And now, while March Madness swirls and the NFL exerts its year-around muscle with free agency, this message for those who still like to bet a little something called baseball…
The greatest fundamental advantage that sports bettors have over bookmakers remains 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, 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 13-8 over the last six seasons on these plays, even after enduring an analytics-defying 1-3, as seen in this space a year ago), 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.
At initial release, Caesars tallied up to 2433.5 total wins in their 2019 MLB season win totals market, the Westgate opened at a total of 2441 wins, while the South Point Hotel & Casino came to 2443.5 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, the Atlantis Casino in Reno had, in recent history, released MLB season win totals before anyone else, typically in mid-February. Those numbers would often have no correlation with what would subsequently be offered in Las Vegas a few weeks later 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, 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. This year’s release and climate then mocked those of last year, as Matt Lindeman at Caesars released MLB season win totals on January 8th. Fast forward more than two months later, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper signed the proverbial “minute ago”, and we still have no idea where high profile free agents Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel will play, now a mere matter of days before the regular season starts.
For our purposes, whether at Atlantis in previous years, at CG last season, or at Caesars 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. Last year, as an 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.
(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 Feb. 7, 2018. Let’s just say, it wasn’t easy.)
Below, I’ve listed my three best bets. 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 2019 MLB Season Win Totals market:
Colorado Rockies 84.5 Under (-110)
This marks the third consecutive season out of the three seasons of VSiN’s existence that I’ve made a season win totals play on the Rockies as one of my best bets. In 2017, we cashed on an over and in 2018, we lost on an under. Truth is, based on underlying metrics, we were probably fortunate two seasons ago and unfortunate last season. None of that matters as we assess the market’s number on the Rockies this season, relying, as always on that analytics to guide us.
In 2018, Colorado posted a 91-72 regular season record before beating the Cubs in the NL Wild Card game and getting swept by the Brewers in their NL Division Series. But was the Rockies’ underlying skill set really that of a 91 win club or were they a different team masked in 91 win clothing? That’s the question any baseball season win totals bettor must ask themselves in an effort to establish a baseline from which they can then graduate to evaluating personnel.
The answer to the above is pretty clear when viewed through the prism of Bill James’ tried and true Pythagorean theorem, BaseRuns, or 1-run/extra inning outcomes. Without boring you with James’ formula, suffice it to say that a club’s run production and run prevention in any given season provides an accurate assessment of what a team’s win percentage ought to have been. The Rockies’ 780 runs scored and 745 runs allowed last campaign suggests an 85-78 regular season record, or six games worse than their actual one. It’s one thing to talk about runs plated and given up, but exactly how did any given club get to those numbers? BaseRuns, a measure of run production and prevention based on the sequencing of events, seeks to solve that riddle. On that count, the Rockies overachieved as a true 85-78 team, as well, fortunate in how events were ordered both offensively and defensively to the tune of 6 real life wins. Throw in the Rockies 26-15 record in 1-run outcomes, games that over time should regress to near .500 — the presence of, say, first ballot Hall of Fame Mariano Rivera excepted — and you get a pretty solid picture that the Rockies got the best of not only the randomness so inherent to the game itself, but did so in high leverage moments in 2018, as well.
Side note: only the Mariners were more fortunate based on Pythagorean Theorem, only the Red Sox and Mariners got more sequencing benefit through the lens of BaseRuns, and only the Athletics, Mariners, and Brewers had better 1-run outcomes.
Now that we’ve established the Rockies as an 85 win team from which to make our 2019 assessment, what about the roster construction itself. The Rockies add Daniel Murphy and David Dahl to an already stellar lineup that includes Charlie Blackmon, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story. That’s a phenomenal quintet at the top of the order, especially with the band box that is Coors as a home ballpark. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Arenado flirted with 40 homers and an MVP award, Blackmon, Story, and Dahl got to 30 total long balls each themselves, and Murphy added 20 and the best BA on the club in the 2-hole. The absence of veterans Carlos Gonzalez, DJ LeMahieu and Gerardo Parra might go largely unnoticed, as a result.
As for projected starters, 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 towards that. But I’m selling, not buying on that. Left handed hitters posted a .341 wOBA against German Marquez in 2018 and I’m not sure if his 3.4% leap in SwStr% from 2017 to 2018 is sustainable moving forward. 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 one time 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 ball in June and failed to make the postseason roster, he is a tradeable asset that the Rockies will be tempted to deal at the deadline. Coming off two straight 4.50 ERA seasons, Tyler Anderson’s fastball command and movement has never been truly harnessed, and Antonio Senzatela is an average pitcher w a 4.50 SIERA last season who needs to throw his slider less, not more, for more success.
Yes, Colorado still has Wade Davis as closer, but the loss of Adam Ottavino from the bullpen perhaps trumps all of the starting rotation concerns. Ottavino led the majors in holds (34) and ranked fourth in reliever strikeouts (112) in 2018, while increasing his SwStr% on sinkers from 4.7% to 8.6%. He’ll try to match his 2.43 ERA and 0.99 WHIP but will do so in pinstripes, not in a Rockies uniform. The bridge that Ottavino provided to Davis in a sport that has become more heavily reliant on pens with each subsequent season, cannot be overstated.
