesars released MLB season win totals Jan. 8. More than two months later, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper still hadn’t signed with new clubs, nor had the likes of Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel, even a mere matter of days before the regular season started. And then came this offseason, when PointsBet in New Jersey released in December only to have others like William Hill quickly follow suit, subsequent Tommy John surgery announcements be damned.

For our purposes, whether at Atlantis in previous years, at CG two seasons ago, at Caesars last season or at PointsBet this offseason, those who release first take on the inherent burden of posting numbers that will be the most subject for exploitation by sharp bettors. Part and parcel with that, those very numbers often won’t traditionally serve as a true reflection of widespread availability. In 2018, for example, I could 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, by the time I wrote my baseball manifesto, that number wasn’t only gone, it couldn’t even be seen in the rearview mirror anymore as the Westgate opened them at 67.5 less than three weeks later.

Here I’ve listed my four best bets for what we hope is some version of a season. As always, all totals are derived from a current consensus throughout Nevada and offshore. 

Colorado Rockies 73.5 Under (-110)

Before the 2019 season, I went Under on the Rockies at 84.5. After a midseason swoon in which they went on an abominable 15-43 run (.271) — a pace if projected over 162 games about three games worse than the worst-in-baseball Detroit Tigers’ 114 losses in 2019 — we coasted home to a betting win with 13.5 games to spare, as the Rockies finished 71-91. With Colorado’s season win total adjusted to only 73.5 for 2020, one might think I’d shy away from a second straight play on the Under, perhaps even considering a play in the opposite direction. Instead, I see no reason not to take a bearish position on the Rockies again, as a key tenet of handicapping MLB season win totals seems not to have been baked into this number.

First, the Rockies endured a peculiar offseason. For all the years I’ve written baseball previews, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise that has triggered more consistent befuddlement. Typically, that has come in the form of the Rockies picking up free agents whose skill sets don’t jibe with the prairie-like characteristics of Coors Field. This offseason, my confusion has been caused by the Rockies’ almost complete lack of purposeful movement. Not only were they seemingly content to stand pat after a miserable season, but they floated star Nolan Arenado (.315/.379/.583 with a .392 wOBA) in trade talks, only to fail to make a deal. Wonderful. That should put Arenado in a good mood.

Second, this makes Arenado a prime candidate to be dealt at the trade deadline, as I see no way the Rockies will be in anything but sell mode. And that, perhaps more than anything, is why 73.5 wins will prove too many. A key to any MLB season win total play is to properly assess which teams will be in buy or sell mode at the trade deadline. There will be no shame in the Rockies making a play for a bevy of meaningful prospects at that juncture. Their passionate fans deserve no less.

The Rockies’ lineup is fabulous at the top of the order, featuring their future Hall of Fame third baseman, flanked by Charlie Blackmon (.314/.364/.576 with a .387 wOBA), Trevor Story (.294/.363/.554 with a .380 wOBA) and David Dahl (.302/.353/.524 with a .364 wOBA). After that quartet, good luck. That reality would be bad enough if home games weren’t played at the anomaly that is Coors Field, whose vast dimensions produce many more doubles and triples than any other park. The joys of padding stats at Coors mask a true collective skill set that often creates an almost opposite effect on the road, as the Rockies scored more than a run fewer per game away from home in 2019. In fact, only the Marlins’ .284 wOBA on the road was worse than the Rockies’ .288. This went a long way to the Rockies being 15 games worse on the road than at home last season, a difference made even more damning by an extremely fortunate expected win total at home per Bill James’ Pythagorean theorem.

And then there’s the pitching. 

