By Gill Alexander
Pssst. It’s just us. The football people won’t be back ’til August.
It often has been said that the greatest fundamental advantage that sports bettors have over bookmakers is having 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 axiom, it’s incumbent upon the bettor to recognize where value resides.
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 is your brain on crack.
First, for context, before diving in to my MLB season win total best bets, one quick note on the market itself. There are 2,430 games played — or for our purposes, wins available — during the regular season. Across sports books in Las Vegas and offshore, the consensus sum of season win totals among all 30 MLB clubs is at 2,443. In fact, to use our home base as an example, the South Point Hotel Casino MLB win totals add up to exactly 2,443 wins. 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.
With that tucked away in our brains, here are my three favorite plays in the 2017 MLB season win totals market. While the Atlantis Casino in Reno once again released totals before anyone else, those numbers aren’t traditionally a true reflection of widespread availability. This season is no different. Instead, all totals quoted herein are derived from a consensus throughout Nevada and offshore:
Texas Rangers 84.5 Under (-110)
In 2012, the Baltimore Orioles earned an American League wild-card berth largely on the strength of an otherworldly 29-9 record in one-run games. One would have to go back 122 seasons prior to that to find a club with a better win percentage than the O’s' .763 mark in such outcomes when the 1890 Brooklyn Bridegrooms went 14-4 in that category.
How 'bout them Bridegrooms.
One might have figured that it would take another 122 years before a season comparable to the Orioles’ remarkable 2012 feat of one-run magic would materialize again. That is, until the 2016 Rangers mocked such a notion by reeling off a 36-11 (.766) mark in one-run games. Given the expectation that one-run outcomes will eventually even out over time, the Rangers’ 2016 run of dominance in games with the thinnest margin in results is doubly noteworthy in that they sustained that pace over a subset of games that represented more than a quarter of the entire regular season schedule. And, as a solid bullpen is often the hallmark of clubs that eke out tight wins (shout out to the 2012 Orioles again), the Rangers’ collectively uninspiring 1.7 bullpen WAR last season, a number that bested that of only six other big league clubs, makes this point triply remarkable.
Driven in great part by the above, the ’16 AL West champion Rangers finished 95-67, 28 games above .500 despite putting up a pedestrian plus-8 run differential, good, based on Bill James’ Pythagorean formula, for a far more ordinary expected record of 82-80. Texas also overachieved by an identical 13 wins when analyzed through the prism of BaseRuns, a measure of run production and prevention based on the sequencing of events.
All of that to say that when projecting ahead for the 2017 Rangers, one must treat them as a club coming off an 82-win level performance instead of one that happened to be cloaked in 97-win clothing. Equally important to keep in mind, though, is that just because the stars aligned in an off-the-charts manner for a team throughout one season doesn’t necessarily mean that it will all come crashing back down to earth for them in the next.
But, while recognizing that each of baseball’s 30 clubs projects on a spectrum in any given season ranging from everything breaking a team’s way to everything seemingly breaking against them (along with every possibility in between), it’s far easier to see the former manifesting for the Rangers in 2017 than it is to project the opposite. That keeps us in “sell” mode here.
Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels are the clear and interchangeable 1-2 in the Texas rotation and are each, by conventional wisdom, a given to flourish. But Darvish lacks the “skill” of staying healthy (39 total starts since 2014) and Hamels’ poor September and postseason performance last season (.363 wOBA against) was perhaps a more accurate portent of things to come than was his more successful first half of last season, having posted the worst BB rate (9.1%), FIP (3.98) and xFIP (3.85) of his career over the entire 2016 campaign. And that doesn’t include my looking away on Hamels’ stunning ability to post a strand rate that has hovered around 80% in five of the past seven seasons. But let’s be serious. That can’t keep happening, can it?
Shakier still is the bottom half of the rotation, a potpourri of question marks with Martin Perez (12.1% K rate, 4.50 FIP, 4.77 xFIP in 2016) and two pitchers coming off injury, Andrew Cashner (4.84 FIP, 4.63 xFIP in 2016), and Tyson Ross (making the always perilous move from the NL to AL) all in the mix. The Rangers’ pen isn’t any cause for excitement either, projecting at best as a middle-of-the-pack outfit.
