MLB awards futures: Media narratives make a difference

April 5, 2022 08:37 PM
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Major League Baseball awards futures are always risky wagers.

Bets made prior to Opening Day pose even more of a challenge, with no statistics and no certainty regarding playing time.

One way to handicap awards futures before the season starts is to focus on the media narratives surrounding some of the candidates. How players are framed in the media is vital since those doing the framing are also the ones who vote at the end of the year. 

Remember, when it comes to wagering on awards futures, don’t take players you think deserve the award. Bet on players you think voters will ultimately support.

Just look back at some of last year’s MLB awards races to understand the power of the media narrative.

The Angels’ Mike Trout was the opening AL MVP favorite in 2021. Some bettors preferred teammate Shohei Ohtani instead based on his unique two-way playing style that was going to turn into a popular media topic. That rationale paid off because once Trout was injured, the media focus went straight to Ohtani. He became the biggest story of the season and his 30-1 odds were hovering in minus territory by July, even though Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was mashing home runs north of the border. The media spotlight never left Ohtani and he ran away with the award. 

The NL MVP race was impacted by the media as well. Juan Soto was gaining late-season momentum, slicing his triple-digit odds to single digits by early September. Soto’s tremendous work at the plate forced the media to examine whether a player on a last-place team deserved the award. Unfortunately for Soto backers, that examination started too late in the year. If it began just a couple of weeks earlier, the Nationals star may have won the MVP over Bryce Harper, who was being praised in the media for single-handedly keeping the Phillies in playoff contention. Prior to that, Harper got a boost in the conversation once Fernando Tatis Jr. missed time due to injuries. 

Last year’s Cy Young races were good examples of how awards bettors must understand the flow of a media narrative. There were hot candidates in each league, and Robbie Ray emerged out of the AL only after the media started questioning the legitimacy of the different favorites, from Gerrit Cole to Carlos Rodon to Lance Lynn. The media skepticism about those three ultimately was their demise.

In the NL, Jacob deGrom, Walker Buehler, Zack Wheeler, Corbin Burnes and Max Scherzer were all identified as favorites in media reports during different points of the season. Scherzer turned into the late-season, minus-money favorite and seemed to have the award wrapped up. That was until two mediocre September starts (both wins for his Dodgers) surprisingly drew a lot of attention during the pennant drive. Just like that, the talk, and ultimately the award, went to the Brewers’ Burnes.

Late-season shifts in media narratives can alter a race, so temper your April enthusiasm, especially if your candidates come with low odds. 

With the goal of finding early-season value in the awards market, here’s a look at this season’s races with a focus on media narratives. Handicapping awards futures at this juncture should include predicting both statistical output and how the candidates will be portrayed by the media. Odds courtesy of DraftKings. 

AL MVP

It has been almost 10 years since an AL player won the MVP in consecutive seasons (Miguel Cabrera, 2012-2013). So there’s already a storyline forming around Ohtani (+ 400). The talent and media conditions are certainly present for that topic to stay nationally relevant, but Ohtani is just too short of a price to play. Backing Ohtani this year is better served on the Cy Young board, as that story has yet to be written. 

The return of Trout (+ 450) will be widely covered. When healthy, nobody puts up better numbers. The problem from a betting standpoint is books automatically lower his odds to prevent the public from jumping aboard and creating liability. 

Most of the media’s MVP talk so far has centered on Guerrero (+ 450). With those low odds and all of the attention he got last year, the coverage may actually work against him early in the season. If his production doesn’t put him on pace for a 45+ HR season, there will be more questions than accolades. Because the media has labeled him a “breakout star,” a bet on Guerrero would be based on the belief he will surpass what he did last season. Bo Bichette (+ 2200) is in a similar situation.

So when looking for someone who still has room for growth and can be a shiny new object for the media, the Red Sox’s Rafael Devers (+ 2000) is an option. Devers is a good example of handicapping an awards future using the combination of statistical achievements and media framing. He clearly has the bat (38 HR, .890 OPS last year) and Fenway Park certainly doesn’t lack cameras or microphones. 