Here’s what I wrote in my capsule for my Rockies Under play a year ago:

“The Rockies are pinning hopes on right-handed-hurling German Marquez and his 2.47 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 33% strikeout rate and 5% walk rate in the 113 innings that closed out his 2018 season. Continued fastball command and curveball location low in the zone would go a long way toward that. But I’m selling, not buying, on that. Left-handed hitters posted a .341 wOBA against Marquez in 2018, and I’m not sure if his 3.4% leap in SwStr% from 2017 to 2018 is sustainable. Kyle Freeland had a tremendously fortunate and wholly unsustainable 82.8% LOB rate in 2018, not to mention a kind 8.5% HR/FB rate. I actually expect somewhat of a bounce-back from onetime would-be ace Jon Gray and his 5.12 ERA in 2018, but if I’m wrong and Gray falters after a season in which he was sent down to Triple A in June and failed to make the postseason roster, he is a tradable asset the Rockies will be tempted to deal at the deadline.”

With the exception of Gray getting dealt — and this year might be when that finally happens — most of my fears came to pass. Even if Marquez got the worst of fortune with his 4.76 ERA in 2019 (witness his 20.1% HR/FB rate and 68.0% LOB rate), his true performance still didn’t put him anywhere near his 2018 homestretch numbers as, despite his SwStr% proving to be sustainable, the K rate fell to 24.3%. Freeland’s ERA soared nearly four runs from 2.85 in 2018 to 6.73 in 2019, a number mostly corroborated by a 5.99 FIP. Similarly, his LOB% plummeted from 82.8% to 62.1%, and his HR/FB rate rose from 8.5% to 21.7% in a tour de force of negative regression. And then there’s Gray, about whom I’ve hoped for years that his full potential would be realized. And as predicted, Gray came through with a stellar campaign, logging a 3.84 ERA and career-high 50.4% ground-ball rate.  

But the question for all three projected Rockies starters and for Antonio Senzatela, he of the 6.71 ERA last season, is: Which version of each can we expect? I’d simply argue that even if we expect some improvement from all, we’re dealing with probably one plus starter in Gray and a trio of mediocre pitchers. That again elicits the even more obvious question of why the Rockies’ brass saw fit to do nothing of consequence this offseason to improve the starting staff. I simply don’t get it. Ditto for the bullpen, which was not good last year — and that’s being kind.

Add to all of this a division in which the Dodgers might be “the greatest club ever assembled,” according to Roxy Roxborough on “A Numbers Game,” and the Diamondbacks and Padres are generally believed to have improved, and it’s another recipe for Rockies disaster.  

Prove me wrong, Rockies. A tip of the cap if they do. I’ll happily play the Under. 

Seattle Mariners 65 Under (-110) 

I hadn’t intended to include the Mariners in this season’s manifesto, thinking I’d get cute with some other more middling clubs, but a voice in my brain kept gnawing at me. Sometimes a team is just so bereft of anything positive that failing to make a bearish play would be irresponsible. As those who listen to “A Numbers Game” know, I often refer to my Under bets on season win totals or individual game totals as bets against human achievement. Well, I anticipate very little human achievement in Seattle this season.

The Mariners famously started the 2019 campaign 13-2, prompting some to compare them to the 116-win Mariners of 2001. The M’s proceeded to go 55-92 the rest of the way, prompting some to no longer compare them to the 2001 team.

In Jerry Dipoto, Seattle has a GM who has never been offered a trade he didn’t want to make. The problem is that Dipoto’s aggressive nature seems tantamount to spinning his wheels. And that might be kind. 