The Rockies opened at 82 wins at Caesars back in January. That wouldn’t have qualified as a best bet for me then. But after being bet up to 84.5 in the market, it triggers our under play.
Baltimore Orioles 59 Under (-110)
In all my years of betting baseball season win totals, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken a position on the club that has the lowest total in the market, let alone recommending going under on it. Yet, here we are with the 2019 version of the Baltimore Orioles.
First, let’s take pains to acknowledge the positive. Baltimore played their way into an abysmal 47-115 record last season but based on Pythagorean Theorem (underachievers by 7 wins) and BaseRuns (underachievers by 9 wins), not to mention an AL worst 12-29 record in 1-run outcomes (though, look, when you’re bad, you’re bad), you could easily make the case that the Orioles were a 55 win team last season. So, rejoice Orioles fans, you probably should have only had 107 losses! Full disclosure, I’m an Orioles fan who just trolled myself.
In Alex Cobb and his .229/.288/.377 slash line w a .287 wOBA against in the second half of 2018, the Orioles can absolutely hope for a solid ace at the top of their rotation. Underlying metrics won’t passionately dispute this either.
And, we’re done.
After that in the rotation? Yeah, not much. And I’m done waiting for Dylan Bundy to finally put it together, this after a season in which he posted a 5.17FIP and a stratospheric (and not in a good way) .408 wOBA against after the All-Star break. Mychal Givens is serviceable as a closer but his 5.0% HR/FB rate isn’t sustainable and the Orioles actually have to get to him in a save situation for him to even be relevant. I could parrot the Orioles company line and wax on about prospects like Drew Jackson, but I won’t get into the fool’s errand of projecting without ample big league AB sample size.
Bottom line, as low as this total is, there’s value in the under. Fivethirtyeight.com refers to this year’s iteration of the O’s as one of the most anonymous teams in MLB history, and one look up and down the batting order confirms just that, with the average fan most likely not able to identify Cedric Mullins, DJ Stewart, Renato Nunez, Chance Sisco, or Richie Martin if one’s life depended on it. While the word anonymity isn’t a synonym for poor performance, suffice it to say that this is the season during which the Birds will not hesitate to simply try out guys. Winning isn’t the priority. In a division that boasts the defending champion Red Sox and widely predicted 2019 champion Yankees, not to mention a seemingly always solid Rays cub, the Orioles will get lots of help toward that prophecy.
The Orioles have finally embraced analytics, and kudos to them for doing so with a new manager and newly revamped front office, but they won’t see the fruits of that cultural shift anytime soon. Nor should we make this bet any more complicated than it is.
Los Angeles Dodgers 93 Over (-110)
Last season, I took the over on the Dodgers at 95.5, a bet that was seemingly doomed from the outset, as LA got off to an injury riddled 16-26 start. At that point, as heard on “A Numbers Game” at VSiN, I grabbed a Dodgers World Series futures bet at 25-1. Well, in somewhat of a double stomach punch, the Dodgers rallied to a 92-70 regular season record, just 4 wins shy of my cashing the season win totals play, and a World Series defeat at the hands of the Red Sox.
Making matters worse, the Dodgers mocked my wagers with the quiniela of underachievement in 2018, falling a full 10 wins short of their Pythagorean expectation, the greatest such shortcoming in the majors last season, and 9 wins shy of what a normal distribution of sequencing should have yielded. Only the lowly Orioles matched that misfortune.
I’ll keep this one simple. There is no club with more depth than the Dodgers. How deep? Plug their bench on any given day into the starting lineup of most any other team in the league. That’s how deep. If the greatest pitcher of his generation, Clayton Kershaw, were put on the injured list of 25 other teams to start a season, there’d be widespread internal panic. But, not these Dodgers, who already boast Walker Buehler as their current ace, and who’ll merely plug in All-Star Ross Stripling into the rotation while they await Kershaw’s return. It truly is an embarrassment of riches. There are things to keep an eye on. Rich Hill’s advancing age (39) and Hyun Jin-Ryu’s durability are among those concerns, as is Kershaw being mortal on the other side of 30, but like with their lineup, the Dodgers have the personnel and resources to absorb absences.
There is also the matter of Kenley Jansen. True. Specifically, which version of Jansen will we get in 2019? The 2018 iteration saw batters coming around on high fastballs, something unfathomable against vintage Jansen.
But, generally speaking, I’m searching for issues with the Dodgers. Succinctly put, their margin of error is vast. Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, Manny Machado, and Yasmani Grandal are all gone and yet, the numbers still work out. With their season win total at 93, I’ll happily play the over here, knowing that in a division with the Rockies (already analyzed bearishly above), the Diamondbacks (who I expect to be worse than last season), the Padres (on the way up but not there yet), and the Giants (they’ll always have those 3 World Series titles), the Dodgers will bank the necessary wins to eclipse their generous win total.
As for futures recommendations, I have none preflop. Let’s wait for an early swoon by a club a la Dodgers in 2018, then pounce when value actually exists. I’ll update any such bets when appropriate on “A Numbers Game” on VSiN.