The Red Sox are in the somewhat unfamiliar spot of being portrayed as the “AL East underdogs.” The Blue Jays, Rays and Yankees are getting all of the April kudos. However the Red Sox (+ 550 to win the AL East), with the addition of Trevor Story, may not be far behind. If they challenge for a division title, Devers should get a boost in the MVP race. If a bettor likes the Red Sox to win the division, Devers or Story (+ 3000) could be a good companion ticket. 

Another longer shot to consider is Kyle Tucker (+ 3000) now that the Astros cheating scandal has run out of gas. His WAR numbers are strong, he plays in a hitter-friendly park and, unlike Astros teammates Jose Altuve (+ 6000) and Alex Bregman (+ 4000), Tucker’s name comes without a stigma. 

A Google News search of “Kyle Tucker MVP 2022” shows a number of articles examining Tucker as a “dark-horse candidate” over the last month. If he begins the season well, that long-shot value will disappear. This Google News search analysis also shows nearly four times the number of articles mentioning “Kyle Tucker MVP 2022” than “Yordan Alvarez MVP 2022.” Alvarez (+ 3000) is his similarly priced Astros teammate, but it appears Tucker has more media traction at this point.

NL MVP

Those who bet AL MVP futures know that no player with DH as his main position has ever won the award. Those who focus on the NL should take that into account. 

The Phillies’ Nick Castellanos (+ 4500) should put up impressive numbers at Citizens Bank Park, but he’ll see plenty of time at DH. Staying in Philadelphia, Harper’s strong spring is already creating some back-to-back conversation. However, once the season starts, Harper (+ 900) likely won’t benefit from the same narrative that assisted him last year. The Phillies added some new bats, plus Rhys Hoskins (+ 5000) and J.T. Realmuto (+ 5000) look healthy, so there goes Harper’s “one-man show” storyline. 

The two choices getting most of the attention from the media and the books so far are Soto (+ 280) and Ronald Acuna Jr. (+ 750). 

Two names that stand out based on their value and the possibility of an advantageous media narrative are Austin Riley (+ 2500) and Manny Machado (+ 3500). Both can get the credit for “filling the void.” 

Riley, who finished seventh in the voting last year, can be recognized for keeping the Braves going without Freddie Freeman. Machado, 18th in the voting, will be the focal point in San Diego while Tatis heals. With six playoff spots in each league now, Machado has an increased chance of garnering praise for “carrying his team across the finish line.” 

Paul Goldschmidt (+ 4500) is a long shot to at least contemplate. Reports out of Cardinals camp say his better-than-normal spring performance is due to a change in bat model. That’s an interesting tidbit journalists will likely repeat, which could bring attention to his case. 

MVP final thoughts: Bettors should be leery of jumping on early-season favorites. Remember, Harper earned the award with his play in August. The MVP market is volatile and a lot of that comes from the media treating the race like a season-long soap opera. Bettors must be in front of shifting narratives. Look for a value play now and watch the season unfold. Re-examine the MVP board around the All-Star break and then again in August. Over the past five years, the average preseason odds of MVP winners is slightly higher than 26-1. During that time, only one preseason favorite, Trout in 2019, won the award. 

AL Cy Young

Ohtani at + 2200 for Cy Young is becoming a popular preseason media topic. His movement on the odds board this season will be an interesting case study to follow.

For those who want to bet Ohtani, do it now. 

His start Thursday against the Astros will likely be the most publicized Opening Day game because rule changes allow a pitcher to DH and remain in the game when removed from the mound. 

The public and media interest will impact his odds and there’s no reason to wait for a better price. If it goes much higher than 22-1, the experiment failed. 

Ray (+ 900) might get a little more coverage than a returning winner normally receives now that he has moved on to Seattle. Not sure how long that will last. The national media often overlooks players in the Pacific Northwest, plus it has been more than 20 years since an AL pitcher won the award in consecutive years. 