Marco Gonzales is the ace of this staff. Let that sentence marinate for a bit. Gonzales is coming off a season in which he had an xFIP of 5.11 and a K rate of 17.0%. To be fair, Gonzales has some profile characteristics that are good enough to have the Mariners committing to him for the long haul — but as their de-facto ace?! You simply cannot be a viable ace in the current offensive climate if you don’t miss bats. Yusei Kikuchi projects as the No. 2 starter in 2020. His rookie campaign was abominable, as he posted a 5.71 FIP, 5.18 xFIP and 16.1% K rate, with right-handed bats clubbing a .304/.359/.545 slash line against him with a .374 wOBA. He gave up 36 homers. I can’t imagine Kikuchi being that bad again. Surely he’ll be shelved if he is. But I also don’t see anything to make me believe he has No. 2 starter stuff. Beyond the top of the rotation, Kendall Graveman (career 15.0% K rate) comes over from the Athletics to try to bolster things. So does Wei-Yin Chen from the Marlins (career-worst 6.59 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in 45 appearances in 2019). Call me skeptical with both veterans, as the pitch-to-contact parade continues. In truth, I’m more optimistic about the upside of Taijuan Walker and trust that the Mariners’ excitement over Justus Sheffield is justified, but one has to spin this pretty aggressively to hope for great things from this staff. And unless you think Carl Edwards Jr. is the new panacea for the bullpen, a regression to the mean is the most prudent projection one can make for the Mariners’ relief corps.

As for the lineup, let’s say things go wonderfully: Kyle Seager returns to near 2016 levels of 30 HR, 99 RBI and a .278 BA, Daniel Vogelbach somehow matches what looks to be an unsustainable 30-HR campaign in 2019, Shed Long Jr. maintains pace or builds on his .263/.333/.454 with .333 wOBA performance over a small sample size in 2019, ditto for Kyle Lewis over an even smaller sample size, and Evan White lives up to his status as a first-round draft pick. Even if all that happens, we’re probably talking about nothing better than an average offense. What’s just as realistic is an offense that will still not have markedly distanced itself from replacement-level production.

When you couple that sobering projection with that of the pitching, along with playing in a division with four clubs dramatically superior to the Mariners, amassing 65 wins over a 162-game schedule seems like a pipe dream.

Los Angeles Dodgers Over 101.5 (-110) 

As noted above, when Las Vegas legend Roxy Roxborough was on the show recently, he referred to the 2020 Dodgers as “the greatest club ever assembled.” And I’m here to say amen. In fact, instead of a writeup, how about just a list of accolades and stats?

Here’s your projected lineup: 

— Mookie Betts: 2018 AL MVP, batting champ and World Series champ, four-time All-Star, 30.6 WAR over last four seasons, three-time Silver Slugger Award winner, four-time Gold Glove Award winner, 2016 Defensive Player of the Year.

— Gavin Lux: 2019 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year. 

— Max Muncy: 35 HR each of the last two seasons.

— Justin Turner: Career slash of .292/.372/.509 with a .370 wOBA.

— Cody Bellinger: 2019 NL MVP, 2017 NL ROY, 111 HR in first three seasons.

— Joc Peterson: 112 HR, 252 RBI in four of the last five seasons with at least 400 PA.

— Corey Seager: career .294/.362/.491 slash line with a .361 wOBA.

— Will Smith: .571 SLG% and a .369 wOBA in 196 PA in his rookie season in 2019. 

Might that be something you’re interested in?

OK, how about the starting staff:

— Clayton Kershaw: 2014 NL MVP, three-time Cy Young Award winner, eight-time All-Star, three-time NL wins leader, five-time NL ERA leader, three-time NL strikeout leader, career 2.44 ERA, 2.74 FIP, 2.98 xFIP, 64.5 WAR, 27.5% K rate.

— Walker Buehler: ace of staff, 2019 All-Star, career 3.12 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 3.32 xFIP, 28.6% K rate.

— David Price: 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner, five-time All-Star, 2014 MLB strikeout leader, two-time AL ERA leader, coming off a 2019 season with a 28.0% K rate.

— Alex Wood: career 3.40 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 3.53 xFIP.

Projected fifth starter Julio Urias is coming off a season during which he posted a 13.7 SwStr%, but I’ll leave it at that. I think you get the idea.

Yes, the bullpen has legitimate question marks, with closer Kenley Jensen’s best years perhaps behind him. I don’t mean to minimize that. But imagine this embarrassment of riches with a massive chip on its collective shoulders created, say, by a team that had beaten them in the 2017 World Series that has since admitted to a gargantuan technology-driven sign-stealing scheme. Tough to quantify? Sure, but in no world am I going to dismiss that.  