And, while the return of Mike Napoli solidifies an infield with lots of pop on offense, the outfield losses of Ian Desmond and Carlos Beltran diminish the overall lineup, as the Texas brass is left crossing their fingers in hopes of getting the good versions of Carlos Gomez and Shin-Soo Choo.
Monster overachievement in 2016 coupled with additional downside in key phases of the game headed into 2017. At a market that optimistically puts them at 84.5 wins, it’s the perfect “under” storm on the Rangers.
Colorado Rockies 79.5 Over (-110)
Humidor or not, Coors Field remains the most hitter friendly ballpark in the majors. That’s less about home runs than it is about doubles and triples, as park designers anticipated that balls would fly out in the dry, thin air of the altitude of Denver, and built the outfield walls far enough from the batter’s box so as to create the widest dimensions of any park in the big leagues. With the addition of Ian Desmond to an already potent Colorado lineup, the onus once again will fall on the Rockies pitching staff to get the job done, or at the very least, to see us to our “over.”
For many years, the front office was the chief impediment to the club's success, seemingly refusing to tailor the skill set of Rockies’ arms to Coors and therefore failing in what should be a perennial effort to minimize the detrimental effects of their home park. Thankfully for Rockies fans, those days of dissonance seem to be over.
Jon Gray’s 26% K rate, Chad Bettis’ 51.2% GB rate, Tyler Chatwood’s 57.2% GB rate (still not the best of his career), and Tyler Anderson’s 50.9% GB rate (though I won’t act like last campaign's 3.00 ERA at Coors is sustainable), all posted in 2016, speak directly to the two most important traits necessary to maximize success at Coors. That is, to erase batters via the strikeout and to keep the ball on the ground and therefore not in the air for Coors to rear its ugly head. If all remain healthy, it's hardly a stretch to imagine each of the above four starters finishing with both above average ground ball and strikeout rates in 2017. To be clear, I’m not suggesting this is the starting staff of, say, the Red Sox or Indians. But, there’s reason for optimism in Colorado.
And now, there’s one more thing to add to the “buy” position on the Rockies.
Using both Pitch F/X stats and those of Baseball Prospectus before that, the Rockies have been below league average in framing runs in 22 out of their 24 seasons of existence. That is a fail of epic proportions and again, particularly so when it comes to playing at Coors.
Exit, Nick Hundley. Enter, Tony Wolters.
That move behind home plate should further the Rockies’ pitching cause as they go from a poor pitch framer to potentially one of the league’s best. With Wolters now expected to get most of the playing time behind the plate this season, we can realistically expect just the third season in club history above league average in framing runs, as Wolters projects for some as a top 10 receiver inside the zone and top 5 out of it. That can only pay dividends when catching a young staff. And again, especially so at Coors.
The Rockies (75-87) underperformed by five wins, according to both Pythag and BaseRuns last season. We don't need them to beat out the Dodgers or Giants in the West to cash this bet. We don’t even need them to contend. A game below .500 is the threshold. A game below .500 we shall attain.
Kansas City Royals 75.5 Under (-110)
The Royals went to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015 in large part because they changed the conventional wisdom on how to model a winner, relying not on strong starting pitching but rather a shutdown bullpen in innings seven through nine, and a contact-heavy lineup that simply didn’t strike out. And now, just one season removed from a World Series title, the Royals must now deal with the passing of ace Yordano Ventura. There is no analysis that can truly measure the intangible effect of that tragedy on the Kansas City clubhouse, and any attempts to do so would feel wrong. But, as our job is to find value in the season win totals market wherever that may take us, we land on the Royals, nonetheless.
