Good idea to bet on MLB faves?

By Adam Burke  ( 

Favorites are supposed to win. After all, those teams or individuals are lined as favorites for a reason. Favorites have a certain level of expectation as the better team or the better athlete. Through the betting odds, we can see this phenomenon play out right before our eyes. The oddsmakers put up a price and bettors agree or disagree with that expectation and the line moves accordingly.
When it comes to Major League Baseball, it seems as if a lot of bettors shy away from betting favorites that are too big. In football or basketball, a lot of gamblers will take those big favorites on the spread, like a -14 favorite on the gridiron or a -10 favorite on the hardwood. The vig is still -110 or thereabouts, so the amount of loss if something goes wrong doesn’t seem nearly as daunting as it would with a moneyline sport.
Baseball, predominantly a moneyline sport, forces bettors into the decision of more money at risk for a lesser reward when it comes to those aforementioned expectations. It is more of a black-and-white sport from a betting standpoint. The team wins or the team loses.
As a result, we see some pretty hefty moneylines in baseball. A lot of recreational or novice gamblers will shy away from the notion of betting $200 to win $100. Instead of a -200 favorite, those bettors will take a -1.5 run line instead, in order to decrease the vig and also lessen the pain of the worst-case scenario, which is an outright loss. It is a valuable topic for discussion.
There are teams that aren’t really trying across all sports. There are also teams that are trying but failing miserably. In MLB, however, it seems like the gap between the haves and the have-nots is substantial. A lot of that comes down to the pitching matchup for that day’s game, but the strength of the lineup and the bullpen is part of the formula as well.
If you’ve been listening to “A Numbers Game” with Gill Alexander, you’ve become privy to the “Brain-Dead Parlay” for this season. Heavy moneyline favorites can be unpalatable to some, but parlaying these teams together can be a much better way to decrease the vig than taking a run-line wager. Gill has put together parlay tickets like Dodgers +  Yankees or Rays +  Dodgers to take favorites in the -200s and bring the line down with two outcomes that are extremely likely to happen.
While parlaying these teams is a sound strategy, this is still called “gambling.” They don’t call it “winning” for a reason. It’s not foolproof. That being said, with the current environment of Major League Baseball and the added equity of looking at these things late in the season when some teams have already shifted their focus to next season and beyond, you can deploy these sorts of wagers to cash tickets. As we know, that’s what it’s all about.
The numbers back up the notion that betting heavy MLB favorites can be profitable. The hardest part is overcoming the mental hurdle required to risk a lot to win a much smaller amount. To draw a poker analogy, those that have played the game remember the three-outer on the river that cost them a big pot or a chance to double up in a tournament. They don’t remember all those times that the hand held up like it was supposed to.
We remember the bullpen blown saves and the bad beats. We don’t remember the offensive comebacks from the better team. We don’t remember that teams with a lead after five innings win the game about 83% of the time. When you run into these big favorites, you not only have a team mismatch but a big starting pitcher mismatch as well, which implies a lead at the midpoint of the game.
We remember getting burned by big favorites. We remember losing three units with that “can’t-lose favorite.” We don’t remember the other times when that big favorite won without breaking a sweat.
When we consider the data, favorites of -200 or higher have won over 71% of the time in the last four full MLB seasons. The 2020 season was a significant outlier that skewed the data greatly over the five-year sample size, but with only 60 games and the awkward lead-up to the season, chalky teams with the big prices had their first losing season since 2016.
Results for Favorites of -200 or Higher Since 2017
Season Games Wins Losses W% $Bet $Ret $Profit ROI
2017 335 240 95 71.6% 80825 82190 1365  + 1.68%
2018 469 334 135 71.2% 114205 115380 1175        + 1.02%
2019 510 364 146 71.4% 130370 130470 100          + 0.07%
2020 152 99 53 65.1% 36170 33755 -2415            -6.67%
2021 249 177 72 71.1% 59678 60286 608          + 1.01%
These numbers are based on a general consensus line, so depending on the sportsbook, the figures will vary.
The 2020 season really hurt this notion, but you can see this season steaming up toward the results we saw in 2017 and 2018. At time of writing, the Yankees were 18-4 in August. The Dodgers were 15-4. Those types of teams are regularly priced in the -200s, not to mention other playoff-worthy competitors, like the Brewers at 14-6 with a pitching staff that necessitates big lines and also the Rays at 14-6, including four recent wins over the Orioles at well over -240 in each game.
Speaking of Baltimore, the O’s had one win in 20 games. The Cubs, who had a headline-grabbing fire sale at the trade deadline, were 4-17. The Nationals did the same and were 5-14. The Pirates have continued to lose games at an alarming rate. The bad teams have been truly awful of late.
When you get a perfect storm of a team on the rise with a lot of talent against a team with no incentive left this season, those are the times when you can really exploit the market if you are willing to pay the price. Underdogs can and will win early. Favorites mostly rule the roost late.
To that point, and to once again reference the “Brain-Dead Parlay” from “A Numbers Game,” the Dodgers and Yankees both won on the same day eight days in a row from Aug. 13 to Aug. 21.
When you really think about it, how many of the playoff teams can you peg in MLB before the season even begins? More parity may be coming to baseball in the near future, but we’ve been able to just about guess the division winners and the wild-card teams each of the last several seasons. Big favorites have won a lot of games as a result.
I recently heard an interesting quote about favorites and the run line as  somebody said, “They don’t have any incentive to win by more than one run.” Run lines may seem more attractive because of lower vig, but the increased risk of needing a team to win by two or more isn’t going to work out as well more often than not. The better bet is to play the big favorites straight or to parlay a couple together, even if it makes you a little queasy.
What eases a queasy stomach more than a couple of those chalky antacid tablets? Take two favorites and wait to see if you need to call your doctor in the morning.
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