The Dodgers think their title was stolen from them. I believe that no matter how long or short the 2020 season is, Los Angeles will achieve a level of excellence rare in any season. You never love going over a season win total as high as 101.5 or, in a truncated season, its associated .627 win percentage. A bet like this is as much a bet against a spate of injuries as anything. But if any club is worthy of an Over bet at this number, it’s this group, and bet it I have.

Toronto Blue Jays Over 76 (-110) 

Not what you expected, huh?

Last June 27, the Blue Jays had an off day to ponder their 29-52 (.358) record. They had just come off a gut-wrenching loss to the New York Yankees in the Bronx after squandering a 5-0 lead, coming back to tie the game in the ninth, only to see Gleyber Torres’ walk-off single in the bottom half send the Jays home with their 14th loss in 20 games.

From that point forward, Toronto went 38-43, getting outscored by a mere 13 runs. Obviously, that doesn’t make anyone confuse them with the ’27 Yankees, but it’s the proper base from which to work when projecting them forward in 2020. And projecting them forward I am. With the bar at a very middling 76 (or again, at the equivalent win percentage based on a truncated season), I believe that pairing the Jays’ significant offseason moves with a conservative projection of gains from their already promising young batting order will put them over the top.

First, the lineup. The first four spots are filled with talent from baseball families: Bo Bichette (.311/.358/.571 with a .384 wOBA in 212 PA in 2019), Cavan Biggio (16.5% BB rate in 2019), Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (.277/.327/.541 with a .358 wOBA in 343 PA in 2019) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.340 wOBA in the second half of 2019). With those four, the Jays should be set for a long time. Add 28-year-old Randal Grichuk, a notoriously slow starter who surged last season to career highs with 31 HR and 80 RBI among other counting stats as he completed his first season of over 500 PA, and 27-year-old Teoscar Hernandez (48 HRs over the last two season), and the Jays’ run production should see only upside as they remain firmly on the right side of the age curve.

The brass has addressed the pitching, a far more glaring weakness, in a much more tangible way on the heels of scuttling the overhyped potential and somehow overrated production of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez. Hyun-Jin Ryu and his career 2.98 ERA, 3.10 FIP and 3.32 xFIP over six seasons comes over from the Dodgers to be the bona fide ace of a staff that checked in last season at 4.79, 4.82 and 4.88 in those metrics (5.25, 4.90 and 5.01 from starters!), respectively. And while Chase Anderson, Tanner Roark and Matt Shoemaker might not trigger a knee-jerk response of fear in opposing hitters, remember — as my friend Joe Peta made a habit of saying in his brilliant season win totals projections from years gone by — that what you’re really replacing is the production of that slotting from the previous season. So even if Anderson, Roark and Shoemaker provide league-average production, not an outlandish ask, it would represent a marked improvement from Sanchez’s 6.07/5.02/5.09 as a Blue Jay in 2019, not to mention Clay Buchholz’s 6.56/5.62/5.18 and Clayton Richard’s 5.96/6.28/5.32.

Ryu, Anderson and Roark have spent most of their careers in the NL and now have to face a DH. Ballpark factors also need to be considered, given that Rogers Centre ranked 12th in 2019 in run-production rate and first in HR rate. That compares to, say, Ryu’s former home park of Chavez Ravine, which ranked 24th in the former category last season, ninth in the latter. Throw in a bullpen that essentially consists of Ken Giles and a bunch of question marks and I can see how some might spin this in the opposite direction.

But 76 wins is not a massive bar to clear. And it doesn’t hurt that the Red Sox won’t be as good and the Yankees can’t seem to stay healthy. Given all this and some reliable sourcing from within the organization that more than a couple of promising young arms are ready to be called up, count the Jays over as one of my favorite season win total plays of 2020.

 

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