Doing some media scanning, the possibility of Shane Bieber (+ 700) coming back from injury to win the award for a second time is a growing topic of discussion. 

Bookmakers must believe voters are ready to forget Cole’s sticky-stuff controversy since he is the favorite at + 425. However, bettors should still have some concern since the topic resurfaced in the national and New York media after the Yankees acquired Josh Donaldson, a critic of Cole’s connection to Spider Tack.

NL Cy Young

There’s already plenty of media attention on this award, but the news is not good from a Mets perspective. First came reports that deGrom (+ 1000) will be shut down for the next few weeks. Then came rumblings that Scherzer (+ 600) is day-to-day with hamstring tightness. If bettors want to back either of them, health is a far bigger concern than media coverage. 

On the West Coast, the Dodgers’ Buehler (+ 900) might be one of the best bets to make prior to Opening Day. From an odds standpoint, he benefits from Scherzer and deGrom remaining high on the board. 

Burnes (+ 800) is also in front of him, mainly because of his Cy Young season in 2021. 

Still, there is every reason to consider Buehler the actual favorite based on how the Dodgers will score runs. That stacked lineup makes it difficult for the media to give credit to just one hitter, so Buehler is in position to be framed as the face of the NL’s top squad. 

Cy Young final thoughts: When doing a Google News search of “American League Cy Young 2022,” there was no shortage of predictions. A content analysis of the news stories over the past week did not indicate there was any real favorite. The names that appeared most were Cole, Bieber and Lance McCullers Jr. (+ 1400). 

The narrative has yet to start.

The NL Cy Young futures board is stacked at the top. Six names have odds of 11-1 or lower, including 2021 runner-up Wheeler (+ 1000) and Brandon Woodruff (+ 1100). That may make it difficult for one of the longer shots to make a move.

Over the past five years, the average preseason odds of the AL Cy Young winner was 32-1 (and that average doesn’t include 2021, when Ray wasn’t even on the preseason odds board). One preseason favorite (Corey Kluber, 2017) won the award. 

Over the same span, the average preseason odds for the NL Cy Young winner was 18-1. One preseason favorite (deGrom, 2019) won the award.

Rookies of the Year

From a media narrative perspective, this is the hardest award — in either league — to handicap early in the season. 

Names such as Bobby Witt Jr. (+ 300), Spencer Torkelson (+ 450) and Adley Rutschman (+ 600) in the AL and Oneil Cruz (+ 380) and Seiya Suzuki (+ 380) in the NL are sitting atop the odds boards since they have already been touted in the media as phenoms.

Then there are names such as Julio Rodriguez (+ 700) of the Mariners and C.J. Abrams (+ 900) of the Padres. Their odds are lower today than a month ago because they were recently added as “rookies to watch” in a lot of preseason writeups. 

An important note to remember about ROY: Historically, winners of this award don’t have to play for contending teams. 

American League: This is a difficult market to play since the board is top-heavy. Witt Jr. already has the media component working in his favor as stories refer to him as “the next George Brett.” Either back one based on projected performance or wait out the market to see who actually lives up to expectations. 

National League: Cruz will start the season in the minors, so there’s no reason to play him now at such low odds. Abrams is in line to replace Tatis, and that should make him a focal point early in the race. 

Hunter Greene (+ 1000) is already part of the Reds’ starting rotation and should generate plenty of headlines. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft was once featured in Sports Illustrated as a star of the future before missing time due to Tommy John surgery. He’s back throwing 100 mph again, and there’s plenty of material the media can call on during the season. Greene’s case can also be aided by media attention focusing on the “Reds’ next ROY” after Jonathan India won it last year.

ROY final thoughts: Don’t be overly influenced by the preseason rookie media spotlight. Over the past three seasons, the Rays’ Randy Arozarena was the only winner in either league who went from favorite to ROY. It’s difficult for prospects to perform up to the hype. Once they struggle, the attention shifts to the “emerging prospect.” It takes time and patience to identify that player.

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