It was a much different world when Max Scherzer made his last start for the Washington Nationals in Game 7 of the World Series. No one could have predicted Scherzer would have almost nine months of rest before his next start.
Since the season ended Oct. 30, when Scherzer climbed the mound despite a bad back and helped clinch the championship, Major League Baseball has been on a downhill slide rife with cheating scandals, a clumsy commissioner and frustratingly slow labor negotiations.
Finally, Scherzer is tentatively scheduled to open the most bizarre baseball season in history. Nothing is guaranteed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but it appears games will be played and the new opening day is set for July 23, when “Mad Max” and the Nationals face the New York Yankees in an empty stadium in the nation’s capital.
The fact the line is already posted — the Yankees are -115 favorites at the Westgate SuperBook — is proof that oddsmakers can move fast and adjust on the fly. Try to forget the threats of a canceled season and debates about an asterisk attached to an abbreviated schedule. Those talking points no longer matter to bookmakers and bettors, who care more about the numbers than the storylines. Still, this season will present countless handicapping variables that never had to be considered in the past.
“There are an enormous number of challenges in pricing baseball this year,” BetMGM sportsbook director Jason Scott said. “The obvious are where will games be played, against whom, and what impact will the virus have in terms of missed games? However, our customers have the exact same challenges. I don’t expect to see significant wagers until we have more clarity on what the season looks like.”
While World Series futures odds basically remain the same — the Dodgers (7/2) and Yankees (4/1) are the consensus favorites — other numbers have changed. A 60-game season is 37% of the normal 162 games, so all props and win totals are adjusted accordingly.
At the Westgate, the Dodgers have the highest posted win total (38½), followed by the Yankees (37). At the bottom of the list are Baltimore (21) and Detroit (21½). The Westgate posted props on the most wins and most losses by any team, with both totals set at 41½.
“We think a team will win 42 games,” Westgate oddsmaker Ed Salmons said. “I feel like teams that struggle early will be pressing a lot because the season is so short. But it’s hard to measure that. So I think it’s probably harder to handicap than it is to make the lines.
“The good thing about this is every game is big and everything is going to be urgent.”
Washington went 19-31 in its first 50 games last year. A turnaround similar to what the Nationals pulled off would be impossible in a 60-game season, so the Dodgers, Yankees and other elite teams will place a greater emphasis on each game.
A Westgate prop on the Dodgers and Yankees meeting in the World Series lists “No” as the -600 favorite. (The last Dodgers-Yankees World Series was in 1981.) A shortened season should bring more long-shot teams into contention.
The potential for chaos also exists. What happens if star players or clusters of players on a team are sidelined by positive virus tests? The list of things that could go wrong is long.
“I don’t know what to make of this,” said Dave Cokin, a veteran baseball handicapper and Las Vegas radio host. “I think it’s all guesswork right now. I do think some players are going to decide to sit out, and I’m waiting to see how games are managed.”
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman announced this week he’s opting out of the 2020 season for family reasons. Arizona pitcher Mike Leake and Colorado outfielder Ian Desmond also will sit out. More players will decide to avoid the risks and stay home.
Cokin said he’s considering betting Pittsburgh Under 24½ wins, partly because the incentive to win might be missing for baseball’s worst teams such as the Orioles, Tigers and Pirates. A slow start could lead bad teams to focus on the future and give more playing time to prospects, which would be a smart strategy.
The schedule has not been announced, but in a 60-game season, teams will play 40 games against divisional opponents and 20 interleague games. In that format, the Yankees figure to face a tougher schedule than the Dodgers, who are 1/7 favorites to win the weak National League West.
I am not fading the Dodgers, who have a deep pitching staff and two of the top five players in baseball in outfielders Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger. I am interested in betting the Yankees’ win total Under 37 because of their thinner rotation and more difficult schedule.
The Mets’ Pete Alonso led the majors in home runs last year with 53. The prop total for most homers by any player this season is 20.
Anthony Rendon of the Nationals led the majors in RBIs last year with 126. The prop total for most RBIs by any player this year is 47½.
Rendon will now bat third for the Angels as protection behind Mike Trout, who might miss time due to paternity leave with a baby due in August. I like Joe Maddon as a manager in this type of season and lean over 31½ on the Angels, but Trout’s status has me hesitating on the bet.
Here’s an intriguing Westgate prop: Will any player hit .400 in the regular season? Salmons said two $1,000 bets have been placed on the “Yes” — one at 8/1 odds and the other at 7/1. The price is down to 6/1, with “No” at -900. A player must have at least 186 plate appearances to qualify.
This is a year when reading the house rules really matters. All Westgate props, win totals and division wagers stipulate at least 59 games must be played for action.
The prop total for most wins by any pitcher this year is 7½, and I lean Under at + 110. It’s reasonable to expect starters to go from three to five innings in their first five starts before getting stretched out by September. Bullpens will be a big part of the equation, and maybe a middle-relief pitcher will pile up a fluke number of wins, but getting to eight is a lot to ask in a two-month season.
The Astros’ Justin Verlander led the majors in wins last year with 21, one ahead of former teammate Gerrit Cole, who’s set to start for the Yankees on opening day. I do not expect Cole to dominate as he did last year.
I do like the sprint to the finish and the urgency of this baseball season, which will be a unique handicapping challenge in the big picture and on a game-by-game basis.
If the second half of 2020 is as unpredictable as the first half, we might see Cincinnati and Tampa Bay in the World Series. It could be a wild ride for a lot of reasons.
“It’s a season like no other,” Salmons said. “It’s better than the alternative — no games.”
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL WIN TOTALS
Los Angeles Dodgers 38.5
New York Yankees 37
Houston Astros 35
Minnesota Twins 34.5
Tampa Bay Rays 34
Atlanta Braves 33.5
Oakland A’s 33.5
Cincinnati Reds 32.5
Cleveland Indians 32.5
Washington Nationals 32.5
Chicago Cubs 32
Arizona Diamondbacks 31.5
Chicago White Sox 31.5
Los Angeles Angels 31.5
New York Mets 31.5
St. Louis Cardinals 31.5
Philadelphia Phillies 30.5
San Diego Padres 30.5
Boston Red Sox 30
Milwaukee Brewers 29.5
Texas Rangers 28.5
Toronto Blue Jays 28
Colorado Rockies 27.5
Kansas City Royals 24.5
Miami Marlins 24.5
Pittsburgh Pirates 24.5
San Francisco Giants 24
Seattle Mariners 24
Detroit Tigers 21.5
Baltimore Orioles 21
SOURCE: Westgate SuperBook