First, the rotation. Without Ventura, the Royals are left with Danny Duffy as their No. 1. Duffy’s 36.6% hard contact rate in 2016 was second-worst in MLB, his 80.9% strand rate was the seventh-most fortunate last season, and his 1.35 HR/9IP was 18th worst. To be fair, his 12.9% Swinging Strike rate (5th best in MLB) is always cause for optimism, but you get the idea. Accidents are lurking when Duffy takes the hill. Ian Kennedy? His 36.4% hard contact rate in 2016 was fourth-worst in MLB, his 83.1% LOB rate was the 2nd most fortunate last season (and entirely unsustainable), and his 1.52 HR/9IP mark was the sixth worst in baseball.
Chris Sale and David Price, they ain’t.
And much like the bottom half of the KC rotation is filled with question marks (Jason Vargas and Nate Karns, anyone?), so, too, is the once vaunted Royals pen, as Wade Davis is now the closer for the defending champ Cubs and getting to Kelvin Herrera, new to the closer role, involves the torture that is Joakim Soria and an otherwise unproven lot. It doesn’t help that catcher Salvador Perez, an elite blocker of the baseball to be sure, also happens to be perhaps the worst pitch framer in the game.
Offensively, the Royals posted spectacular team K rates of 16.4%, 17.9%, 14.6%, 16.1%, 16.8%, 17.2%, 16.3% and 15.9% during the 2008-2015 seasons, respectively, In 2016, rounding out the nine most-strikeout prone seasons in MLB history, KC finally came back down to earth with a 20.2% K rate. Not the end of the world by any stretch, but the first sign that the Royals might no longer be able to rely on their otherworldly ability to make contact up and down the order. And while we’re on the subject of no longer being able to rely on outlying strengths, the Royals have benefitted hugely in recent years from elite outfield defense. But, it’s a safe bet that Alex Gordon’s 51 combined assists from left field from 2011 to 2013 and Lorenzo Cain’s combined 11.2 WAR in 2014 and 2015 aren’t walking through that door anymore, as Gordon, now 33, and Cain and his vast coverage in center first must try to stay healthy after a season in which they combined to miss 93 games.
Perhaps the most unique element to betting baseball season win totals is the pressure placed on GMs of middling teams as the trade deadline approaches at the end of July, as clubs are forced to go into buy or sell mode with a full third of the regular season remaining. The bet here is the Royals and GM Dayton Moore will find themselves in that pocket come that time of the season, and with so many pending free agents (Duffy, Cain, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, and Vargas, among others, at the time of this writing), will see the benefits of selling assets far more than they will any potential gamble of going for broke in 2017.
That factor is as big a part of our “under” play as any.
Cleveland Indians to win World Series: 8-1
Off their heartbreaking loss to the Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series, the Indians’ consensus season win total checks in at 94.5, by my numbers, an appropriate figure. While there’s no value in that market, I’ll happily grab the Tribe to win it all at 8-1.
Cleveland got to the brink of a title last season without the services of either starter Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar, nor that of potentially their best hitter in Michael Brantley, who missed all but 11 games in 2016.
This time around, the Indians will hope for all three to be available down the stretch and into the postseason, along with their returning core, led by a formidable middle infield of Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor, newly acquired slugger Edwin Encarnacion, and the lights-out bullpen trio of Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen, used so masterfully by skipper Terry Francona last postseason.
It’s that latter strength that gives the Tribe the edge over the Red Sox in the AL, and inspires confidence that a return meeting with the Cubs will end differently this October.
Seattle Mariners to win AL West: 3-1
The Athletics’ rotation and Angels’ pen headline a number of deficiencies with those two ball clubs, and I’ve already outlined the problems with the Rangers above. In the resulting head-to-head for the AL West between the Astros and Mariners, while Houston boasts a decided edge in the pen, it’s Seattle with the superior starting rotation, as Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Drew Smyly (whom I’ve always loved), and James Paxton lead the way.
By Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem and BaseRuns, the Mariners should have
taken the AL West crown in 2016. With Jean Segura added to a core of Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz on offense, the bet here is that the M’s have enough punch to complement their rotation, while the Astros’ potent offense can’t overcome the shortcomings in theirs.
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