We’ve reached the end of the 2020 Major League Baseball season, the final standings are in the books, and we know how good every team is, right? Most definitely not.
The sample size on 2020 data is small to begin with, and focusing on historical data and context is especially important this season when that small sample data is further convoluted by narratives and teams going into the posteason with a different identity than they started the year with. This is especially true for two of the teams I see the most value on in our first set of Wild Card action.
Series Bets I Like
Tampa Bay Rays (-225) vs. Toronto Blue Jays (+ 186)
The Rays are a massive favorite to win this series … too massive. They finished the season on a 9-2 run, perhaps driving this line. Their Pythagorean record indicates they got lucky with their 40-20 record, instead “earning” just a 36-24 mark. (The Jays were a bit lucky too, but not by as much.)
Tampa has a clear advantage in the pitching department, rolling out three of the top 30 pitchers in baseball: Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton. The Jays have one of their own in Hyun-Jin Ryu, but are otherwise majorly disadvantaged. This surely makes the Rays a favorite, but the Jays offensive advantage gives them more of a fighting chance than these odds indicate.
If you’re just going by full-season number (which sorely lack context), they look evenly matched with 109 and 108 wRC s. With superior pitching, that makes Tampa a lock right? Wrong. In August, at full health, the Rays wRC was tops in the American League at 121, but in September, they were plagued by injuries and fell to 97. Meanwhile, the full-health Jays were the fourth-best AL offense at 112. The Rays lost three of their top four bats in Austin Meadows, Yandy Diaz and Ji-Man Choi, and traded away another of their best in Jose Martinez. Their current lineup boasts just two hitters of above-average quality (Brandon and Nate Lowe).
What’s strange is the FanDuel odds for a Game 3 to occur are 100 (i.e. 50/50), but in order to justify the Rays’ odds of winning the series, they’d need to be a 63% favorite in each game. In the game with Ryu alone the odds must be closer to 50-50 since the pitching gap is so small, so they’d have to be something like a 70% favorite in Games 1 and 3 to reconcile it. That just can’t be true with an offensive disadvantage. The line is fishy. While they’re underdogs, the odds peg Toronto to win 35% of the time when I project the true chance to be 43%.
Pick: Blue Jays + 186
Minnesota Twins (-178) vs. Houston Astros ( 150)
The defending American League champions are sizeable underdogs to make it out of the Wild Card round. Early in the year, Astros lines were inflated by name value, and my projection system, THE BAT, was frequently down on them, but the needle has swung too far in the other direction now. I imagine the narrative goes something like “the Astros lost Gerrit Cole, their offense fell off a cliff this year and clearly they were only good in the first place because of the trash cans.” The far more likely explanation is much more boring: 60-game small sample size variance compounded by injuries to several of their stars. After all, evidence is mixed on whether the cheating actually helped the Astros at all, and Jose Altuve wasn’t even receiving bangs during his at-bats. And unless they were doing something we don’t know about, the cheating had stopped in 2019 anyway when they were still an elite team.
Game 2 and 3 probables haven’t been announced for Houston yet, but I’m assuming it will be Framber Valdez and Lance McCullers, which would give Houston the pitching advantage in both games. Game 1 swings in favor of Kenta Maeda and Minnesota, but Zack Greinke is no slouch.
These offenses were nearly equal this season (Astros: 100 wRC , Twins: 101 wRC ) despite Houston dealing with several injuries. While there are still lingering concerns about whether some of their stars are 100% healthy, they are all at least back and playing now. Minnesota, meanwhile, is dealing with injuries to Josh Donaldson and Byron Buxton, with speculation that one or both could miss the start of the series.
With offenses and pitching that are at worst evenly matched and at best giving Houston a slight advantage, this series projects much closer to a pick ’em, but the odds give the Astros just a 40% chance to advance. I’ll take those odds.
Pick: Astros + 150
Game 1 Bets I Like
Tampa Bay Rays (-200) vs. Toronto Blue Jays ( 174)
Game Total: 7.5
With the Rays the biggest misprice to win their series, it comes as no surprise I believe they are overvalued in Game 1. The moneyline implies a 66.6% chance to win the game, which is too high (and astute readers may notice is still not the roughly 70% chance needed to justify the series odds). I already mentioned Toronto’s hidden offensive advantage, but they get a further relative boost when you consider handedness. Blake Snell, while elite, is left-handed. The Jays will roll out seven or eight righties with big-time combined power, giving them a stronger chance of winning here than the odds indicate. (It’s also worth noting that Tyler Glasnow, while right-handed, has a neutral split, conveying another small advantage to Toronto in Game 2).
Pick: Blue Jays ML (+ 174)
Minnesota Twins (-166) vs. Houston Astros (+ 144)
Game Total: 7.5
Like the series line, the Twins Game 1 line is juiced too high, as the Astros ought to only be a slight underdog. If Donaldson and Buxton are out, it’s possible the Astros become a small favorite. Maeda has been great this year, in part because he’s taken a page out of the Astros’ book and is throwing his fastball less (26%, down from 37% in 2019), but he’s also been aided by good fortune. A 1.35 BB/9 is never sustainable, especially throwing breaking stuff more often, and the .208 BABIP is absurdly low. Greinke has always been an overrated pitcher, but Maeda isn’t that much better than him. The small-sample 2020 numbers overestimate how good Maeda has been. Both of these facts combined may even lend a little value to betting the over here, but the ‘Stros moneyline is the stronger bet.
Pick: Astros ML (+ 144)
Secondary Pick: Over 7.5 (-105)